Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America by Bob Herbert

Most republicans will not like Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America. Many democrats won't either, as former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, points out many ways in which the elected leaders of our cities, states, and country (of either party) have failed the public by looking after their own interests and that of special interests. He does this through telling stories about the lives of citizens.

Here are issues that Herbert examines in Losing Our Way:

The infrastructure of highways, bridges, rails, electrical grid, etc. is crumbling as elected officials will not raise taxes to pay for the needed work. The short-sightedness of fearing that taxpayers will vote officials out of office for raising taxes is that the projects would create jobs and leave the country better able to support its industry. Everyone would benefit, but our governments large and small are unwilling to invest in the future.

Most educational testing has weakened education, as schools teach to the tests instead of offering broadly-based lessons that teach children to think and prepare them for the future. Magnet schools have often been ineffective, and they fail to bring together the haves and have-nots. Educational corporations lobby for increased testing and against teachers having a say in curriculum. Rupert Murdoch is the big winner in what is often labelled "school reform."

All the wars we have fought since the Vietnam War (including Vietnam) have been against own interest and have destabilized many nations. Many died for no good purpose - a very dangerous thing to say in our for-us-or-against-us culture. Our economy has been drained for useless foreign action that only benefits arms manufacturers and Wall Street.

Wall Street is also behind the increasing gulf between earnings of workers and stock holders. Jobs are eliminated and wages kept low so the rich may reap more and more of the profits. As a result, more and more full time workers go farther and farther into debt, bringing the economy down.

That is just a taste of what Bob Herbert has to say.

When did the country lose its way? Herbert points to President Lyndon Johnson's increasing the troops sent to Vietnam, and he adds Ronald Reagan's campaign to deregulate many industries, especially weakening banking and finance rules.

Bob Herbert thinks that the trend of the last 50 years can be reversed. He points to the success of grass roots action of the Civil Rights and Women's Rights movements. He urges people to get involved at the bottom to take back the country from special interests.

Herbert, Bob. Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America. Doubleday, 2014. 283p. ISBN 9780385528238.

Books on Tape, 2014. 8 compact discs. Approx. 10 1/2 hours. ISBN 9780804193573.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Birding by Impression: A Different Approach to Knowing and Identifying Birds by Kevin T. Karlson and Dale Rosselet

When I attended David Sibley's book signing last year, he said that he looks at shape and listens to songs more than spotting marks and plumage in identifying birds. Sibley and many skilled birders do not have to get long close looks at birds to know what they are. With years of experience, they just know because of bird songs, behaviors, habitats, size, and shape. They often do not even have to see the birds.

New birders may have trouble naming species unless the birds sit still in full view, which they rarely do so. Luckily, novices may learn about expert ID methods by reading the new book Birding by Impression: A Different Approach to Knowing and Identifying Birds by Kevin T. Karlson and Dale Rosselet. In this Peterson Reference Guide, the authors group similar birds and then explain size and shape differences, as well as where to find the birds and important plumage. The new birder then needs much book and field study beyond the book, but a foundation can be laid.

The authors include many illustration, some in quizzes that are fun to take. I scored well on heron-like birds, woodpeckers, jays, and even sparrows. I was weak on shorebirds, flycatchers, and warblers.

Birding by Impression is an excellent choice for public library collections. Birders might like having personal copies, too.

Karlson, Kevin T. and Dale Rosselet. Birding by Impression: A Different Approach to Knowing and Identifying Birds. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. 286p. ISBN 9780547195780.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Biblio Tech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google by John Palfrey

Libraries are often rated as a favorite government service, according to public opinions expressed to pollsters. When queried, people recall the pleasurable and benefit of visiting a library as a child and student. This nostalgia is nice to read but dangerous to rely on for future public support of libraries. According to Digital Public Library chairman John Palfrey, libraries need to stay vital and relevant by transitioning to a digital knowledge base. Why does it matter? The survival of our democracy is at stake.

The way for libraries will not be easy in a society that is increasing ruled by for-profit information services. Google, Amazon, and Apple are dictating how people obtain digital products. Adapting to their protocols and the copyright demands of publishers of digital books has made the library digital makeover difficult to negotiate. Librarians must network and unify to stand with the corporations and their seemingly unlimited reserves of funds and code writers.

Palfrey also calls for libraries to fund their own research and development and spend liberally in staff development. Without such an effort, libraries will be the powerless captive customer of corporate digital vendors. We already see the results of weakness in our schools where librarians and teachers are being fired to let private interests provide information and teaching systems. Democracy begins with good public schools with a tradition for teaching truth and problem solving. Community libraries and those of academia are also on the line.

We are not defeated yet. Palfrey offers a plan for libraries to transition to digital platforms while keeping printed books and public spaces for study and dialogue. I hope his book is widely read soon.

Palfrey, John. Biblio Tech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google. Basic Books, 2015. 280p. ISBN 9780465042999.

Friday, May 15, 2015

A Love Affair with Birds: The Life of Thomas Sadler Roberts by Sue Leaf

When our daughter Laura led us through the Thomas Sadler Roberts Bird Sanctuary just north of Lake Harriet in Minneapolis in the summer of 2013, I had never heard of the nine-year-old boy who moved with his family to Minnesota in 1867 and grew up to be a leading doctor in the city. As a boy, he and his friends wandered the woods and canoed the lakes of the area, noticing the birds, about whom Roberts had learned much from his bird-fancying father. In A Love Affair with Birds: The Life of Thomas Sadler Roberts, Sue Leaf tells how Roberts balanced his dedication to medicine and his patients with his love of birds.

Roberts accomplished much in his life. Before medical school, he worked as a land examiner and civil engineer. Working as a doctor for over half a century, he treated many patients, delivered many babies, helped found the local medical society, and helped build hospitals. As a  ornithologist, he started birding clubs with his friends, led many bird walks, taught ornithology at the University of Minnesota, collected species for the natural history museum on the University campus, served as museum director, and eventually led the effort to build what is now the Bell Museum of Natural History. He may be most remembered for his two-volume The Birds of Minnesota which was published in 1930.

On one level, A Love Affair with Birds can be read as a tribute to an exemplary life. The author, however, offers the reader more than that. Her section on Roberts' medical career serves as a compelling history of health care in Minnesota, spanning the era in which Roberts road a horse to reach his rural patients or sometimes caught a trolley in town to his mature years when he rode with his chauffeur. The growth and development of Minneapolis runs through the story. Readers learn about the planning and building of hospitals and museums. Most of all, Leaf tells the story birds and the birding community of Minnesota.

Having been to Minneapolis over a dozen times now with prospects for many more visits, wanting to see all the Minnesota birds, I enjoyed A Love Affair with Birds immensely.

Leaf, Sue. A Love Affair with Birds: The Life of Thomas Sadler Roberts. University of Minnesota Press, 2013. 271p. ISBN 9780816675647.

Monday, May 11, 2015

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Falconry tests the endurance and sanity of anyone keen to attempt the sport. Author T. H. White was ill-prepared for his first attempt. Over 70 years later, Helen Macdonald was more experienced and realistic when she acquired a goshawk. Still, her experienced included self-doubt and despair, as well as self-discovery, as she recounts in H is for Hawk.

Just as it helps to read Middlemarch by George Eliot before reading My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, having read The Goshawk by White will enrich anyone's reading of Macdonald's book. Thankfully for me, reading H is for Hawk also explained much of what puzzled me about The Goshawk.

Of course, you are more likely to have read Middlemarch than The Goshawk, as Eliot is still fashionable and White is mostly forgotten. He was most popular in the mid-twentieth century when children were reading The Sword in the Stone and their parents were reading The Once and Future King. In the 1960s, his Arthurian tales were source materials for a Disney animated film and the broadway musical Camelot.

Luckily for all, you do not have to have read White's book before reading Macdonald's, as she liberally recounts and quotes sections of it as she describes her experiences with Mabel, a young goshawk that she acquired from a breeder in Ireland and brought to her home near Cambridge to train to hunt. Like White, she take's her bird on walks through field and forest and frets over how much it weighs. For the benefit of good reading, Macdonald did not stick to White's narrative as a template for hers, and her prose flows more pleasingly.

Mead's book My Life in Middlemarch is an easier book to compare with Macdonald's title. Both mix these elements:

  • Memoir of the author
  • Biography of famous author
  • Story of a famous book
  • Observations about English history and culture

To this formula, Macdonald adds a dose of natural history, letting readers know much about hawks and falconry. The result is a great book that keeps the reader engaged.

Now I should try So We Read On by Maureen Corrigan, another book in which a reader recounts her relationship with a book.

Macdonald, Helen. H is for Hawk. Grove Press, 2014. 300p. ISBN 9780802123411.


Friday, May 08, 2015

The Goshawk by T. H. White

In the 1930s, before he became famous for writing The Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King, T. H. White was an impoverished young writer with an interest in falconry. He read numerous classic books on the subject and supposed that he could apply what he learned from them to train a bird of his own. He acquired a goshawk and quickly discovered he was totally unprepared. He recounted the experience in his 1951 book The Goshawk.

Being a writer in search of a topic for a book at the time of his acquiring his bird, White started a journal, which he used for much of the content and structure of this book. Helen Macdonald, author of the recent memoir H is for Hawk, read it as an aspiring young falconer and was upset by it, as were many falconers of 1950s and 1960s. White was roundly criticized for being a know-nothing. Since that time literary critics have reviewed it more favorably, saying that White was courageous for being so honest about his ineptitude. They also argue that his tale contributes to the literature of adversarial relationships between humans and other animals, joining Moby Dick and The Old Man and the Sea.

Ideas about how humans should treat animals have changed since the middle of the 20th century. When I recently read The Goshawk, my sympathies aligned with the bird. White put it through much needless torment, which he seemed to realize as he spent night and day with the goshawk, trying to subdue its will. I wanted the bird to escape. The conflict does resolve about halfway through the book, but readers will find the aftermath just as interesting. It is a good reading choice while waiting for H is for Hawk.

White, T. H. The Goshawk. New York Review Books, 2007, 1951. 215p. ISBN 9781590172490.


Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Cuckoos: Cheating by Nature by Nick Davies

If I wasn't a librarian, I might enjoy being a naturalist. Reading Cuckoos: Cheating by Nature by Nick Davies, I am impressed by the dedication of scientists who spend countless hours outdoors observing the behaviors of birds and other wildlife. Davies has spent over three decades doing such work in the fens outside Cambridge where he is a professor of behavioral ecology. He also takes trips to other sites in England and around the world to observe cuckoos and the birds that they victimize with their egg laying. What an interesting life!

What a strange and hard-to-understand bird! The cuckoo lays its eggs in the nests of other birds, so the foster parents raise the chicks. Is this good parenting? How many of the hosts fall for the deception and raise the cuckoo chicks instead of their own? Davies tries to answer these questions through conducting many experiments in the field. Many involve egg swapping.

Through his own observations and studies of cuckoos conducted over hundreds of years, Davies has come to some conclusions. One is that the host birds are not totally defenseless; they do sometimes reject the cuckoo eggs. Another is that there are numerous subspecies of common cuckoos in Europe that can only be identified by their eggs. One subspecies has eggs that resemble reed warbler eggss, another makes meadow pipit-like eggs, and so on. Their breeding success relies on getting their eggs into the right nests at the right times.

If the cuckoos were invariably successful, they would probably wipe out their host species. Studies show, however, that the common cuckoo is declining in number, as global warming is allowing their target species to nest earlier and earlier, but the cuckoos are returning from their winters in Africa at their tradition times, sometimes too late to lay their eggs unnoticed.

Davies has a fascinating subject and his reporting is lively and personal. Cuckoo should prove popular with natural history readers.

Davies, Nick. Cuckoos: Cheating by Nature. Bloomsbury, 2015. 288p. ISBN 9781620409527.