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.]

pilgrim’s wilderness

I saw Pilgrim’s Wilderness by Tom Kizzia pop up a couple years ago when it first came out and decided to give it a listen on audio when it became available at the library.From Goodreads:

Pilgrim’s Wilderness is the bizarre and utterly fascinating story of how Robert “Papa Pilgrim” Hale and his 15-child self-named Pilgrim family came to settle deep in one of the most remote parts of Alaska, motivated by a belief that a simple pioneer life could be lived there in the twenty-first century. Celebrated by locals for his anti-establishment ways, Hale was eventually exposed as a cult leader-like sociopath with an extraordinary criminal past who brutalized his wife and children and kept them isolated, ignorant, and under his control.

Whoa, what a fascinating read! I could barely stop listening, it just became more and more twisted as components of Hale’s life fell apart. It went from bizarre to icky to downright frightening. The story is interesting on many levels, from the in-depth look at this family’s interpersonal dynamics to the external factors working against their lifestyle. I loved how McCarthy, Alaska was basically another “character” here. I’m not sure I dug the author’s infusing himself into the story, but, with investigative journalistic non-fiction, I understand it. Just maybe didn’t work for me so well in this case.

Pilgrim’s Wilderness is a great read for anyone interested in off-the-grid lifestyles, religious extremism and cults, environmentalism, small town community, and more. At first blush it does seem like an unbelievable tale, but it’s all darkly true. It was complementary to a recent novel I read, too, Our Endless Numbered Days.

Listened to audiobook from June 25 to 29, 2015.

the botany of desire

The August selection for my Stranger than Fiction book group at the Kansas City Public Library was The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, one I’ve been meaning to read for a very long time. From Goodreads:

Every schoolchild learns about the mutually beneficial dance of honeybees and flowers: The bee collects nectar and pollen to make honey and, in the process, spreads the flowers’ genes far and wide. In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan ingeniously demonstrates how people and domesticated plants have formed a similarly reciprocal relationship. He masterfully links four fundamental human desires—sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control—with the plants that satisfy them: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. In telling the stories of four familiar species, Pollan illustrates how the plants have evolved to satisfy humankind’s most basic yearnings. And just as we’ve benefited from these plants, we have also done well by them. So who is really domesticating whom?

I’ve been a fan of Pollan’s for years, ever since I first read The Omnivore’s Dilemma (I’ve also read Food Rules and In Defense of Food before this). The Botany of Desire has been on my list forever, so I was really excited to see it selected for book group! Unfortunately, I missed the previous month’s discussion, when we get the next book, so I had to hunt a little bit for a copy. By the time it came in on loan to my school library, I was on my Hawaii trip, and then only had two nights to read after work before the discussion. I was only 70 pages in by then… oh well! I still went to the discussion and enjoyed it, and ended up finishing the book by the end of that week.

The Botany of Desire‘s four chapters offer interesting tidbits and brief histories of these four different plants, and clearly outlines the reasons we are captivated by them. I agree plants and humans enjoy mutually beneficial arrangements, but I’m not sure I buy Pollan’s statement that “plants are using us as much as we’re using them,” since I’m sure plants would prefer NOT to be ravaged by chemical poisons and genetic experimentation. I was aware that wiping out diversity among plants what not good and mostly done to profit corporations, but Pollan really drove it home and explained exactly why diversity is a necessary, good thing in agriculture and nature.

Brief thoughts by chapter:

Apple: Too much Johnny Appleseed, not enough apple. It was interesting and entertaining, but not nearly as much as the rest of the book. Lots of people get stuck on this chapter and give up. At least skip ahead to the next section, I promise!

Tulip: Wow. The Dutch were crazy about this plant! They ruined their whole economic system over it. Incredible. I wish Pollan had included pictures of the tulip varieties discussed. (Oh well, hooray for Internet! The black tulip is stunning.)

Marijuana: Fascinating, especially the war on drugs synopsis and how this plant, that has so many useful applications and is by and large incredibly safe, could be so demonized virtually overnight in the United States. Same for the people who grow/use it. I was just a little kid when it started, I remember D.A.R.E. units in elementary school and thinking they were silly.

Potato: By far my favorite chapter (kinda has to be—one of my grampas was a potato farmer, the other an Irishman!). I was blown away by exactly how horrific conditions became in Ireland due to the Potato Famine of the nineteenth century (the catalyst for my Irish ancestors to come to the States). I was really interested in the contrast between farming potatoes in the Andes vs. Ireland, and how variety and diversity makes everything better. And the farmers having to deal with Monsanto—ugh. Terrible. Frightening. I’m lucky (and make a point of it) to eat as much local, seasonal organics as possible.

While I wasn’t quite as captivated by Botany of Desire as I was by Omnivore’s DilemmaBotany is still an eye-opening read in Pollan’s signature blend of personal and historical/factual narrative. Looking forward to reading his latest, Cooked, in the future!

Read from August 25 to 31, 2014.

the worst hard time

More catching up on old reviews for my Bout of Books 10 goals! The March pick for my library book group was The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, about the Dust Bowl. From Goodreads:

The dust storms that terrorized the High Plains in the darkest years of the Depression were like nothing ever seen before or since. Timothy Egan’s critically acclaimed account rescues this iconic chapter of American history from the shadows in a tour de force of historical reportage. Following a dozen families and their communities through the rise and fall of the region, Egan tells of their desperate attempts to carry on through blinding black dust blizzards, crop failure, and the death of loved ones.

I already had this as an ebook so I was happy to see it picked for our library book group! Unfortunately I was sick and couldn’t attend the meeting at the end of March… which probably worked out for the best since I hadn’t finished reading it by then anyway :-/ I was still interested, though, so I plowed (ha) through to the end, finishing mid-April.

I knew a little bit about the Dust Bowl already from school, Ken Burns’s documentary, and just living in this region for more than ten years. But I hadn’t really thought much about exactly how these storms effected the country, the economy, and specifically the people who lived in their paths. Egan’s book really laid it all out on the table for you: the residents’ hunger, frustration, fear, desperation, poverty… and also their hopefulness, strength, perseverance, and tenacity. I found his descriptions and portraits of the residents to be full of life and character, really fleshing out these people as actual real people who lived through this devastating time (and some of those who didn’t).

Once in a while I did feel like the writing was a bit dry and certain things repetitious, but I suppose that’s how life was in No Man’s Land for so long. Egan hammered home exactly how the dust and dirt smelled, looked, felt—how it was unstoppable and crept in through every minuscule crack, embedded itself in your clothing, pores, lungs, eyes, everywhere. I can’t even imagine having to live through something like that, and for more than a decade straight. Egan also minces no words blaming humans for this agricultural disaster, which is totally deserved and appropriate. Great, fascinating read on American agricultural history!

Read from March 17 to April 19, 2014.

oryx and crake

The second audiobook I had on my road trip to Wisconsin a couple weeks ago was Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. I read The Handmaid’s Tale a few years ago, so this is my second book of Atwood’s (although I have The Blind Assassin boxed up, I’ll have to read that at some point after my move, too!) From Goodreads:

In Oryx and Crake, a science fiction novel that is more Swift than Heinlein, more cautionary tale than “fictional science” (no flying cars here), Margaret Atwood depicts a near-future world that turns from the merely horrible to the horrific, from a fool’s paradise to a bio-wasteland. Snowman (a man once known as Jimmy) sleeps in a tree and just might be the only human left on our devastated planet. He is not entirely alone, however, as he considers himself the shepherd of a group of experimental, human-like creatures called the Children of Crake. As he scavenges and tends to his insect bites, Snowman recalls in flashbacks how the world fell apart.

One word: WOW. I loved this book. Oryx and Crake is a disturbing vision of a dystopian future, in which gene-spliced hybrid animals are created for various reasons to make human life “better,” sort of the way processed food stuffs and electronic devices are regarded now. Pigoons, designed to host back-up organs for human harvest? Wolvogs? It was really easy to picture these creatures.

There are so many social and cultural issues touched on or brought up in this book and lots of ethical questions, from economic class to global warming to genetic engineering and biotechnology to pharmaceuticals and health epidemics, ecological disasters, corporate conglomeration, and so on. As I listened, I wondered, “they can do all these experiments, but should they?” Great for philosophical debate.

At the heart of Oryx and Crake is the love triangle, though. Jimmy meets the dark science genius Crake in high school. Formerly a child prostitute from Southeast Asia, Oryx is sold to a man in San Francisco and from there eventually leaves the sex trade and meets Jimmy and Crake later on. Oryx works for Crake, but secretly gets it on with Jimmy. Duh-RAMA!

But despite the love triangle and some dry humor, Oryx and Crake is some seriously dark sci-fi. The version I listened to was unabridged, read by Campbell Scott. I thought Scott did an excellent job; his narration had a creepy edge and he captured the frustration of Snowman, obliviousness of Oryx, and the innocence of the Crakers very well, even changing the voice inflections for them, too. But Oryx and Crake, as much as I loved the audio, is one that I will definitely get on paper and re-read someday. I seem to only be able to listen to audiobooks on long drives, and I’m sure I missed some things!

*Note: In the past I have said more than once I’m not into series books… and would you look at that, I inadvertently got myself hooked into one. The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam are now on my TBR!

Oryx and Crake was my selection for “dystopian” on the 2013 Eclectic Reader Challenge, hosted by Shelleyrae at book’d out, and my eighth read of twelve books total for the challenge.

Listened to audiobook from July 16 to 17, 2013.

in defense of food

In anticipation of Michael Pollan‘s visit to Kansas City on Friday this week to discuss his new book Cooked, I figured I had better knock his In Defense of Food off my TBR before the event!

I have read two of Pollan’s books before: The Omnivore’s Dilemma (published 2006, read in 2008) and Food Rules (published in 2009, read in 2010). I’m a little out-of-order and a couple years behind on them, but still they’re good, worthwhile reads.

Much of the information in In Defense of Food is also in Food Rules, just more expanded upon with citations. The middle section was pretty bleak, laying out exactly all the problems with American food and eating habits from so-called “reductionist” science (where scientists and researchers just try to identify and isolate one nutrient and its effects rather than the whole food itself), of course processed foods, and the dissolving of the traditional family meal. But it is eye-opening to read about how everything really is connected—soil, sun, natural chemicals, flavors, etc.—and how certain nutrients or components in one food effect the others. Pollan’s writing style is accessible, too, without too much scientific jargon. A problem, though (that he acknowledges) is that people of only certain high enough income levels are likely to be able to follow his advice. Sad.

I can’t speak for all the scientific evidence, exactly, as neither Pollan nor I are scientists. But I do appreciate that he gives you a lot to think about as far as being more aware of what you’re buying and putting into your body. His mantra “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” is a great starting point to healthier eating. Looking forward to reading Cooked later on and hearing Pollan speak on Friday here in Kansas City!

In Defense of Food was my fifth read of twelve books total for the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge, hosted by Adam at Roof Beam Reader.

Read from May 1 to 5, 2013.