Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Thing Witn Feathers: The surprising lives of birds and what they reveal about being human

by Noah Strycker
Riverhead Books     2014
304 pages     Nonfiction

My father had a word for retired people—"birdwatchers." How would he have felt if he had met young Noah Strycker, birdwatcher extraordinaire. He really would have scratched his head. When I read Strycker's bio, which you can read here, I scratch my head as well. Strycker is not even 30 years old. The Wall Street Journal review says: "Although Mr. Strycker is only in his late 20s, he writes like a man who's ripened into advanced eccentricity." The Thing With Feathers is an incredible look at the bird kingdom, but more importantly, it tells how the characteristics of birds reveal things about humans that we wouldn't have expected. 

The Thing With Feathers is divided into three parts: body, mind, and spirit. In each of these sections, Strycker talks about how specific birds exemplify these three characteristics. He discusses pigeons, starlings, turkey vultures, snowy owls, hummingbirds, penguins, parrots, chickens, nutcrackers, magpies, bowerbirds, fairy wrens, and albatross. Strycker has observed all these birds in their natural habitats, and he then relates what he has learned about each species and how those characteristics relate to human characteristics.

For example, he discusses art and the bowerbird. This, by the way, was a new bird to me. The male bowerbird builds elaborate huts to attract females, gathering bits and pieces of human waste, like bits of plastic and other colorful objects, to make a truly artistic and romantic site. When the hut gets altered, such as if a human moves one or two of the pieces, the bowerbird doesn't rest until his "artistic" endeavor is restored to its full glory. Strycker then explores the idea of art and human expression. 

He does the same with the concepts of music and love. My favorite chapter concerns the albatross and monogamy.
I don't ever expect that I will see an albatross in my lifetime, but I was fascinated by their journey through life. They spend their adolescence alone on the high seas and don't mate until they are several years old, and then they mate for life, even though they spend a great deal of time away from their spouse. Albatrosses live to be very old, sometimes tending nests until they are in their 60s, but they stay with the same mate until one or the other of them dies. Strycker compares them with flamingos: "Flamingos, for instance, are terrible at keeping commitments, with a chart-topping divorce rate of 99 percent."

My family has had a bird feeder nearly all of my adult life, and birds have always been a fascination with me, although I cannot be considered a birder. I simply love to look out the window and see "my" birds. I have tried to keep track of the species that appear at our feeder, but frankly, I don't always remember their names. My husband, on the other hand, is always trying to figure out bird behavior, and he obsesses over trying to modify that behavior. For instance, he won't fill the feeder until the birds have eaten all the birdseed on the ground under the feeder. Never mind that most of the birds will never pick up seed on the ground. 

Sometimes, we are surprised by what we see. The other day, for instance, we saw a male cardinal feeding a female Brewer's blackbird. We have never seen a male Brewer's blackbird feeding a female, but we have seen lots of male cardinals feeding female cardinals. This was a wonderful observation. 

Quite frankly, my husband and I loved The Thing With Feathers.
We read it aloud to each other every morning, as we sat gazing out the window at our birds. Which characteristics were we watching? Were we seeing the same birds day in and day out? Would those blue jays ever eat the seeds on the ground? (The answer, of course, is no.) We can highly recommend this look at a world we knew very little about.

You might also enjoy Red Tails in Love by Marie Winn, about the Red Tail Hawks that nest in a high rise across the street from Central Park, New York. My sister texted me all excited because she saw those Red Tails about a month ago. Following that book review, there is a short item about my most amazing bird encounter. 

The Wall Street Journal Review.
Noah Strycker's website.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

 by Jill Lepore
Knopf     2013
464 pages     Biography
 The Shortlist

Just a few words about The Book of Ages by Jill Lepore. Unfortunately, I didn't get it all read before our book club meeting last night. I was completely occupied with grandchildren, and U.S. history, no matter how fascinating, does not go well with children running around. Jane Franklin Mecom, the subject of The Book of Ages suffered from a similar situation; she had to care for too many children and various and assorted relatives to do much reading or reflecting. However, whatever she was able to do is recounted in this absorbing history. She was the younger sister of Benjamin Franklin, and Lepore's history tells the story of her life and times juxtaposed with the life of her tremendously successful brother, Benjamin.

Quite frankly, Lepore has created a masterpiece of historical writing. She was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2013. Here is the citation which explains the theme of the book far better than I could:
"Using period spelling and reproductions of archival documents, Jill Lepore gives us a book about books: the paper and the binding, the letters, the printing, the printer. In writing about Jane Mecom, the younger sister of Benjamin Franklin, Lepore investigates how history is written and considers the silence of material that does not exist. The reader is allowed into Mecom’s parlor, where we share her sorrows and yearnings, and hear the shots of revolution outside her window."

One of our book club's young women loves historical books, and we read The Book of Ages at her recommendation. We talked a lot about the role of women in early America as reflected in the life of Jane Franklin Mecom. We suggested that while Jane may have been every bit as bright as her older brother Benjamin, the lack of opportunity for women to do more than bear and care for children hampered the lives of most women at that time. Her life has been, until this book, one of the great untold stories of American history. We were astounded that the average family in the 1700s lost so many of its infants and small children to disease--something we scarcely think about these days. Jane was pregnant 13 times in 20 years. Nine of her children survived until adulthood, and more than one suffered from mental illness. She was married to a n'er-do-well which added to the misery of her life. In her older years, she was able to rest, read, and write. She kept a book, which she called The Book of Ages, in which she recorded the lives of her family. She also kept the letters from her brother. On the other hand, in his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin never mentions his sister.

The appendices are as interesting as the book itself. In them, Lepore talks about historical writing, and about her sources. She mentions that because of the dearth of materials, she considered writing a novel, but thankfully she didn't. It is through all the extra materials that we gain a much better understanding of the role of women in colonial America. 

If you are considering reading The Book of Ages, here are a couple of excellent reviews.
A video of Jill Lepore reading at the National Book Awards

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Big Little Lies

by Liane Moriarty
Putnam      2014
480 pages     Fiction

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty was a major surprise to me. At first glance, it appears to be a romp through kindergarten with the kids and their parents, but oh, it is so much more. It is brilliant.

In the first chapter of Big Little Lies, we discover that that someone is going to die on "Trivia Night", a fundraiser  at the elementary school on the Pirriwee Peninsula near Sydney Australia. So, the reader is primed for the death, but we don't know who, how or why someone will die. That isn't revealed until the end of the book, and quite frankly, while the revelation of the dead person is not a shock, the person committing the so-called crime is a big shock.

Moriarty has small town life down pat, including small town gossiping and small town helicopter parents. And the reader thinks that this is what the book is going to be about. So, by the time the subject matter gets darker, the readers who settled in for a light read becomes more and more engrossed and more and more distraught. What calamity is going to happen to one of these characters that have become so finely developed?

We meet a group of kindergarten parents on orientation day. Jane is a young single parent of Ziggy, the product of a one night stand. Madeline has three children, including a kindergartener named Chloe. Unfortunately for Madeline, her ex-husband also has a kindergartener in the same class with her daughter.  While Madeline is the glue that holds this small group together, she is not without her problems. Her teenage daughter from her first marriage wants to live with her dad, and Madeline is saddened by this turn of events. And then there is Celeste, the rich and beautiful wife of a hedge fund manager, and the mother of twins, Max and Josh. For all her beauty, Celeste is a lost soul.

Almost immediately problems arise for Jane because Ziggy is accused of bullying the daughter of a school helicopter mother, and petitions circulate among the parents to suspend him from school. Various parents weigh in on the problems with Ziggy, and the viciousness and pettiness increases. We are continuously reminded that it is getting closer to the Trivia Night at school, and the tension rises both at school and in the homes of the three families. 

The entire plot unfolds in a chatty, offhand kind of way—just like any relationship novel. The seemingly minor incidents build in such a way that the reader becomes totally caught up in the events. There's lots of bitchiness and cattiness that bring an immense amount of pleasure to the reader. Even at the Trivia Night, when the death happens, the narrative is so delightful that the humor almost overrides the tragedy of the event. I don't want to tell more of the plot because I want you to be as involved and surprised as I was.

However, all is not light and breezy. Moriarty delves deeply into parenting styles, bullying, and more importantly, domestic abuse. Her portrayal of the sadistic husband is extremely chilling, and the way in which the victim-wife responds to the abuse is exactly on target. She catches the reader completely off guard, and the response is almost visceral. The Washington Post says that "Big Little Lies tolls a warning bell about the big little lies we tell in order to survive."

 Readers have been almost universal in their love of this book, and the review in the New York Times was glowing. Moriarty's earlier book The Husband's Secret was also a favorite with readers. I may need to try that next. Early on, I was reminded of Where'd You Go Bernadette which I read a year or so ago and loved, but I have to say that Big Little Lies is much deeper and denser. 

Liane Moriarty's website.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Cove

by Ron Rash
Ecco     2012
255 pages     Fiction

Ron Rash, poet, novelist, and professor, says that he doesn't begin his books with an outline or a plot. He begins with an image and then "I just see where the image will take me." In The Cove, the image has taken him to a very dark place in backwoods North Carolina, a cove so mysterious that the people in the neighboring village of Mars Hill are afraid to go near the place. 

With both of their parents dead, Laurel and her brother Hank are trying to piece together a farm on the land they own in the area of the cove. Hank has just returned from the war in Germany (World War I, that is) having lost his hand in battle. Hank is getting on with his life; he has plans to be married, although his fiancĂ© is superfluous to the plot and we don't get to know her.  Laurel has the disadvantage of a large birthmark which makes her a castoff in the village because people think that she may be a witch. She is stuck in the cove, lonely and disillusioned. She is so lonely that she "remembered how once she'd leaned close just to see her breath condense on the mirror's glass." One day while washing clothes in the stream, she hears a beautiful flute playing and discovers a drifter living in the woods. After he is stung by bees, Laurel brings him back to the house to heal. She discovers that he is a mute named Walter. Although he cannot communicate with more than just hand motions and head nods, it is apparent that there is more to Walter than meets the eye. Hank is struggling to do the farm work because of his lost hand, so they convince Walter to stay for a few days to help with the farm work. 

This is one part of the plot. The other part of the plot concerns the effect the war is having on the people of this small Carolina village, far from the action of the war. Like Hank, several of their sons have gone off to war; some haven't returned, and others are damaged by the war. The local recruiter is Sgt. Chauncey Feith, the deeply insecure son of the local banker, who prides himself on keeping the community attuned to the war and its young men enlisting. The community is deeply afraid of "the Huns" and their paranoia is fed by Feith. I was reminded of the short novel, The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck, which my book club read last year. Both deal with the effects of war on a small community. In The Moon is Down, the community is in Norway. 

The plot, of course, leads to tragedy, but not until Walter's true identity is revealed, and he and Laurel fall in love—Laurel with the idea that Walter will help her escape the torment of her life in the cove. The reviewer in the USA Today calls it a tragedy "with a self-conscious Shakespearean structure and economy." Rash says that he considers The Cove to be a "very dark fairy tale." To that point, as
Walter wanders in the North Carolina woods "The trees thickened and the woods became as forlorn as those in a sinister fairy tale, a place where the guards claimed lions and bears and wolves roamed. All manner of poisonous serpents and plants thrived here and no step was safe. Immense watery caverns lay just beneath seemingly firm ground. They could give way and a man fall a hundred feet and then into water so utterly dark that the trout living in it were sightless." It's no wonder the townsfolk thought the Cove was haunted.

Beyond the plot, the book is a deeply moving study of a time and place in American life that is gone. Much of the language Rash uses evokes that time and place. This was my first book by Ron Rash. Others include Serena and Nothing Gold Can Stay and The World Made Straight. I am grateful to my friend, Patricia, for introducing me to Rash. I will enjoy reading his other books. One reviewer reminded his readers about a similar author, Paul Harding, whose book Enon I read last year. I loved it as well.

This is the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, which ended in 1918. My grandma's brother, Harry, was a World War I veteran. He was always a curiosity to my siblings and me, because he hardly ever spoke, watched wrestling all day on television, and put sugar on his tomatoes. In retrospect, I think that he was psychologically damaged by the war and never was able to live a productive life in the years after the war. He moved in with my grandma in his later years, and died shortly after his 100th birthday. Uncle Harry was one of the mysterious people that populated our childhood.

The review in the USA Today.
An interview with Ron Rash in the Daily Beast.