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review 2018-03-19 17:29
Birding Without Borders / Noah Strycker
Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World - Noah Strycker

In 2015, Noah Strycker set himself a lofty goal: to become the first person to see half the world’s birds in one year. For 365 days, with a backpack, binoculars, and a series of one-way tickets, he traveled across forty-one countries and all seven continents, eventually spotting 6,042 species—by far the biggest birding year on record.

This is no travelogue or glorified checklist. Noah ventures deep into a world of blood-sucking leeches, chronic sleep deprivation, airline snafus, breakdowns, mudslides, floods, war zones, ecologic devastation, conservation triumphs, common and iconic species, and scores of passionate bird lovers around the globe. By pursuing the freest creatures on the planet, Noah gains a unique perspective on the world they share with us—and offers a hopeful message that even as many birds face an uncertain future, more people than ever are working to protect them.


I enjoyed this memoir much more than I anticipated. Late last year, I read this author’s Among Penguins: A Bird Man in Antarctica, which I enjoyed because I am a penguin fanatic. I have done a fair bit of travel in the pursuit of birds, so I picked up this volume with both hope and reservations.

I needn’t have worried. Strycker is a much better writer than many of the folks who pen birding memoirs and I enjoyed seeing places, people and birds that I know through his eyes. I think that was part of the enjoyment for me—getting to revisit some places, remember some birds and say, “Oh, I met that person!”

For those of you who aren’t obsessed with birds, a big year is a year devoted to seeing as many birds as possible in a certain area. There’s a certain competitiveness inherent in the practice which you can read about in The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession (or try the movie of the same name, which I enjoyed). As I read TBY, I found myself snorting occasionally as I identified with many of the behaviours described. Strycker takes the Big Year concept a step further as he decides to take his Year global and try to see half of the bird species on Earth (5000 of an approximate 10,000). While having no desire to participate in such an activity myself, it was intriguing to see how Strycker proceeded with the endeavour.

What I appreciated the most about this account wasn’t the list of birds. Obviously birds figure prominently in the account, but it was the connections with people, the difficulties faced during travel, and the time spent putting things into perspective—those made the tale worthwhile in my opinion. There was self-reflection here, plus no over-the-top environmental preachiness.

I’m unsure how interesting non-birders would find such a book—if any of my non-birding friends choose to read it, perhaps you could let me know?

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review 2018-03-19 15:59
What a Fish Knows / Jonathan Balcombe
What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins - Jonathan Balcombe

Do fishes think? Do they really have three-second memories? And can they recognize the humans who peer back at them from above the surface of the water? In What a Fish Knows, the myth-busting ethologist Jonathan Balcombe addresses these questions and more, taking us under the sea, through streams and estuaries, and to the other side of the aquarium glass to reveal the surprising capabilities of fishes. Although there are more than thirty thousand species of fish—more than all mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians combined—we rarely consider how individual fishes think, feel, and behave. Balcombe upends our assumptions about fishes, portraying them not as unfeeling, dead-eyed feeding machines but as sentient, aware, social, and even Machiavellian—in other words, much like us.

What a Fish Knows draws on the latest science to present a fresh look at these remarkable creatures in all their breathtaking diversity and beauty. Fishes conduct elaborate courtship rituals and develop lifelong bonds with shoalmates. They also plan, hunt cooperatively, use tools, curry favor, deceive one another, and punish wrongdoers. We may imagine that fishes lead simple, fleeting lives—a mode of existence that boils down to a place on the food chain, rote spawning, and lots of aimless swimming. But, as Balcombe demonstrates, the truth is far richer and more complex, worthy of the grandest social novel.

Highlighting breakthrough discoveries from fish enthusiasts and scientists around the world and pondering his own encounters with fishes, Balcombe examines the fascinating means by which fishes gain knowledge of the places they inhabit, from shallow tide pools to the deepest reaches of the ocean.


Fish get short shrift when we are thinking about animal behaviour. Consider the poor maligned gold fish, which is reputed to have an attention span of mere seconds. Incorrect, as it turns out—gold fish can learn tasks and retain that learning for months.

I’m not a diver. I can’t swim and water will always be a scary place for me, but I can see where this book would be very interesting to anyone who spends time in the underwater world. Fish are much more interesting that I gave them credit for. I’m a birder, after all, and so I’m a little biased (although I certainly know that the term “bird brain” is actually more of a compliment than an insult).

It’s difficult for us to imagine what a fish’s life is like—they live in a completely different medium than we do, have extra senses that we can’t fathom, and have unexpressive faces. I think that last point is the one that leads us to underestimate fishes—we value expressiveness over evidence, I think, because it’s something we’re good at.

If you are interested in matters of animal intelligence (and human judginess) I would recommend Franz de Waal’s excellent book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?.

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text 2018-02-21 20:46
Modeling agencies
A Natural History of the Romance Novel - Pamela Regis

I could do this as a "currently reading" title with periodic updates, but too much is going on, so I'm just going to leave a few notes here and there.  You can follow, or not, as you choose.



Regis bases her analysis of the content of romance novels on the literary theories of mid-20th century critic Northrop Frye.  She seems, therefore, to be trying to fit the popular fiction form of the romance novel into the academic model of "literature," as though the two were almost entirely distinct.  Any prose narrative that has already been accepted as "literature" by the credentialed academic community -- such as Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre -- has been granted respect.  Regis seems to be attempting to squeeze romance novels into the same mold while at the same time insisting they are so different from literature that they cannot be considered literature, but if they can be seen to share some characteristics, then they might be worthy of some respect.


Yes, it's contorted logic.  But Regis never comes out and admits romance novels -- as they are written, published, read, and enjoyed today -- are essentially no different in content or form from "literature."  That would be academic sacrilege.  A kind of "separate, but sort of equal" compromise that would allow her to sell her book without losing her academic standing.


Jane Austen didn't write "literature."  Neither did Charles Dickens.  Neither did Wilkie Collins or Victor Hugo.  Maybe it's time to look at more than a few samples from "literature," samples which already have the stamp of "romance novel," and look at more than a few samples of real romance novels from the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and compare them to a more neutral standard, and perhaps a more universal standard.  Then see how both of them stand up.

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text 2018-02-21 20:44
Very Little Reading...

is getting done this week and weekend around here, because this is one of those weeks where I am not destined to be at home much.


But there are very good reasons for it: A very short-notice work trip took me to London yesterday. Yay! And even better, the work commitments ended just after lunch, with my colleague asking if I had plans for the extra time before we had to catch our flight home. 


Me? Plans? Of course, I have plans! Apparently, he didn't but he was happy to tag along to see Charlie and the Whale...



I had not been back to the Natural History Museum for a couple of years, and this was the first time since they changed out the dinosaur for the blue whale in Hintze Hall. It is huge. What a great idea to feature it in the main hall. It really let you get a sense of scale and perspective to see it stretching almost all along the main entrance.


We didn't have a lot of time, certainly not enough to look at anything in detail or wonder off in many of the specialist areas, but I did make a point of us saying Hi to Pickwick's great-great-great-grandma/pa.



I love this place.

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text 2018-02-21 00:24
Planning to read -- How do you feel?
A Natural History of the Romance Novel - Pamela Regis

When I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis about romance novels in 2000, this book was still three years in the future. Though I had an academic publisher interested in a book-length version of Half Heaven, Half Heartache, I never followed up on it and ultimately saw the Regis book as what mine would/might have been.  So my "book" sat on the shelf.


A few years ago, however, an odd set of circumstances brought my attention back to A Natural History, and so I bought a copy.  The opening pages took me aback.


Rather than "a natural history," the Regis book opened like just another post-modern analysis of a varied genre that the author didn't really know, understand, or care about.The University of Pennsylvania imprint, of course, hinted that the tone would be academic rather than popular, in rather stark contrast to UPenn's 1994 anthology of essays by actual romance novelists, Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women.


Romance novels don't write themselves; they are written by people -- usually women -- who have read other romance novels and other romantic novels and other novels written by other people.  The Happy Ever After (HEA) ending continues to be disparaged even as it's deemed absolutely essential to the genre, and even while readers and writers proclaim novels without HEA are still romances.


It's not enough to subject a few selected novels to a Procrustean post-modern literary analysis and declare that to be the natural history of an entire genre.


I'm not sure how many romance novels I've read.  More than a few hundred certainly.  I've written (through to the HEA) a dozen or so; the unfinished starts are uncountable.  There are great romance novels and there are horrible ones.  Some are well-written, some are not.  They are short, they are long.  They are contemporary, they are historical, they are futuristic.  They are sweet, they are sexy, they are erotic.


Romance novels, however, still don't get respect.  Pamela Regis's book was supposed to give the genre the respect it deserved.  As far as I can see, it fails rather miserably.


I didn't want that to be the case.  I wanted A Natural History of the Romance Novel to succeed.  I wanted to see my favorite books and authors given pride of place in a serious, detailed analysis of the good points and bad points.  That's not what this book is.


So, it all comes back to my little thesis.  I guess I have some major reading to do.





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