mini-reviews: mozart’s starling and the rise and fall of the dinosaurs

Even though I’m not necessarily a “science” kind of person—much more artsy fartsy—I still like reading narrative non-fiction about some science topics. I listened to these two very different science-based audiobooks about animals in May and found them both really fascinating:

Naturalist and birder Lyanda Lynne Haupt was inspired to research the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s pet starling, which he took home from the pet store after hearing it sing a version of a melody from his Piano Concert No. 17 in G Major. The bird served as a muse and companion for Mozart for three years. To aid her research, Haupt decided to adopt a starling of her own. She was totally charmed by the creature’s personality, affection, and intelligence, and could see how Mozart likely felt the same. Mozart’s Starling is part biography, part memoir, and part natural history of these animals. I didn’t know starlings are considered pests and an invasive species in the United States, while they’re nearly extinct in Europe. There is definitely a lot more about the bird than about Mozart and his music, but lovers of birds, nature, history, classical music, and also specifically Mozart will enjoy this interesting book. [Listened to audiobook in May 2018.]

Who isn’t fascinated by dinosaurs? I was really excited to borrow this narrative history on audio before the latest Jurassic World movie installment came out. Steve Brusatte‘s The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs walks readers through their evolution and ultimate demise, from roughly the Triassic period to the end of the Cretaceous period. His description of the asteroid that obliterated millions of years of the natural evolution of these animals is violent and disquieting (I loved it). Part of this book is background on Brusatte’s career. He name-drops people in archaeology and paleontology he’s met a bit too much, but it’s not overwhelming—the dinosaurs are still definitely the stars of the book. I really loved learning about all the newest dinosaur species discovered around the world. I’m just blown away by all that can be learned from some unearthed bones. You don’t need to be a science or dinosaur buff to enjoy this book. [Listened to audiobook in May 2018.]

the tusk that did the damage

As part of a retail therapy trip to Rainy Day Books, my local indie, I picked up The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James, because I’m a sucker for elephants because they’re awesome. Look at that cover! Couldn’t resist. From Goodreads:

Orphaned by poachers as a calf and sold into a life of labor and exhibition, the Gravedigger breaks free of his chains and begins terrorizing the countryside, earning his name from the humans he kills and then tenderly buries. Manu, the studious younger son of a rice farmer, loses his cousin to the Gravedigger’s violence and is drawn, with his wayward brother Jayan, into the sordid, alluring world of poaching. Emma is a young American working on a documentary with her college best friend, who witnesses the porous boundary between conservation and corruption and finds herself in her own moral gray area: a risky affair with the veterinarian who is the film’s subject. As the novel hurtles toward its tragic climax, these three storylines fuse into a wrenching meditation on love and betrayal, duty and loyalty, and the vexed relationship between man and nature.

I devoured this book in one weekend. James’s writing for Tusk is airy and has an appropriate sense of sadness to it, with many strikingly beautiful sentences. It was a quiet but potent read for a rainy weekend at home, especially if you care about elephants and animal conservation. Despite being such a short book, James was able to fully flesh out the filmmakers, poachers, and elephant handlers as individuals.

The issues for me lay in the balance of the three narratives—I would have loved more Gravedigger and less filmmakers. Or perhaps replace the filmmakers with ivory consumers? That would have made this book even more effective a statement on the ivory trade. It felt at times that Emma was the main character rather than the Gravedigger. Also, while the Gravedigger’s chapters were the most interesting and engrossing—I loved the elephant lore!—they evolved from being in the Gravedigger’s head to being about his handlers more. Still good, just… I would have loved to feel what the Gravedigger felt more.

I enjoyed this heartrending tale very much, despite a few flaws, and think a great companion read would be Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone, an imaginative tale told entirely from the elephants’ perspectives.

Read from May 9 to 10, 2015.

day fifteen | 30 day book challenge

30 Day Book Challenge | Day 15 — A book you think is highly overrated and a book you think is woefully underrated

Halfway point! My choices for this day’s answers are solely based on my experience and opinions of the books, because I usually don’t have (haven’t had) the chance to read many books at the height of their hype, I tend to miss a lot of hoopla in the media, etc. …

Overratted: Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. So many friends told me this graphic novel was amazing and I would love it (even though I barely have any experience with graphic novels or comics… and I’ve never been much of a fantasy/sci-fi fan… hmm) but when enough people recommend the same thing I figured it was worth a shot to see what the fuss was all about. Unfortunately, Watchmen fell flat for me. I understand its historical importance in the graphic novel industry, but from a purely personal-entertainment standpoint, the characters and plot just didn’t blow me away the way I expected after all the raving from friends. I learned my lesson with this one about trusting my gut and genre interests in the face of insistent recommendations. This is partly why I won’t read Harry Potter despite the raves. I believe that it’s good—great even—millions of people wouldn’t lie about loving it. I just know it’s not the genre for me (and that’s okay!)

Underrated: The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy. Maybe this is not so underrated? I don’t really have any idea. According to Goodreads, it was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 1998 (I have not heard of that award before). I believe I read this in late high school, because I remember picking up a hardcover copy as an impulse buy at a Barnes & Noble… it must have just been released. But aside from seeing it in that display when I bought it, I haven’t really seen it anywhere since, and never heard anyone talk about it. The White Bone is a fictional drama told from the perspective of elephants in Africa, during a period of drought. The characters face threats of starvation due to drought, poachers and hunters, and elephants from other prides as they cross the desert in search of a rumored safe haven. I remember really liking it and thinking about it for days afterwards.

life of pi

My birthday was yesterday (the big 3-0!) and my husband wanted to take me out for dinner and movie… except I don’t really keep up with what’s new in cinema these days. I did however hear about Life of Pi‘s recent film release, but I hadn’t read the book yet, so last weekend I bought a used copy and read it really quickly this week, finished just in time to see the film last night.

I remember when Yann Martel’s Life of Pi first came out about ten years ago—I was in college and some friends were reading it; most said it was amazing, and of course there was the media hype. I also heard some rants that it was too religious and preachy, which turned me off, and back then I wasn’t so interested in stories of adventure and survival either. The book quickly dropped from my radar (and again, I didn’t have much opportunity to read much for pleasure during college anyway).

As with my reading The Hobbit last month, it took a movie release to kick my butt into gear with reading the book first. I don’t feel like Life of Pi completely lived up to the hype for me, but I was certainly entertained.

Pi is a bookish, sensitive, and curious boy who grew up in Pondicherry, India, where his father owned and ran the local zoo. His intellectual and spiritual curiosity leads him to begin practicing the three major religions concurrently: Hindu, Christianity, and Islam. With the onset of India’s Emergency under Prime Minister Indira Ghandi’s leadership, Pi’s family sells the zoo and embarks on a Japanese freighter to Canada, with several animals in tow for delivery to North American zoos. After the freighter sinks in a storm, Pi ends up castaway in the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat with an injured zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Before long, Richard Parker and Pi are the only souls left on the boat, and Pi must do all he can to survive the seas and his predatory travel companion.

I enjoyed Life of Pi a lot… until the ending sort of tainted it for me. Part I—Pi’s childhood in India—is enchanted and interesting, and his enthusiasm for all three religions is thought-provoking: faith and spirituality is personal, yet we don’t know about religion until we are introduced to it by someone. We can choose to express our faith within the organization of a religion, but how different are the many religions, really? Is one really “right” over any others? Why do we have to choose just one? and so on. I think if you can read all of Part I in one or two sittings, it is more effective. I can see how this section could drag if you have to break up your reading time a lot.

Part II—the survival adventure on the lifeboat—was exciting and I could hardly put the book down during this section. I’ve gradually become more interested in tales of survival, nonfiction mostly. But the danger element with the animals was so original and compelling to me, as well as the agonizing test of faith for such a devout person. There were many scenes on the lifeboat that left me breathless, horrified, intrigued, and in awe. The mysterious floating island was a powerful turning point in the book for Pi’s mental state.

But then Part III felt like Martel was shoving the moral and symbolism down my throat. Pi’s harrowing survival on the Pacific is really a story within the story of an author looking for something to write. For me, personally, I wish Life of Pi had been just that: the life of Pi. I think I would have been totally blown away by the book if it weren’t for the author character and that angle. I get why the epilogue is there for further exploration of the questions of faith, a tested psyche, animalistic survival instinct, and plausibility, imagination, and escapism in storytelling and how it all relates to belief in God that are brought up in the first parts of the book, but I felt suddenly yanked out of the amazing adventure I just experienced. The ending turned everything black and white for me instead of an array of breathtaking colors. You are either a believer or not. Are those really the only options? Of course, Pi doesn’t have a very high opinion of agnostics in Part I… so… there you go.

Life of Pi is great in that its message will be different for everyone, and if it doesn’t make you “believe in God” it will make you ponder your interpretation of events and the world.

As for the film, it was visually stunning and worth seeing, and the 3D was great too. The film follows the book pretty closely, almost as close as a movie can. However, they added an unnecessary love interest for Pi in the movie (OF COURSE, ugh) and I wish a few awesome scenes in the lifeboat had been included (no tiger fighting a shark??), but overall it was very respectful of the book’s tone and message.

Read from December 5 to 8, 2012.

how to tell if your cat is plotting to kill you

Online artist and writer Matthew Inman (a.k.a The Oatmeal) released his second book in October, and a few friends and I went to his reading/signing stop in Kansas City. With our purchase of a ticket to the event, we each got a copy of the book, and stayed after for his autograph. At the event, Inman related a few humorous stories about his life and interests, including myriad animals, his befriending a neo-Nazi kid on the bus just to play his Gameboy, times with his girlfriend’s weird cat, and his parents’ one cat surviving a house fire. Ironically, Inman has never owned a cat himself… but you wouldn’t guess based on his astute collection of comics in How to Tell if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You.

Mostly older comics found on his website with some new material, the book recognizes and celebrates the curious and often humorous behavior of house cats. It is sort of divided into thirds, with the middle third being devoted to his Bobcats characters. Personally, I liked the first and last parts of the book better than the Bobcats chapter, which kind of became stale and mean-spirited. There are a few more cat comics on The Oatmeal website I would have liked to see included in this collection, if even just to make it longer (you can easily read it in one short sitting).

Inman is obviously hyper-creative and his brand of over-the-top, ridiculous humor shines best when highlighting the irreverent in the mundane. My favorite pieces were the informational guides: “How to tell if your cat is a raging homosexual,” “6 ways to tell if your cat thinks its a mountain lion,” and “How kittens are plotting to take over the world.” It would make a great gift for cat lovers with a quirky sense of humor.

Read from November 28 to 29, 2012.