About this blog...

Here you will find information, musings, and pictures about life, the natural world and writing.

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

Thursday, July 19, 2012

North to Alaska... well, not really

I am off to Seattle at dawn-thirty tomorrow!

I'll see Woodland Park Zoo and friends, maybe test my event slide show on the real experts.

Saturday: Seattle Mystery Bookshop at noon. Third Place Books at 6:30.

Sunday: The King Tut exhibit with a friend, then home again, home again, jiggity jig

All jigged out.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Saturation posting

I'm am all over the interwebs! Here's a list of recent guest blogs where you can learn my Innermost Secrets and Deep Thoughts. To the extent I have any of either.

Book Pleasures   An interview that got maybe a tad too frank? You be the judge.
The Book Case Inspiring Readers to Action
OmniMystery News  Where Baby Plots Come From. Yes, under a cabbage leaf. Don't miss the contest.
Gifts That Give  Trying to save the world one mystery at a time
The Page 69 Test  Just what it sounds like

Ooops! Almost forgot one: Jenny Milchman's Made It Moment

And if that's not enough:

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Endangered by Ann Littlewood


by Ann Littlewood

Giveaway ends July 30, 2012.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win

Monday, July 9, 2012

"Passionate Plotting"

The Book Case, which is the blog for The Book Page (a huge book review site), kindly hosted a guest blog I wrote about incorporating issues important to me in my book plots.

Click HERE for the full rant.

Hey! Calm down!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Free is a very good price!

Faithful reader,

Here is your chance at a reward. Hie thee to Goodreads (a fine site for sharing information about books you've read) and enter the drawing to win a free copy--hard cover no less, signed even--of Endangered, which will be delivered to the address of your choice by a uniformed representative of the US Government.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Endangered by Ann Littlewood


by Ann Littlewood

Giveaway ends July 30, 2012.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Endangered Flies Free!

Yes, Endangered is now Officially Released. I am thrilled, exhausted, slightly delirious.

I've been neglecting this blog in favor of guest blogs. Here's one that went up today, Jenny Milchman's "Made It Moment" blog. I got lots of  those moments!

And heads up--there will be contests to win free books. Watch this blog.

An early reader--Major loved it, I'm told.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Littlewood 1: Facebook 0

I went mano a mano with Facebook and won, sort of. Here's the link to my new Author Page HERE.

Take a look. Leave a comment letting me know what you think. Click the "Like" button please, so I don't feel I've blown an entire evening for nothing.

And why did I bother? So that I could keep you up to date on Endangered, which is garnering some nice reviews and is set to come out about July 10.

More on that soon! Right now, I need an adult beverage.

Not yet an adult, but still....

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Judging the American Cuddle Dog: Clarifications

Dear Readers of This Blog: The following came to my attention recently and should be of interest to many of you.  A. Littlewood

Dear ACD Judges,

The ACD board is hearing way too many complaints about judging at the American Cuddle Dog trials. If we are ever to get the same respect as the agility and herding events, we absolutely have to have consistency in our judging. I know you all do your best to be fair and impartial, but it’s time we upped our game.

The American Cuddle Dog is judged on performance. [This cannot be repeated too often.] Here are the standards with my comments (the ACD board’s comments) in brackets. Read them carefully and follow them to the letter!

1. The show ring is prepared with one sofa per contestant. Dogs enter with their handlers and stand by their assigned sofa. Handlers sit down and wait for the judge’s command “Lap your dog”. [This part is working fine—no problems.]

2. The Cuddle Dog is to wait quietly for the handler’s signal. Eagerness is desirable, but jumping before the command, pawing the sofa, and loud whining are penalized. When the handler signals by voice or hand, the ACD should immediately jump up. [If the ACD needs handler help to get on the sofa, this is permitted, but the handler can’t just haul the ACD up there—the dog has to be trying. Most of you judges understand this.]

On the lap, the Cuddle Dog is judged as follows:

3. The dog’s speed in assuming the “boneless” posture is crucial. The Cuddle Dog may be on its belly or its back—relaxation is the primary criterion. Circling and pawing to improve the lap are penalized.
[Judges, this is a performance competition. One of you recently disqualified a St. Bernard on grounds “he was just too damn big” and another disqualified a greyhound (“all bones and joints”). This is not a conformation class! Any dog can enter!]

4. The Cuddle Dog is judged by its degree of immobility, although gentle nudging of the handler to elicit stroking is permitted.
5. Thermal transfer is evaluated by thermometer inserted at the handler’s thigh. Thermally neutral dogs are disqualified. Warmth is essential to Cuddle Dog performance. [Judges, wait four minutes before the thermometer test.]
6. Flatulence (by the ACD) is cause for immediate disqualification. [Handlers often try to hide this defect. Watch closely for grimacing, blowing, or breathing to the side.]

7. The Cuddle Dog’s coat should be tactically pleasing. [Judges are allowed leeway in this necessarily subjective evaluation, but do not abuse this. An older Golden Retriever, otherwise very well qualified, was rejected for “shedding like Aunt Maggie’s raccoon jacket.” The ACD board will consider whether to declare excessive shedding as a defect, but it is not one now so don’t use it!]

8. Steadiness in the face of distractions is tested by waving ordinary dog kibble 12” from the dog’s nose. The Cuddle Dog should respond by no more than one briefly opened eye. [Judges, You may not use dried liver bits, venison jerky, or decaying chicken bones for this test. There is only so much you can expect of any dog, even a Champion ACD.]

I’m sure we can avoid future brouhahas by consistent judging. Owners of ACD’s are by nature sedentary, peaceful people. As long as they think their dogs are being evaluated fairly, we should see no more acrimonious charges that “only King Charles Spaniels and miniature poodles have a chance,” and so on.

Thank you for your careful attention.
Fannie Sitwell, President, Board of ACD Society

 Champion Littlewood’s Scourge O’Squirrels ‘Murphy’ showing excellent form.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Ashland, Oregon Mystery Author Series

Here's a size-large THANK YOU to Maureen Flanagan, Ed Battistella, Michael Niemann, and Carl Hilton for a blow-out weekend in Ashland, Oregon.

Ashland is a smallish town in a remote corner of a small state. Yet it hosts a fabulous, famous Shakespeare series and--it turns out--a terrific mystery author series. And my very own self was invited as one of this year's Ashland Mystery Readers Group. The kick-off event for the weekend was a reading Friday April 13  at Bookwagon at 6:00 PM.

So off we went, the spousal unit and myself, in the trusty Honda, with suitcases, a projector, and a screen rattling away in the back, in plenty of time to drive the 300 or so miles to Ashland. We made it 15 miles down I-5 and then...

It's run fine for 14 years. Why die now??
But the local Honda dealership saved us with a rental. I told the Ashland folks we left in a '98 Honda CRV and arrived in a 2011 Honda CRV. And best of all, We Were Not Late. Didn't even have to break any speed laws.

Here I am being introduced at Bookwagon by Michael Niemann.
A fine bookstore
My new/used projector worked perfectly and my how-I-came-to-write-zoo-mysteries slide show went over well. We sold all the books and had some great conversations with the people who braved a downpour to show up.

The next day kicked off with my first television experience (not counting watching my son at age 6 on Rambling Rod's set). Maureen, an old hand at this, shepherded me through. I walked into the community access TV lab, and Maureen called to the staff, "Talent on the set!" They all applauded at me. I almost fell over. This was an all-volunteer crew that soldiered through the technical difficulties of brand-new cameras while Michael Niemann, a mystery author himself, and I chatted about southern Africa. Then Michael used his radio experience to conduct an excellent interview (his part, at least). What a great introduction to TV!

Scary new cameras
Prepping the set
Afterward, spouse and I met with old friends who live in the area, wandered the charming streets of downtown Ashland, and watched a fine production of Romeo and Juliet. Doesn't get much better than that! We spent Sunday night at the wonderful Wolf Creek Inn near Grants Pass (a historic inn with genuine bullet holes and great food) and cruised on in to pick up the now-fixed Honda. What a great weekend!

You knew I'd find wildlife somewhere along the way:

Romeo seeks Juliet: object--long walks, conversation, wild sex

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Left Coast Crime

Well lookit thet! I'm on video HERE.

This is from Left Coast Crime mystery conference, held in Sacramento this March. Lorie Ham of Kings River Life stalked the halls, interviewing mystery authors.  Thank you, Lorie!

Always weird to see myself on film/video. Do I sound British? What's with all the head movement? Is it OK???? [spasm of self-consciousnesses] Did you think I was young and blond and gorgeous? Now you know the truth. If only I had a camel to distract you...

Relax! We have other things on our mind.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Sacramento LCC, here I come!

I've packed up my book marks and animal earrings and auction items and I'm ready for Left Coast Crime. Here's a few pictures from last week's trip to Oakland Zoo in lieu of a blog.

A happy Aldabra tortoise

African geese were nesting in the giraffe browse. Fearless!

A giraffe sparred with this eland until the eland tired of it.

Excellent elephant presentation by this docent.
The relatives loved the rides.

They were a little taken aback by this inhospitable emu on the train ride.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Night Kill for 99 Cents

Just  found out today that you can download the e-book version of Night Kill, the first Iris Oakley zoo-dunnit, for a mere 99 cents until the end of the month. Click HERE and go for it.

What's Night Kill all about? Here you go:

The Finley Zoo lions were captive-born; they had never killed. But they knew exactly what to do when drunken zookeeper Rick Douglas fell into their exhibit in the middle of the night. Iris Oakley, Rick’s widow, is devastated that he broke his promise to quit drinking and then died stupid. But questions about his death won't let her move on from grief and anger. Iris realizes she must find out what really happened that night. Friends are as troublesome as suspects--when she can tell them apart--and her career falls off the rails. She loses her coveted position as a feline keeper and her boss wants her gone for good. Iris hangs tough, determined to figure out who fed Rick to the lions and why. Her insider's understanding of wild animals finally points to the truth. Then Iris has to survive to prove it.

She forgot to mention Night Kill has penguins in it.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Now it's even easier

This just in: Bowling for Rhinos got itself a "donate now" button through Crowdrise. Easy-peasy!

Click HERE to deliver one in the eye to those ruthless poachers you keep reading about. The money goes to various aspects of rhino conservation, but a big part of it is invested in rhino patrols. Yes, kiddies, it takes an army to keep rhinos alive. Lewa has about one guard per rhino. Other sanctuaries also have armed rhino patrol units. A dangerous job. Hats off to those guys out there in the bush.

In case you missed it, here's the nifty Bowling for Rhinos video. CLICK HERE for cute rhinos Then go back to that Crowdrise link and help these guys out.

Armed guards at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Kenya
Baby white rhino

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Step up for Rhinos

It's time again for Bowling for Rhinos and the American Association of Zoo Keepers has come out with a video that is--trust me--adorable. Yes, adorable rhinos. Take a look and haul out your credit card. Step up and help a bunch of low-paid, dedicated zoo keepers do what needs to be done. They've gone the extra mile (and then some) and need your help. CLICK HERE

All we need is to be left alone. In today's world, that requires an awful lot of help.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Let's get our smudgy fingers all over every last thing!

Warning! Intemperate rant ahead--level Red

I love Kickstarter, the whole idea of the thing. I love that it's so successful. It warms my heart that folks will just up and invest a little money in a worthy project, usually with no expectation of any personal benefit.

But one project that was funded for 2011 (192 backers, almost $15,000) strikes me as a really bad idea.

These energetic, well-meaning folks have bought themselves an undisturbed island "teeming with wildlife" and they are going to put up a "sustainable" artists' residency. Minimal impact, respectful, protected forever--all good. Well, I've got a better idea for uninhabited islands that have never suffered development.

You guessed it. Leave that island the %$#* ALONE!

Go find yourself another island, one that's already trashed. Plant native trees and grasses, get rid of unneeded asphalt, remove buildings that serve no purpose. Restore it and make it work for you and for wildlife.

But the island that is doing fine without you? Leave it alone--you are way too late to play at pioneer. And if you just can't stop, for pity's sake, quit congratulating yourself for only messing it up a little. Really? And don't give me that crap about how "humans are a part of nature, too." Not since we invented permanent agriculture and not at 7 billion of us.

Look, folks. We all know we've screwed up the planet in a big way. We do it in wholesale swoops, such as clear-cuts and mountaintop removal and carbon dioxide. We do it bit by bit with creeping agriculture and suburbs and roads. The challenge for us is to stop changing natural landscapes to benefit ourselves at the expense of all the other species that use that land. (I'm leaving the oceans out of this for simplicity.) This is the only way WE are going survive--if we leave enough of the planet working the way it did during our whole evolution. You think we can survive without oxygen and clean water and fertile soil?

This self-discipline would be something new to us--individual self-restraint for long-term survival of Homo sapiens and our fellow creatures. That is our challenge. How can we make ourselves draw a line around what we've already damaged, then look inside that line and see how to benefit ourselves there? We need to develop only that which is already damaged and include the possibility of restoring some of it and putting it back outside the line.

Quit kidding yourself that if we take a piece of land and wreck only 90% or even 50% or 25%, we are being responsible and ought to be congratulated.

Sometimes my species makes me want to weep.

Where do you stand on this? Have you got it in you to support that line or does the very idea make you furious?

Legal logging in Oregon
Kenya from the air: roads, agriculture. Forests? Not really.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Wild animal pets: Sometimes a good thing?

Often I'm not at all ambivalent about people acquiring an exotic animal for a pet. A tiger cub, a snake that will grow to 150 pounds and enjoy swallowing your toddler, a lonely parrot, high-strung serval, any  monkey--these are not going to work out well in your backyard or living room.

We can raise a young wild animal to be crazy, but we can't raise it to be domesticated. It took us thousands of years to get dogs and house cats to where they are today. Why would you and an animal only a few generations out of the wild co-exist happily?

I'd like to point out to "animal lovers," in case this isn't obvious, that wild animals deserve a better fate than your average homeowner can provide. Many end up sick or dead due to ignorance of their diet and housing requirements. Or they survive in a cramped environment with no opportunity for their natural behavior--no companionship of their own kind, for one thing. The rescue centers are full of these failures. The media report the more terrible catastrophes.

This is a well-marked trail and those who don't do their research and act on impulse ("It was so cute!" "I rescued it from the pet store!") cause a lot of misery to themselves as well as the animals and possibly their family and neighbors.

But... I waver. I think people need animal contact, especially kids. We benefit from the family dog or cat or parakeets. We value the emotional support, we learn a little biology, we develop a life-long habit of noticing and caring about animals, we are immunized against many prejudices and myths about animals.

Where do wild pets fit into this? If a kid loves snakes or frogs or turtles, should this passion be stopped short of setting up a terrarium in her bedroom for a garter snake or a banana slug? What about raising an orphaned raccoon or crow? (Yes, I know it's illegal.) What about all the small, non-dangerous wild animals that have been bred in captivity for years, the bearded dragons and corn snakes and lovebirds?

I kept a half-dozen pet turtles as a child. My husband fondly remembers walking Chicago streets with a boa around his neck, terrorizing other kids. The library is full of sweet tales about what a tamed wild animal contributed to a family.

Usually this isn't the best life for that wild creature, but there's a trade-off. Perhaps the effect on the pet owner, that emotional and cognitive experience, is to the benefit of other animals and their habitat. The youngster delighting in a special animal is nudged toward a future as a biologist, amateur naturalist, and/or conservationist. We could use a whole lot more of those folks. Is this part of how we grow them?

What do you think? Where do you draw your line in this gray area? Anything goes? Dogs and cats only? Or somewhere in between. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Review: Animals Behaving Badly

While waiting for  my Honda's 120,000 mile servicing, I read Linda Lombardi's Animals Behaving Badly. It's a quick, fun read--humor more than natural history--by a zoo keeper. It's a catalog of examples of animals behaving contrary to the stereotypes people hold about them--behaving very badly indeed. The incidents are pretty funny as well as eye-opening, but perhaps not for the "bunny huggers" who need the illusion that animals are sweet and kind.

She cited a kea parrot in New Zealand who stole a Scottish man's passport, which took a lot of time and money to replace. He is quoted as saying: "My passport is somewhere out there in Fiordland. The kea's probably using it for fraudulent claims or something."

She busts a lot of myths, such as "mated for life," documenting massive infidelity in the bird world, as well as routine infanticide, dolphin rapists, and skilled liars. Some animals love alcohol, others like hallucinogens, some go for narcotics. Unprovoked attacks, theft, bullying--she shows that the natural world is hardly Eden.

Come for the laughs more than the science, but she's got some sensible nuggets in there, too.

"... civilization is the opposite of nature for a reason--we invented it because nature is dangerous. In nature, something is always trying to kill you, because that's basically how the system works."

"...what's the problem with believing that faraway creatures are kind, noble beings frolicking in a land of rainbows and flowers? ... what's wrong is that since we haven't quite  managed to drive all our fellow creatures to extinction yet, people still do run into them from time to time. And believing that nature is benevolent and animals are noble and cuddly is likely to get you into some serious trouble."

Bless her heart, she cites her references at the end.

Link to Amazon
Link to Linda's blog

Disclaimer: Linda's publicist sent me a free copy. I don't know her personally and I wasn't paid for this review.

We're kind and noble. Really. You can trust us.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A writer's cycles

Hello? Are you there? I'm back! My blog has been dead quiet for weeks due to the natural rhythms of a writer's life. Here's how it works:

1. New book is in production. Blogging is fun because there's lots to write about and  time to write it. The manuscript is turned in, the old project is winding down, and attention turns to new ideas and new projects. It's time to take an interest in the outside world, to share, to write something, anything, other than that wretched novel that took up 100% of the brain-space for months.

2. New book comes out. Awk! No more meandering! It's all about promotion. Blogging is now required! Blog about the book, topics related to the book, events past and future to promote the book, kind reviews of the book, national news relevant to the book, how the dog liked the book, etc.

3. Writer settles into a new project. Time again for an outline, research, initial drafts. Can't draft a novel eight hours a day, the brain won't take it. So there's still time and ideas for blogging. Blog about the research, the agony of outlines, the anxiety of pacing, the angst of characters, and, oh, keep on with promoting the most recent book.

4. Yeepers! That new novel is due. Forget blogging. Enter the Blog Cone of Silence. Days, weeks, months go by... Writer might be dead, for all you know. Writer may wish she were dead. Beneath the silent sea, passion, sweat, doubts, and tears heave and roil.

5. Writer turns in manuscript and falls into a sodden heap. Wanders about in a daze. Wonders why mail is stacked up, full of second notices on bills. All the laundry is dirty. Friends and relatives are feeling neglected and are bitter about it. Dog has bonded with spouse exclusively, assuming spouse hasn't moved out and filed papers. Why is there no food in this house?

6. Go to Step 1.

Don't you think you should learn to manage your time better??