About this blog...

Here you will find information, musings, and pictures about zoos, the natural world, and writing. Welcome to the erratic thoughts of a zoo mystery author! See ZooMysteries.com for more photos and information about my books. Click here for cool sites about elephants and conservation organizations.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Book review: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver trained as a biologist, she's passionate about environmental issues, and she sure can craft a sentence. Flight Behavior (2012, HarperCollins) is as compelling as it is informative. Dellarobia Turnbow, a young mother in Tennessee, finds a new monarch butterfly wintering area and her tiny world, constricted by poverty, babies, a lack of education, and a diffident husband has the door thrown open to unexpected winds from outside. The story weaves together the heart-breaking science of climate change and the heart-break of a weak marriage. Salvation for the monarchs remains unlikely in this fictional disaster, but Dellarobia may get her chance.

The climate change theme is information-dense without being (oh, dreaded word!) "preachy" and this is an excellent way to catch up on the biological aspects of this issue. I've been tracking this for years and didn't flinch. Less familiar to me was how people live in these United States in rural poverty--bad housing, bad food, bad schools. In a brilliant scene, Dellarobia has to laugh at an earnest enviro's plea to reduce and reuse, turn down the thermostat, etc. Lack of money long ago made those decisions for her. Kingsolver represents Dellarobia's world with respect and understanding as well as with sympathy.

Dellarobia's desperation over her lot in life is palpable and touching. The first third of the book establishes her world and the "miracle" that disrupts it, but this moves slowly. Flight Behavior is a novel more to be savored than rushed.

The charms of this story include the varied characters: relatives, a best friend, scientists, and the unusual people attracted to any unusual event. No stereotypes here of either rural eccentrics or over-educated nerds, no one who does not carry their own gravitas and produce a surprise or two. Then there is Kingsolver's enviable way with language. "She could see that his old generosity was still there, but was sometimes being held captive by despair, like a living thing held underwater." You'll have to search hard to find a weak sentence.

Kingsolver created an appealing heroine in Dellarobia: bright and funny, a kind and dedicated mother who struggles to keep her marriage alive. I have to ask, however, if instead of a petite red-haired cutie, could the story have worked with a big, homely woman? Must all our heroines be beautiful winners?

A big-hearted, sad, gorgeous book. I'll be reading it again.

It also has good information about raising sheep.
A version of this review was also posted in Goodreads. The book was a Christmas gift.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Book review: Skulls by Simon Winchester

Most people who like natural history and the outdoor world are, in my experience, entranced by skulls. We find them beautiful (assuming the stinky parts are long gone) and they tell tales about the species and the individual. The individual tales are often tragic--a horse skull with a broken lower jaw, a coyote skull with a bullet hole, a smashed skull from a road-killed raccoon. The species tales are less freighted. Teeth and sagittal crests imply how the animal made its living and defended itself.

I lept at the chance to hear Simon Winchester discuss his new book Skulls: An Exploration of Alan Dudley's Curious Collection.  He gave a nice talk to a big crowd at Powell's Books here in Portland. We would, of course, sit still for anyone with a cool British accent (not to mention his previously very successful books), but he also had an app of the book up on the screen (iPad only, not iPhone). In the app, the skulls rotate--wonderful.

The hardcover is a beautiful collection of Nick Mann's photos of skulls that were prepared by a private collector, Alan Dudley. Dudley came to Winchester's attention after getting busted buying an illegal howler monkey skull. He pleaded guilty, did his service and paid his fine, and the implication is that he isn't normally one to slip up in this way. I find this pretty satisfactory--he does a great job with the skulls and shares his expertise AND he serves as a lesson to other collectors not to get carried away and promote a market for slaughtering rare animals. (Replicas of many species are readily available, by the way.) Dudley gets almost all of his skulls from zoos.

Among this book's virtues are a plethora of bird, fish and reptile skulls. Photographs of mammal skulls are widely available as they are the taxonomic touchstone for mammals. The others, not so much. Partly they are less common because (I know from trying) fish and reptile skulls can be the very devil to prepare. The skull bones are often not fused and fall into separate bits when the connective tissue is gone. I wanted to learn more about Dudley's  methods, but this isn't a how-to book. Fair enough.

Of special interest: a great assortment of hornbills, odd and fragile skulls of venomous snakes, wild pigs with their seemingly self-destructive curving tusks.  Be sure to take a look at the domestic dog skulls and consider what we have done to the sturdy wolf.

Most of the photos are by Nick Mann, who has done great work on other Workman Publishing science books as well, and most are excellent. Many of the smaller skulls are out of focus, however. Printing the images against a black background works very well for most skulls, but much detail is lost for black bird bills (such as the Northern Shoveler) and the black horns of some bovids.The photo of Holbein's large painting The Ambassadors lacks details discussed in the text. Most of these weaknesses are demerits for the printer, not the author or photographer.

The photos are interspersed with  text about skulls in art, history, human evolution, etc. These are interesting, written for a non-technical audience, but this is primarily a visual book.

You won't be able to derive the species of that squirrel skull you found in the woods from this book, but you will see an enormous variety of skulls well presented. A beautiful addition to the natural history library.

Don't even think about it.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

NW Authors' Fair this Saturday

I'm off to Lincoln City for Bob's Beach Books big annual book fair. CLICK HERE for details. I'll be signing under the tent on Highway 101 from 11 to 2 on Saturday. This coming Saturday, that is.

Hope to see you there!

Last year with Bernadette Pajer (left) and Jeanne Matthews (right)

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Off to California

I'm heading for the Golden State soon for a book tour, taking my dog and pony. Well, my slide show, anyway. The dog didn't want to come and I couldn't find a trained pony. I'll be moving fast--catch me if you can!

Thursday, August 2
Berkeley, 2 PM, Janet Rudolph’s Literary Salon
This event is open to the public, but in a private home. Email Janet at janet@mysteryreaders.org for directions and to RSVP.

Friday, August 3
A visit to the Sacramento Zoo for fun, then--
Sacramento, 7 PM, Avid Reader, 1600 Broadway

Saturday, August 4
Orange, CA, 3 PM, Book Carnival, 348 S. Tustin Avenue

Sunday, August 5
South Pasadena, CA, 12 Noon, Book’em Mysteries, 1118 Mission St.  

Redondo Beach, CA, 2:30 PM. Mysterious Galaxy Books. 2810 Artesia Blvd.

Monday, August 6A day at Los Angeles Zoo and home!

Me, after this tour

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Seattle: Pictures from Woodland Park Zoo

I was in Seattle last weekend. Spent Friday at the zoo having a wonderful time, then spoke with Pattie Beaven's zoo book club. I "appeared" at Seattle Mystery Bookshop on Saturday (here's the blog I helped write), then Third Place Books. A great weekend. But about those pictures...

I got to meet Ray, a Malayan Tapir, and feed him carrots and sweet potatoes. What a gorgeous animal!

Treats? Did someone mention treats?

Teeth and a strange tongue

Cute white rims to his ears. No, he's not eating the fence.

And adorable toes, perfect for getting around in swamps