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review 2017-05-01 11:49
The Odditorium: The Tricksters, Eccentrics, Deviants and Inventors Whose Obsessions Changed the World
The Odditorium: The Tricksters, Eccentrics, Deviants and Inventors Whose Obsessions Changed the World - Jo Keeling,David Bramwell

This one should have been a 5 star, but I knocked 1/2 star off for some shocking editing blunders and another 1/2 star for occasionally crossing the line from humorous commentary into editorialising.  And really cheap, newsprint type paper stock. 

 

Otherwise it is an excellent read; most of the people profiled were unknown to me, so there was a lot of new information.  Those I'd heard of before were shown here from a different perspective, giving me a more rounded view of them.

 

The book is divided by types:  Tricksters and Subversives, Creative Mavericks, Wild at Heart, etc. with 8-10 people profiled under each.  The emphasis is on profile; these are not comprehensive by any stretch, but each chapter ends with suggestions for further exploration of each person via books, excursions, movies, etc..  I can't think of any of them that I didn't find fascinating in their own way and quite a few of them got the "read out loud" treatment.

 

If you like off-the-beaten-path knowledge and see this one out in the wild, check it out - it's worth a read.

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review 2017-02-24 01:20
The Genius of Birds
The Genius of Birds - Jennifer Ackerman

It seemed natural to move from a book about earthworms to a book about birds, and while the reading demographic for this one will naturally be larger, it's still not a book that will appeal to the masses.  

 

It should though.  I'm not a dedicated birdwatcher, but I find them fascinating, endearing, entertaining and sometimes comical.  And it turns out some of them are impressively clever.  In fact, accuse me of anthropomorphism if you'd like, but I'll go so far as to say intelligent.  

 

Not all of them of course; 15 seconds with any one of my chickens would put paid to that idea.  But we all know about crows and their ability to make and use tools; they can also play the game known as Concentration - the memory game where you have to match up images.  Going one step further, the crows, when asked to match a card with another that had a corresponding theme (i.e. match a card with 2 yellow squares with a card that has 2 yellow circles), the crows could immediately do it successfully.  That's cognition. 

 

Then there's Alex, the African Grey Parrot who not only knew hundreds of vocabulary words and how to use them in correct context, but could also categorise objects correctly and when asked how many objects were in a category could correctly answer 8 out of 10 times.

 

Clark's nutcrackers and scrub jays collect food for the winter and hide it in hidden caches.  These hidden caches can number up to 5,000 different locations in a single season for nutcrackers, and for scrub jays those caches include fresh fruit, insects and other perishable items.  7 out of 10 times the nutcrackers will go directly to the precise location of their stashes - that's 3500 little caches of food, buried anywhere in an area from a dozen square miles to hundreds of square miles, that they can immediately recall to the millimetre, as necessary.  The scrub jays keep track of what is in each of their caches, which caches have perishable items that need to be eaten first, and where those caches are.

 

I'm lucky if I can keep track of my keys and phone for more than 24 hours.

 

There's so much more, but I'll stick with the highlights.  And my personal favourite (I think - it's hard to choose):  The Satin Bowerbird.  The male satin bowerbird builds bowers as a way to woo a female (or females).  These aren't nests - no mating or rearing takes place in these bowers.  Rather they are monuments to, and for, seduction; the stage and props he'll use as the backdrop for his wooing dance: 

 

picture via viralforest.com

 

If that's not fancy enough to impress, how about the efforts of the Vogelkop Gardener Bowerbird?

picture via thewildernessalternative.com / the constant gardener

 

Each species of bower building bowerbirds is partial to a specific color.  Satin bowerbirds are all about the blues; in fact when scientists placed scarlet items in their bowers, the birds immediately ran in and removed those items and made sure they could not be seen from their bower.  When they couldn't be removed, they buried them.

 

The Genius of Birds is full of information like this, written in an easy conversational style but including the science, the studies, the theories and counter-theories.  Not enough to scare off the non-science bird-lovers, but more than enough to satisfy the armchair naturalist.  What's missing is referenced in a very comprehensive notes section at the back.  There are a few references to types of studies I abhor, no matter what anyone would argue about their scientific merit, but they're passed over quickly.

 

If you're interested in a broad overview of the under appreciated gifts birds have, and their misunderstood intelligence, this is a great book.  

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review 2017-02-17 07:15
The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms
The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms - Amy Stewart

Yep.  Earthworms.  Unsung heroes.

 

Amy Stewart has become one of the few authors I'd wait in line for a signature for - have I mentioned that before?  She makes a great spokesperson for these unfairly maligned little earth movers.  In a chatty but informative style she covers the earthworms' role in history, agriculture, backyard gardening, forestry and even sewage treatment and soil reclamation.

 

Did you know that Australia has an earthworm that grows over 3 feet long, and when it moves around under the earth, farmers can hear a gurgling sound?  They're native to a farming area called Gippsland, here in Victoria, so of course I want to go and stand in the middle of a pasture like an idiot in hopes of hearing them gurgle along beneath me, while trying not to think of the movie Tremors.

 

There's no denying this is not a book for everyone.  But gardeners, environmentalists, and armchair scientists will all find something interesting and fascinating here.

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review 2017-02-13 09:13
A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie
A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup

This one is for all the Agatha Christie fans out there who also love science.

 

Harkup devotes a chapter to each of the 14 poisons Christie used to eliminate so many of her victims over the course of 56 years writing mysteries.  In each chapter she discusses the history of each poison's discovery, its use in real crimes throughout history, its antidotes (if any), how its tested for, and how Christie used each poison in her books (as well as how accurate her knowledge was - hint: very).

 

I found the writing compelling and incredibly interesting, but this is not a book for people bored by, or disinterested in, chemistry and anatomy.  Harkup knows her stuff both as a chemist and as a Christie fan.  She gets into the nitty gritty details about how each poison wreaks its havoc in the human body; this might cause some eyes to glaze over.  In almost every chapter, she manages to discuss Christie's books and plots without revealing the killer, and when she can't avoid it, she clearly warns the reader upfront that there are spoilers ahead, offering "go to page xx" to readers wanting to avoid knowing whodunnit.  Some might still find her discussions too revealing, so be warned; if you want to know as little as possible about the books, save this one for later.

 

At the end, she offers a fascinating appendix of every book and short story Christie wrote, with each US/UK title and a list of all the ways people die, a more esoteric appendix illustrating most of the chemical structures discussed in the text (the rest are on her website), a select bibliography and a comprehensive index.

 

I came away from this book having learned a lot, but possibly the two most important things:  strychnine is just about the last way I'd want to go, and that Christie would have been the last person I'd ever want to piss off.

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review 2017-02-09 09:29
Encyclopedia Prehistorica: Mega Beasts
Encyclopedia Prehistorica - Robert Sabuda,Matthew Reinhart

The last of my pop-up book splurge, Mega Beasts is almost every bit as good as the Dinosaurs edition created by the same pop up artist team.

 

The same incredible level of paper art, the same solid writing; my only complaint is sometimes the spectacular paper art actually blocks the text, making it difficult to read without some maneuvering.  Otherwise, an awesome example of its kind.

 

Once again, MT provided a hand (or two) for the picture taking portion of this review:

 

King Kong wasn't just a myth y'all!

 

It was depressing to learn just how many creatures lived for ages without natural predators... until man came along.

 

My personal favourite spread.  Of course.  :)

 

 

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