2005 Reading List

Following the Sandhill Cranes in Colorado by Evelyn Horn
Excerpts from the journal of an experienced birder who follows sandhill cranes from her home base in Hart's Basin to various other points on their migration route. She encounters a wide variety of other bird species in her travels and writes wonderful short essays about each. Fun to dip into but kind of hard to read straight through. Wish she'd written more about her visit to Bosque del Apache.
The Crofter and the Laird by John McPhee
A typical McPhee-style depiction of a small island in the Hebrides, its history, and its current inhabitants. He focuses on a crofter who is eking out his existence in this last outpost of feudalism and on the laird (English of courser) who owns the island. All the island inhabitants are vividly described as is the terrain of the island itself. I almost felt like I'd been visiting Colonsay and talking with Donald Gibbie and Angus the Post and Laird Strathcona myself.
The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh by Chiang Yee
OK. I know I'm addicted to these books. This is gloomier than the others, but then again the subject is Scotland -- land of gloom. Anyway, I loved it.
Those of the Gray Wind: The Sandhill Cranes by Paul Johnsgard
The reader gets to follow the annual migration of the sandhill cranes from the wintering grounds in New Mexico to their breeding grounds in the Arctic and then back again. It cleverly does this in various decades over the past two hundred years to show how humans have encroached on the cranes' ancient cycle.
The Prophet of Dry Hill by David Gessner
David Gessner takes walks with John Hay, the famous Cape Cod nature writer, and comes up with a sort of informal biography. But it's so much more than that. Just reading how awake and attuned to the natural world both these guys are makes me want to go out birding immediately.
The Silent Traveller in Boston by Chiang Yee
OK. I think I'm addicted to these books. Chiang Yee writes with a very strong visual sense, which makes sense because he was an artist, and his observations are quirky and wonderful. While he does fall under the spell of the "quaint New England theme park" image of Boston when he's describing Beacon Hill in the snow, a lot of what he notices, writes about, and paints is the non-theme park reality. My memories of Boston in the 1950s are of course those of a small child, but so much of what he wrote about rang true for me. Most of the "foreign traveller visits Boston" books I've read have been from the 19th and early 20th century -- so it's fun to get the perspective of a mid-20th century visitor. One cool thing that he does is to end each chapter with a poem. Most enjoyable.
The Silent Traveller in Dublin by Chiang Yee
Told ya I was going to read all of them. Quirkier than the San Francisco one. He devotes nearly an entire chapter to trying to make friends with his host's cats, another chapter to a weird dream about ducks and dead frogs, and yet another to why he didn't like/didn't understand Synge's The Playboy of the Western World. I'm lovin' it.
The Silent Traveller in San Francisco by Chiang Yee
Why was I so late in discovering Yee's wonderful series of "Silent Traveller" books? I must now read all of them. Anybody who can visit San Francisco in 1953 and observe that the bison in the Golden Gate Park Zoo look like beatniks -- or the beatniks look like bison -- and get you thinking about it deserves reading. The main reason I picked this up to browse is because of the illustrations -- Yee paints quintessentially California scenes in a Chinese style and makes it work. The reason the book came home with me from Myopic Books is his rhapsodizing over the beauty of Mt. Diablo. Long term readers may remember that the looming dry brown mass of Mt. Diablo symbolized California for me as a child -- summarizing the awful sidewalk-less dry place half of my mother's family moved to in the 1950s. Yee even comments on the sidewalk-lessness of Pittsburg, the town La Madre's sister moved to (the brother moved to S.F. then to Concord then Walnut Creek then back to S.F.). Yee's visits to the SF Bay Area in the 1950s and 1960s encompassed the same Bay Area I saw as a child. Amazing.
Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits by Bill Porter
The renowned translator of Chinese poetry, Red Pine aka Bill Porter, travels the mountains of China looking for authentic old-fashioned Taoist and Buddhist hermits. He finds them. More than you would think. Certainly way more than his teachers in Taiwan told him he would find. The hermit tradition is not extinct. "The mountains are high and the emperor is far away, " as the saying goes. It's a quick read and an engaging travelogue. By the way, Bill Porter is another name for Red Pine (or Red Pine is another name for Bill Porter).
Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
A collection of seventeen short essays on birds -- common, ordinary, even invasive ones. She explores the starling's bad reputation, mating behaviors of woodpeckers (they're not trying to wreck your house, really they're not), the mysterious ways of crows (and why there are so many of them), and stuff like that. A pleasant, not too demanding bedtime read.
The Grail Bird by Tim Gallagher
Gallagher writes beautifully of the search for and rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker and tells a rousing good story. I couldn't put it down. Read this book. Right now.
The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron
OK, so he never actually gets to the Oxus River. It's still a great story. In 1933 Robert Byron left England on a journey through the Middle East to Oxiana--the country of the Oxus River (aka Amu Darya river ) by way of Jerusalem, Baghdad, and Teheran. The Oxus forms part of the border between Afghanistan and the then Soviet Union. Much like nowadays, Afghanistan in 1933 was not your average tourist destination. The Road to Oxiana gives a vivid account of his adventures, an interesting glimpse into how pre-WWII conditions/events prefigured today, and a detailed description of the architectural treasures of a region, especially those in Persia (Iran to us), now inaccessible to most Western travelers. He even mentions a few plant names and beautifully describes a Grey Monitor Lizard as having Chippendale legs.
Rare Bird by Maria Mudd Ruth
Subtitled Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet. This book is a gem. I couldn't put it down. The marbled murrelet is funny seabird that nests deep in old-growth forests -- old growth conifers, how's that for overlapping some of my interests. It is a threatened species, largely because of habitat loss. What's really amazing is that the nesting habits of the marbled murrelet basically weren't known to science until well into the late 20th century. The first accepted record of a nest was in 1974! (Hope I got that right -- memory like a sieve today.) Ms. Ruth tells this extraordinarily well. Her writing is excellent and her mastery of presenting the narrative is wonderful. I found myself asking myself "what will happen next?" right up 'til the end of the book. How the Bush administration can justify delisting the marbled murrlet is beyond me. I sincerely hope it doesn't happen. Ms. Ruth will have to write a sequel to tell us how the case plays out.
The House on Ipswich Marsh by William Sargent
Vivid and well written but stumbles on the facts in a couple of cases that only an Essex County local would probably catch. Unfortunately the glitches distracted me. If the guy is going to go to the trouble to contrast the piping plover chick fledging statistics of Crane's Beach and Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, he ought to at least get the name of the refuge right. It s Parker River Wildlife Refuge, not Plum Island Wildlife Refuge. And for the record, despite Sargent's implication that we don't use predator exclosures at PRNWR, we do -- and the biological staff has modified them to foil predators who started to view the exclosures as plover vending machines. Also, salt marsh hay has been stacked on "hay staddles" for hundreds of years, not in "hay straddles". I blame that one on Microsoft's spellchecker, which disallows staddle, gundalow, salt panne, and a bunch of other perfectly good words. I also blame it on the fact that University Press of New England is located at Dartmouth -- a long, long, way inland from any place their editors might ever have seen a hay staddle. On balance I liked the book, but the errors were really irritating.
Tracking Desire: A Journey after Swallow-tailed Kites by Susan Cerulean
More about the process of writing about swallow-tailed kites than about swallow-tailed kites themselves.
Strong Right Arm: The Story of Mamie "Peanut" Johnson by Michelle Y. Greene
A biography of Mamie "Peanut" Johnson, one of only three women (so far) to play major league baseball. Johnson was a pitcher with the Negro Leagues' Indianapolis Clowns from 1953 to 1955. That's plenty "major league" for me. The book is written for kids in grades 4 thru 7, so was an easy read for this old person. Why, you might ask, did I pick up a book intended for 4th graders? Well, 'cause it's the only book there is about Mamie Johnson! I attended a play at Brown University's Rites and Reasons theater based on her life. Ms. Johnson attended the performance and was visibly moved by it, as was the rest of the audience. The show was called Change-Up and was written and performed by Melodie Thompson. Johnson and Thompson answered audience questions after the performance. Johnson signed books, baseballs, and photos before and after as well. It was a thrill to meet her. I mean this woman pitched against some of the great hitters of all time and she learned her curveball from Satchel Page! So, the book is easy to read and I highly recommend you give it to all the 4th graders in your life, both boys and girls.
At the Turn of the Tide by Richard Perry
Birds of the sea and salt marsh in the UK. Nesting habits, mating behaviors, feeding behaviors, all beautifully observed if a bit overwritten. And he definitely has a major thing for oystercatchers. I started referring to this book as ""The Joy of Oystercatcher Sex".
The King's English by Betsy Burton
All about running an independent bookstore in Salt Lake City. Surprisingly good, with lots of wonderful visting author anecdotes, quirky lists of books, and thoughts and opinions on the soul of the west, the future of books, business partnerships, and much much more.
The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby
Books bought; books read; opinions offered; damn good. And funny too. Worth owning just for the Checkov quote about owning thousands of books being a sign of a cultured person.
How to be a (Bad) Birdwatcher by Simon Barnes
Look out the window. See a bird. Enjoy it. Presto, you are a birdwatcher. And you thought it was all about binoculars and scopes and life lists and rarities... Barnes is a man after my own (bad) birdwatching heart. He'd rather see a great black backed gull, say, here in North America where they live than in the UK where they don't live. A bird lover with the courage to say that what's good for birders isn't necessarily good for the birds. And he says it all with great humor and flair. I laughed the whole way through it. It's short and an easy read too.
The Footprints of the Pheasant in Snow by Alnah James Johnston
Memoir of an English teacher in Beijing in the 1920s. I particularly liked her visits to my old neighborhood in the Western Hills and her trip to Mongolia on horseback.
L'Ile Percée by John M. Clarke
A New York geologist visits the Gaspé Penninsula in the early 20th century. Clarke really makes you see the scenery. I found myself wanting to get a geologist's hammer and go knock Devonian fish fossils out of the rocks!
Birdsong by Don Stap
Stap follows around avian bioacoustics researcher Donald Kroodsma. Stap covers the history of avian bioacoustis and gives us a glimpse into the academic politics and behind the scenes machinations that go into scientific research these days. Reading it has got me even more interested in reading Kroodsma's book, The Singing Life of Birds.Bird song is definitely havibg its 15 minutes of fame.
The Port by Henry Beetle Hough
Novel of quaint Massachusetts seaside town versus out-of-town developers at mid-twentieth century. Old Yankee types drinking and smoking, saving money, and giving the out-of-towners the runaround.
No Man's River by Farley Mowat
Long canoe trips in the far north, lots of caribou. See March 27 entry.
Urgent 2nd Class: Creating Curious Collage, Dubious Documents, and Other Art from Ephemera by Nick Bantock
How he does the things he does and how you can do them too. Visually lush and inspiring.
Cat's Eyewitness by Rita Mae Brown
A good mystery written a little too plainly. The plot makes up for the mediocre writing. Hmm. wonder if Rita Mae Brown and Lillian Jackson Braun could merge and make one cat mystery that had both plot and interesting characters. My weakness for these is inexplicable, so I won't even try an explanation.
The Englishwoman in America by Isabella Bird
The trip to North America in 1853 was Isabella Bird's first of many journeys of exploration. The Englishwoman in America was her first book. The west was wilder then. Niagra Falls was already surrounded by tacky shops selling tacky tourist souvenirs and fake Indian curios -- probably the same fake Indian curios they sell there now. Boston featured streets jammed with vehicles, many booksellers, a rivalry with New York (over whether Mt. Auburn Cemetery is more beautiful than Greenwood Cemetery), traffic jams, brick buildings... the only thing radically different is the elm trees. There were still elm trees then. She met Longfellow. He showed her around Harvard, which she consistently yet inexplicably calls Cambridge University. I'm not doing this justice -- I loved this book. I feel like I was traveling around North America with her.
Parts Unknown by Tim Gallagher
A series of essays about birds. Vivid style makes you feel like you're right there on a cliff face in Iceland or watching a short-billed dowitcher in its cinnamon breeding plumage in Churchill.
The Fellowship of Ghosts: A Journey through the Mountains of Norway by Paul Watkins
Another in the National Geographic Directions Series like Among Flowers, My Famous Evening, and Oliver Sacks' book about fern collecting in Mexico. Watkins has a clarity of style and a knack for narrative that combined with his ability to get at the depth of things make me want to learn to write like him. The first Watkins I read was the novel Calm at Sunset, Calm at Dawn, which I picked up for $5 on the yellow dot table at Jabberwocky. I loved it. Anyway, when I first found out about this National Geographic project of "a collection of literary travel books" written by authors famous in other genres, there were two scenarios I longed for: one was Howard Norman on Nova Scotia and the other was Paul Watkins on a Scandinavian country. So here's the dreamed of "Paul Watkins on a Scandinavian country." Not only that but how could I resist a book about Norway that starts on a fishing boat off Rhode Island. So, about the book, I couldn't put it down. Also, I can't seem to review it properly at the moment, having just finished it seconds ago.
Among Flowers by Jamaica Kincaid
A Vermont gardener, better known as a novelist, goes plant hunting in Nepal with a couple of seed collectors. See January 9 entry. And she lists species names...
The Cat Who Went Bananas by Lillian Jackson Braun
The 27th Cat Who mystery. A pleasant visit with Qwill and the cats and the denizens of Moose County., but not much of a mystery.
The Highland Jaunt: A Study of James Boswell and Samuel Johnson upon their Highland and Hebridean Tour of 1773 by Moray McLaren
McLaren follows in Boswell's footsteps in the 1950s. Includes journal snippets that Boswell left out of the published Tour. Just the thing for when I felt lonesome for Boswell and Johnson after finishing Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
That whale thing... See January 3 entry.
100 Books that have influenced my life || 1998 Reading || 1999 Reading

2000 Reading || 2001 Reading || 2002 Reading || 2003 Reading | 2004 Reading

Who am I? Why am I here? || Journal of a Sabbatical || The Piping Plover Page



Copyright © 2005, Janet I. Egan