Sunday, September 21, 2014

Book review: Every Blade of Grass by Thomas Wharton



It has been a long time since I posted a book review. This brief one is for a novel.


Every Blade of Grass by Thomas Wharton starts with a letter left at the front desk of a hotel in Iceland. The recipient, Martha, is a neophyte journalist from New York and the sender,James, is a young biologist from Vancouver. Very quickly the story progresses as a series of letters back and forth between these two in the pre-internet age.  I had my doubts that this approach would be sustainable for an entire book, but it works, 1) because there are intervals of 3rd person narration, particularly when situations arise for which it is difficult for a character to find words, 2) because of the addition of a 3rd distinct voice, Martha’s cousin, a lively spirit named Nancy, and 3) because many of the letters are almost stand-alone stories as the characters, especially James, travel to all corners of the world—the Arctic,  Antarctica, Amazonia, Indonesia, Nepal, central China... An odd and entertaining cast of characters is introduced in these places, whose words and actions become touchstones for the main characters.

My first misgivings went out the window - the structure is compelling. I always wanted to read the next letter, and then the next one, and then the next... I found myself studying the dates as the years clicked by, remembering what was happening within my own life on those exact days.  You feel your own story growing and changing with those of James and Martha.  Finally, there is a fun back-and-forth as the characters regale each other with odd facts, mostly about natural history.

I read this novel in almost a single sitting, which is something I am rarely able to do.  Many times I waved the book--well, the kindle--at my wife and said, “This book is wonderful.  You have to read it!”

This book is wonderful.  You have to read it!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Smaller, not lesser.

Here's a Lesser Yellowlegs, alone in a big muddy pond. Oh I love him/her.   Has come all this way from the tundra.  The tundra!  And so much farther to go, to the pampas.  The pampas!

(Or maybe not quite there, but close enough and it would be a nice juxtaposition for a social media profile.  You'll find me either in the tundra or the pampas.)


Legging along, with vapour trail.  Lesser like heck.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Hummingbirds in August.

The Rufous Hummingbirds have gone, set off for sunny Latin America.  The stalwart Anna's Hummingbirds remain, happily monopolizing the feeders.  We see a mixture of adults and youngsters, I don't know how many of each.  The youngsters are fun.  When I'm outside reading they hover close to the lenses of my sunglasses trying to figure out what I am.  It's hard not to laugh.


This young one has mastered the long, scritchy song.  See his puffed throat and slightly opened bill?  They often sing when I'm too close to the feeder for their comfort and they feel they have to do something, so land nearby and sing a song of anger or frustration or who knows what.


Adults do that too. I didn't realize they look kind of shabby this time of year, at least their belly feathers.  The gorgets remain pretty decent.


Winding up to take flight.  Reminds me of Totoro.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Bloop.


Last week we went up Cypress Mountain, which is the Mt. Tam of Vancouver.  It was a bright but somewhat hazy/smoky day.



We went on the Yew Lake Trail in Cypress Provincial Park.  It's a short, flat loop that takes you to a pretty little montane lake.  There were a lot of loud people on the trail, but that's what happens in easily accessible spots.  Many people were using those walking poles too.  You can probably pick up a pair at any Pacific Northwest garage sale, lightly used.


The blueberries were out.


Blue poop (bloop).

And many had fulfilled their purpose.

"Dad is taking pictures of poop!"


Here is Mr./Ms./Dr. Bloop, processing more berries. Bloop was completely unconcerned about all the noisy pole-swingy people walking past 25 yards away.  As we stood, watching, we could hear people coming from a  hundred yards in either direction.  Yak yak yak.  Poke poke poke. In addition to swingy poles, some even had silly little bear bells that were no match whatsoever for their outside voices.  Yak yak yak. Poke poke poke. Tinkle.

They would walk past in groups of various sizes, not the least bit curious why we were standing at the edge of the trail, looking into the bush.  As they passed, here's what would happen:

Me, pointing: There's a bear.

Them, pausing: Where?

Me: Over there.

Them:  A bear!  

Then they would experience the flight or smart phone response. Smart phone invariably won, although with difficulty because of the interference of swingy pole wrist loops.

Eventually bear shuffles away.  Find a quiet place to bloop.







Monday, August 11, 2014

Low tide lugworms turtle-floatie horse.

Chariots of Fire Man.

There was an extremely low low tide near noon yesterday at Boundary Bay.  It was one of those days that takes about an hour of walking over sand bars and and wading through dips to get out to the true edge of the water.

But it doesn't take long to discover the lugworms.



This is after all, the Kingdom of the Lugworms, as evidenced by their curlicue poop pagodas and ankle twisting downspout holes.  But for us, we don't feel we've really done the low tide walk until we find the sand dollars, which start about halfway out in the deepest coldest dips.


First you find the bleached white tests of dead ones, but eventually you find the live, spine-covered purply ones.  This is when I extol the wonders of echinoderms and the children walk away.

We did have one new sighting this time, a recently deceased Starry Flounder.


Here is the bottom, or left side.


Here is the top, or right side.  Most are right sided, but some can be left sided. I don't know how that affects their social lives.


Everyone loves low tide walks, but I'm not sure this person with the turtle floatation device realizes how far she'll have to walk to find deep enough water to float.


A woman on horseback went galloping past, leaving the rest of us  wondering whether to be annoyed by a potential breach of beach etiquette, or to be wowed by a galloping horse.  Notice all four hoofs are in the air.

Turtle floatie lady and horse lady.  Never the twain shall meet.


A final view of the Kingdom, with North Shore mountains as a backdrop.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Why I throw books across the room.



I would never burn a book, but I will throw one across the room.

Having spent the first two decades of adulthood reading vast numbers of scientific papers and manuscripts, I have a huge fiction deficit.  During those years I scarcely read fiction at all.  Who had time for that?

But somewhere in my congested head I always knew that you should read fiction, plenty of it.  I understood this while bustling back and forth between the Ramsay Wright Zoological Laboratories and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.  A few times I saw Robertson Davies standing outside Massey College at the corner of Hoskins Ave and Devonshire Place waiting for a cab and I would think, He looks like an interesting old kook.  I should probably read his books.  On the third floor of Ramsay Wright there was a small lab room, really just a prep room between two real lab rooms, with a nameplate on the door, “Prof.  C.E. Atwood.”  C.E. Atwood was a professor emeritus, and I was pretty sure he was the father of Margaret Atwood.  I never met or saw him, but I thought that putting his name on a prep room door instead of a real lab door was kind of disrespectful, and that I should probably read his daughter’s books, or at least skim one.

I have a hard time reading.  I have strabismus, still, after three corrective surgeries (ages 8, 10, 20).  I’m not the wall-eyed confusion you might have met during earlier pre- and inter-op spans, but there’s enough L-R disparity that my eyesight buggers up my ability to look through binoculars or follow a line of text across a page.  In high school, small-print Hardy and Dickens were hell, and I should have been awarded high marks for even finishing those books.  My wife was an English major and at some point I greedily hoarded all her old books when she was about to discard them before a move because it’s so costly to move books.  I shouldn’t have bothered. I doubt I will ever read them.  They contain too many words without enough spaces in between.  But here they are at arm’s length, foxing away.

I no longer need regularly read grim multi-authored papers on the phylogeography of skinks or the evolution and function of the vomeronasal organ.  As much as possible I read single-authored fiction, and am always looking for a writer who suits my needs and limitations.

My main requirement:  Keep it moving.

Please don’t show what a fabulous writer you are by describing something commonplace in excruciatingly clever detail. 

Last night I was reading a novel in which the author spent the equivalent of four pretty pages describing the people at a party—their clothes, their mannerisms, snippets of conversation—meant to illustrate that they were hip, shallow people.  I got it after about four lines, and had to start skimming, searching for something my eyeballs and interest could glom onto.

Perhaps being boring was his way of illustrating how boring the party was, in which case, Success!
 
I would have thrown the book across the room except that I had downloaded it onto my iPad.

Even if I could afford to throw my iPad across the room, the inconvenience in replacing its data would have been much worse than what Elvis went through when he shot TVs.

I learned book throwing from my mother, who would read several novels a week.  Her trigger for throwing a book across the room was when an author described a character having a dream.

Thank god for trade paperbacks.  You can throw them blindly. Hardcovers can mar the drywall or crack a fish tank, so don’t throw them.   Thump them broadside down on the carpet in disgust, then carefully kick them at the baseboard.

But here’s the thing.  I always feel ashamed for losing my temper at a book. I know not everyone wants to write in strabismus-friendly snippets.  Inevitably I pick up the thrown book and repair any damage I have caused to it and put it back on the shelf lying sideways across the other books.  If I have read at least a third of the way through prior to the throwing, I will at a later date, somewhat embarrassed, pick it up, finish reading it, and wedge it in upright among the others with its title and author clearly visible.

I was recently given a Kindle Paperwhite, which is nicer to read from than an iPad but you can’t throw it either, a flaw second only to the fact that it’s too easy to mistake for a coaster.

I don’t like e-readers and will never download an unknown author again. Unless I know I can tolerate an author’s style, I want a book I can throw across the room.

I love fiction.  Please keep it moving.



Saturday, May 10, 2014

Iona's yellowheads.

This week I took a group to Iona Beach Regional Park to see the Yellow-headed Blackbirds.  Usually they are easier to hear than see, only occasionally popping up from the dense vegetation of the marsh,


like this.



Xanthocephalus2

But this time they were right at the parking lot, waiting to greet with their spectacular calls.  There were males and females, and I wasn't able to make sense of exactly what they were doing--although it was, broadly speaking courtship, territoriality and other vernal exuberance-- because I was also herding humans, and there were non-associated naturalist types on site trying to take pictures--and one has to maintain a certain amount of mutual distance or be seen as an oaf.  Birding isn't as simple as many would think.



I followed the flight of a little drab bird to where it landed at the top of a distant tree. I haven't figured out what it was. Almost instantly it was photobombed, then scared away by a pair of yellowheads.   (In the above photo, mystery bird is below the female YH).

The whole point of going there was to see the yellowheads, and having them there right at the beginning of the walk meant that the bar was set pretty high for the rest of the day.