Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Book Cover Meme

Jennifer posted a few days ago on the Book Cover Meme, and I thought I’d play along. The idea is to go to Amazon.com’s advanced search, search on your first name in a book title, and pick the most interesting book cover that’s in the search results.

Since I have a common, biblical, first name, and share it with one of the most famous nature photographers in the world, along with the 2nd US president, I searched on ‘adam -ansel -john’ and came up with this amid the myriad biblical books and 80’s men’s movement screeds:

Book Description
A child’s story of how it feels to have Tourette syndrome and hyperactivity (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).

What’s the best book cover that has your first name in it?


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This lengthy tome (nearly 700 large-sized paperback pages), subtitled “Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction,” was recommended by Joe Morlan, who taught an Introduction to Field Ornithology class I took earlier this year, as the best science/nature book he’s ever read, and, although I am not extremely well-read in that genre, I must agree!

Quammen weaves several tales into this epic of non-fiction. One is the history of the field of island biogeography, starting with Darwin & Wallace and leading through the present time, another is a survey of extinction and near-extinction, and a third is a personal narrative of Quammen’s travels to the sites of important events in the first two threads.

His writing is wry, humorous, and sometimes critical. He takes pains not to bog down in jargon or mathematics, and he apologizes for his introduction of a formula describing the species-area concept, inviting us to immediately forget it.

The crux of the book is the concept of ecosystem decay, whereby a patchwork of isolated habitat is much less biologically healthy and diverse than a single connected area comprising the same area. He travels to the Amazon to witness first-hand an experiment in setting aside various sizes of rainforest in the middle of clear-cut operations. Below a certain size (which of course varies depending on the ecosystem in question and its inhabitants), everything starts to unravel, typically starting with the loss of the top-of-food-chain predators and working its way down. He also observed the decay at the edges of these amazonian reserves, with trees starting to die, the understory drying out, and the whole thing shrinking slowly, but inevitably.

Particularly interesting to me were the sections on modern biogeographical theory as it relates to nature preserve design, and the efforts of current leaders in the field to capture the notion of ecosystem decay and minimum sustainable populations in a generalizable form.

Although the notion of island biogeography may seem restricted, as much of the world’s land mass is continental, the concept applies to much more than just oceanic islands. A tall mountain rising out of a desert, for example, can be considered an island, because there is no similar habitat nearby, and an uncrossable obstacle (desert) for many animals. As alluded to above, a nature preserve, set aside in a developed area, also functions as an island for the same reasons, ditto man-made lakes and reservoirs as they pertain to fish populations.

Despite taking me several months to read, every page was a pleasure, and I enjoyed savoring them. This is no quick short-hop airplane book by any stretch of the imagination! David Quammen’s style is immanently readable, and I look forward to reading more by him.

My rating: Very highly recommended!
Amazon link: The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction

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“Inheritance of Loss” by Kiran Desai

This aptly-titled novel is primarily a dual story, one about Jemubhai, a retired judge and his granddaughter Sai, orphaned, convent-schooled, and now living with her grandfather in a decrepit old mansion, the other about the judge’s cook (who remains nameless until the very last page) and his son Biju, an illegal immigrant working in New York kitchens.

Desai writes excellently, the chapters vividly describing the almost-itinerant, gritty, grimy life of an illegal working in restaurants, and the residents of Kalimpong, in northern India, where Jemubhai, Sai, Mutt (the judge’s dog), and the cook live out their lives during a time of political turmoil (the ethnic Nepalese are demanding their own state or country, which they want to call Ghorkaland).

A strange cast of colorful secondary characters populate Desai’s Kalimpong: Father Booty, Uncle Potty (neither of whose names we are told the origin of), Sai’s tutor Gyan, and sisters Lola and Noni.

The book moves backward and forward in time, tracing Jemubhai’s education in England and Biju’s life before moving to the US, Sai’s schooling, and occasionally hints at things that happen after the book has ended (which I found to be a little frustrating, getting a glimpse or foreshadowing of some future events, but never reading about them directly). Every character has a loss: Jemubhai his humanity, Sai her parents, Biju his homeland (and then more, when he returns), and the cook his son as well as his dignity, and we’re made to feel their suffering rather effectively.

Secondary characters don’t fare any better, with Gyan losing his youth and innocence, Father Booty his home and property, Lola and Noni their dignity and sense of being “above it all.”

All of this makes for a somewhat bleak read, and Desai makes little attempt to wrap things up in a nice happy bow at the end – by and large, everyone winds up miserable and disaffected. Nonetheless I quite enjoyed “Inheritance of Loss” for its high-caliber writing and vagaries.

My rating: Very good

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This book provides a gentle introduction to yogic philosophy, and the non-pose aspects of yoga (the series of poses known commonly as “yoga” are but one of the eight limbs of yoga).  Lasater, a yoga instructor in San Francisco, divides the book into three parts.

Part one deals with the internal (spritual seeking, discipline, letting go, self judgment, faith, perspective, and courage), part two with relationships (compassion, control, fear, patience, attachment and aversion, suffering, and impermanence), and the last part with the rest of the world (greed, service, connection, truth, success, nonviolence, and love).  Each of the 21 chapters begins with a quote from either the Yoga Sutra or the Bhagavad Gita, followed by a few pages of anecdotes and interpretation of that quote, a suggested way to practice that concept, and finishes with several “mantras for daily living.”

Although Judith Lasater is a well-known teacher, and writes well, this book felt a bit “light” to me, with too many new-agey self-help catchphrases (mainly in the mantras for daily living sections), and not as much delving into yogic philosophy as I would have preferred.

For those looking for an easy-to-read introduction to all of the non-pose aspects of yoga, this would be a great book to start with.  If you’ve already read a couple of this type of book, you can give this one a pass.

My rating: Good, but light

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“Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds” is very high on my list of the best nature-writing I’ve read to date. Heinrich, who has written several book about ravens, here examines myriad aspects of their complex lives, from play behavior, mating, following (or leading) predators.

From numerous field studies, as well as controlled experiments in his aviaries with wild-caught and captive-raised birds, Heinrich presents a rich and detailed picture of the Raven, but never goes too deep into scientific jargon, save for the final chapter, when he examines whether or not the raven is “intelligent.”

Interspersed with his research, he presents interviews with people who keep ravens as pets, and his own personal experiences interacting with them on a personal, rather than scientific, level. This also goes a long ways towards keeping the book well within the grasp of us non-scientists.

The factoids and just plain astonishing behaviors he documents are too many to describe, but among the more compelling are the ravens who have “saved” humans from nearby predators (mountain lions and bears) by making a racket – Bernd speculates that our interpretation may be exactly backwards, and that the ravens are in fact pointing out to the predators where a food source is! This makes more sense when you think about it, as if a raven shows a large animal to a kill, the raven will get to feed on it as well.

Another is the ravens’ early curiosity of all things foreign and new, which is replaced by fear as they grow up.  This is though to be so that they can recognize a large manner of potential food and remember them while they’re young and still under their parent’s wing, but once older, unfamiliar items and objects can signal a trap or nearby predators, so they fear them.   Most striking to me was an experiment where Heinrich dragged a dead small animal through the snow.  Although his ravens had eaten this animal before, they freaked out.    The natural conclusion is that they were afraid of the movement, but upon careful experimentation, he found that it was actually the unfamiliar string it was attached to that caused their fear!  Likewise, they reacted with extreme fright to a new person introduced to their aviary, but if they wore Heinrich’s clothes, they accepted a stranger more readily.

I will grant that I am biased, since I admire ravens and am an enthusiastic bird-watcher, but “Mind of the Raven” is one of the best books I’ve read in the past couple of years. If you’re into birds, it’s a must-read, and even if not, it is presented in such a fascinating, warm way that you’re likely to enjoy it too.

My rating: Highly recommended!

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This book, full title “Owls Aren’t Wise & Bats Aren’t Blind: A Naturalist Debunks Our Favorite Fallacies About Wildlife,” is an easy read, with 24 chapters, one per species (or species group in some cases). Although the writing is a bit precious and twee in places, Shedd is very knowledgeable across a wide spectrum of animals, and his enthusiasm is unmistakable.

There’s a wealth of information here on many of this continent’s best-known animals, as well as numerous lesser-known ones, especially for us west-coast folks – since Shedd lives in the eastern US, that’s where his focus is. Beaver, Moose, Badger and their ilk are not common denizens of the Pacific region.

Although the level of detail varies pretty widely from chapter to chapter, a pretty thorough treatment of the following critters is given (in order): beaver, muskrat, red & gray squirrel, flying squirrels, porcupines, bats, opossums, armadillo, newts/efts, toads, owls, herons & cranes, crows & ravens, weasels and their ilk, raccoons, red fox, coyote, timber wolves, bobcat & lynx, cougar, black brown and polar bears, white-tailed deer, moose, and bison – wheew!

There are far too many interesting tidbits to repeat here, but my favorite has to be the name of a baby porcupine – it’s called a “porcupette” (!!!) .

One drawback is that although each chapter starts with a list of common fallacies about the subject animal, Shedd draws heavily on personal anecdotes to fill out his narratives, and that’s where most of the false stereotypes of these critters came from in the first place! He also alternately decries, and then succumbs to, anthropomorphism, which struck me as pretty inconsistent.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone who isn’t already a nature enthusiast, but for those who are, it’s sure to provide some fascinating insight into some everyday animals, even if it is a bit on the bouncy side.

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“The Valley of the Kings” by John Romer

Although this started out as a bit of a slow read, “Valley of the Kings” picked up steam after the first couple of chapters, and wound up being quite an interesting book.  It’s written sort of as a dual history; on the one hand it’s about the ancients who made these famous tombs, and on the other, it’s a detailed history of the archaeology of the area through the ages.

Romer primarily covers the history of the tombs’ excavations from Napoleon’s time through Howard Carter’s discover of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922.   The former period I found a bit long-winded, covering Napoleon’s expeditions and the publication of the Description de l’Egypte, ou Recueil des Observations et des Recherches qui ont e’te’ faites en E’gypte’, publie’ par les ordres de sa Majeste’ l”empereur Napoleon le Grand `a Paris de l’Imprimerie Imperiale (if that is not the grandest book title I’ve ever seen, I don’t know what is!), which really sparked Egyptology and the European fascination with all things Egyptian.

The remainder I found fascinating, although it’s not by any means a quick read, chock-full of names, dates and places.  Particularly interesting to me was the way in which foreign governments directed the excavations in the Valley, and the petty ways in which politics interefered with things.

There are a handful of drawings of the tombs’ plans, and a short section of B&W photographs in the middle, but it’s otherwise 350 pages of pretty dense text.  I though it provided an interesting and unusual perspective on this oft-written-about topic, but probably wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who doesn’t already have an interest in Egypt (it’d be great to read before actually visiting the Valley of the Kings for sure, although alas, I don’t think that is in my near future).

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