Book Report: Darwin Comes to Town

This month’s book club book is so sad I had to take a long break from it, and discovering this book made that WAY easier. I think I just spotted Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution, by Menno Schilthuizen in the new nature books section on Amazon. I loved the cover and was really intrigued by the subject matter: how life evolves in the world’s urban enclaves.

Schilthuizen, a naturalist in the Netherlands and author of many articles in popular science publications, writes really clearly without “dumbing down” the science behind what he talks about. I think his reminder that evolution is not just something that goes on in the forests, oceans, and hidden jungles; it’s going on right under our noses.

I love the cover art.
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People and Dogs: Doing Some Reading

I’m very thankful that I have some brilliant people among my Facebook friends and that many of them share what they’ve been reading. In the past couple of days, I’ve read and shared a few articles that I want to talk about today. You might like them, too.

Dogs

One article was on how we treat dogs we don’t know. Debby McMullen wrote this article on the Positively dog training blog. It’s called Consent: Not Just for People, and I really like how the author puts us in a dog’s position to see how the way we treat dogs might appear to them.

Maybe I want to approach you on MY terms!

Nowadays, the topic of consenting to be touched or approached is popular when talking about people. But, hey, a lot dogs aren’t just sitting around hoping to be bopped on the head by random strangers, either.

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I Deserve an Award

I don’t look thrilled to be a statue.

This whole unpacking of boxes in the garage and general removing unnecessary stuff from my house thing is not becoming easier for me. However, I am still doing it! Yes! And that’s why I honestly think someone should give me a gold star or something. So, I made myself an award on Bitmoji. I’m very proud of this award.

What keeps me going?

Certainly the lifting of heavy boxes of books and empty CD cases (Lee’s) is not a motivating factor. The heat isn’t helping (though it isn’t bad in the garage). Yeah, having more space in the garage is nice, but the real thrill is…

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Book Report: A Place for Us

Our little neighborhood book group met last night to discuss A Place for Us, by Fatima Farheen Mirza. This is her first novel, which makes it an even more amazing book. I’m glad we chose it! And look, a convenient way to buy it:

This month, we met at Maria’s house. We all enjoy inspecting each other’s houses for cuteness and signs of the owners’ personalities. I was most impressed that the house was mostly white, even though she has two small children. Many of us unwittingly dressed with a white theme, which made things even more festive than usual.

Anita, me, Gay, and Ruth in our white. I like how the extra cool light fixture looks like we have a halo. And what a nice bra strap I’m showing.

Another fun part of the evening that had nothing to do with the book was that we had a new member, Marilyn, who has just moved here from England. Her perspective was really welcome in the discussion of sibling issues, and she fit in so well!

I just had to stick in another picture. I wish I’d gotten one of Marilyn, though! This one adds Angela on the left and another Ruth on the right.

The discussion this month went a little more smoothly, because those of us who need a rational discussion made the effort to come up with a few discussion questions, and I brought a “talking stick,” which was actually a magnifying glass with a deerskin cover. It looks sort of like a microphone, so people kept saying, “Is this thing on?” and talking into it, like it was going to help.

Maria shares deep thoughts with the talking stick.

It did help us keep side conversations down to pretty much zero (that had been the issue last month; everyone talking at once about their own personal topics). When people spoke without the talking stick, the comments were all brief and in support of the main speaker. So, I got a lot more out of our thoughts and feelings on the book. Yay! (And later we got to just do chit-chat and neighborly support.)

Actual Book Report

As for the book, I enjoyed it so much that I took my time reading it, bit by bit, until I had to finish it for the meeting. There are actually a few really different reasons to love A Place for Us. And to me, they are equally important, so I had trouble deciding what to talk about first.

I’ve always been drawn to books about other cultures. I think it’s a great way to learn about how people live in the rest of the world AND enjoy a good story. I loved Maeve Binchy’s Ireland, Amy Tan’s Chinese-American families, and more. With my background in linguistics, I also have fun with learning politeness phrases and common terms in other languages.

This book had all that and more! While I’ve read lots of books about Muslims, most have been about Arab cultures, women in harems, and that kind of Islamic life. This book elegantly weaves normal day-to-day life for a normal Indian/Muslim family living in the US in among the story telling and life lessons.

I was especially pleased at how well Mirza included bits about the spiritual practices of each member of the novel’s family. If you aren’t familiar with the wide variety of practices in Islam (all with a common core) you might feel much more comfortable with Islam when you see how each person chooses what is meaningful to him or her, and the beauty they see in verses, prayers and teachings, just like so many Christians and Jews practice differently.

The story-telling is another thing I just couldn’t get enough of. I’ve always liked novels that present events and ideas from more than one character’s perspective. You really get to know Haida’s family (she’s the main character until a sudden shift in Part 4 of the book), their dynamics, and their virtues and frailties. I had a great time teasing out why each person acted the way they did, and realizing how small things can send a life in unexpected directions.

You pretty much end up liking everyone you encounter in the California community of Urdu speakers, because they seem so human. I drew a lot of comfort seeing how people can learn from their mistakes.

Speaking of family dynamics, here’s Maria’s family as Buddhas with succulents in their heads. Hmm

Our book club talked a lot about the family dynamics, and I enjoyed that older siblings sympathized with Hadia, middle children thought the middle daughter, Huda, got the short shrift, and younger ones had so much sympathy for how the younger brother dealt with what life handed to him.

I do look forward to more books from Mirza. She was born in the same year as my oldest son. Wow. I’ll stop before I give away a lot of plot, but one insight I had was that this actually was a mystery book, only it wasn’t a “who done it” but rather was a “why did they do it?” mystery.

Gone Viral? With Dignity, of Course!

Here’s a nice story! Yesterday, I was checking my blog statistics, like I do once or twice a day to see what posts go over well, and I noticed a big spike in hits. What? And wait, they are all coming from Twitter? Why are they all linked to my book review of Dignity (which I still can’t stop talking about).

Usually Facebook is way more than Twitter.

At most I usually get 3-4 hits from my Twitter posts every day. Part of that is because I don’t think all the posts get shared to Twitter, and part of that is that most of my friends and family are on Facebook and access it there. That’s fine, because I write this for friends and family, not to share my brilliant thoughts with the world (first, I’d have to HAVE a brilliant thought).

One of these days looks very different from the others.
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Book Review: Dignity

Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America, by Chris Arnade, may not be the most well-crafted book I ever read, but it made a huge impact on me, and I am very grateful to have had the chance to read it. It helped me understand some of the issues in Cameron as well as why some of the things the movers and shakers are trying don’t really work.

I have a suspicion that my friends, family, and coworkers will be very glad when I write up this review, so I’ll stop summarizing the book and explaining what it says. I’m just so glad that I had some of my prejudices and misconceptions ripped away and have at least a bit more understanding of a subset of American society that I once had some strong biases against: the people in small towns or impoverished neighborhoods.

So, all about Dignity

The photographs in the book are very moving. They are of real people in their real surroundings.

Arnade calls people like me “front row people,” which are people who by luck of their birth have had all the opportunities available to be able to do what counts as “success” in the US: advanced degrees, home ownership, a job that uses the brain, not the body to earn a living. They have a front row seat at all the possible things the society values. He calls people who live in towns where all the employers are gone, where many people use drugs or alcohol to get through the day, and who use their bodies to work, when there is work, back row people. Always having trouble getting ahead, behind on opportunities, etc. *

It impressed me that Arnade, who was a Wall Street stockbroker, and therefore way in the front row, got curious about the lives of people near him who didn’t have the same opportunities he did. He spent three years getting to know a community in Brooklyn, then visited places across the US to learn how they get where they are and why they stay.

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Book Report: The Secret Wisdom of Nature

Yay! It’s time for another naturalist-centered book report. This book, which IS about the entire earth, has the extra-lengthy title of:

The Secret Wisdom of Nature: Trees, Animals, and the Extraordinary Balance of All Living Things – Stories from Science and Observation

Buy it here!

It’s by Peter Wohlleben, the German forester who wrote The Inner Life of Animals, which I reviewed recently. It’s the third volume in a trilogy that started with The Hidden Life of Trees, which I promise to finish and review, too.

You’ve just got to like Wohlleben, because he does not give a hoot if others think his ideas are not quite “scientific” enough or if he’s personifying non-human entities. Nope, he just calls things as he sees them, and seeing is his specialty. He doesn’t just look around his forest or anywhere else he visits, he carefully observes from the macro level to the micro level, and from the far past to the present. He doesn’t hesitate to ponder about the future, either. To me, this is the kind of teacher we all need, because he inspires all his readers to think beyond stereotypes and actually pay attention to what’s going on in front of them.

All the scientists out there will also appreciate that he backs up his observations with recent scholarship and provides us with a hefty bibliography for further exploration.

Why is this important?

As I was reading this book, I began to get a sinking feeling of concern. Wohlleben chronicles all sorts of ways humans have interfered with the interconnected web of life on this planet, and how the consequences are very far reaching. Changing the types of trees in European forests meant some organisms had nowhere to live, while others could march in and find new homes (or eat new things). Not having enough shade in the forest also meant huge differences.

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Book Report: The Biohistory of Alachua County, Florida

Note: this post is about the history of a single county in north Florida. I am quite aware that there were civilizations, settlements, and migrations throughout North America long before events I talk about here. In fact, my own ancestors were in Florida long, long before Alachua County was settled.

While we were visiting Gainesville, the county seat of Alachua County, Florida, I bought this slim book (published in 2015), mainly because I wanted to know what a “biohistory” was. The subtitle of this little gem, which was written by Francis William (Bill) Zettler, is “The story of life in north central Florida through the ages.” It turns out the book is based on a popular class Zettler taught for many years at the University of Florida.

I had to take a photo of the book, since I couldn’t find a nice image.

He uses the term “biohistory” to refer to his method of presenting the biological features of the area in chronological order. It turns out to be very enlightening and makes me want to read a biohistory of other areas where I’ve lived.

One thing that helped keep the book short is that Florida was underwater a long time, so there were no dinosaurs to talk about. It also helped that Florida was hard to get to, so animals, as well as humans, took their time showing up once the land mass revealed itself. I’d never thought of that!

But eventually there were lots of giant mammals (megafauna), like huge sloths, beavers, mammoths, and shovel-toothed elephants (cool). They did fine until the humans finally showed up and killed them all pretty quickly, leaving only animals we see today (deer and such). There were also camellids and different kinds of horses, which all escaped to live in Asia and South America.

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Book Report: Educated: A Memoir

Here’s the book. Buy it if you want to read it!

I’ve just plowed through the latest North Cat Villas book club selection in record time. If there’s one thing I can say about this book, it’s that you have a hard time putting down Educated: a Memoir, by Tara Westover.

Anita and I were just discussing the cover, and we decided it’s a winner. I feel a bit silly that I didn’t realize the pencil is a picture of a girl on a mountain (the mountain is my favorite character in the book, too!). I enjoyed a story about what meetings about book covers were like when she worked in publishing. That pencil should be yellow! People expect a yellow pencil! No one will understand that woman (or see it)! Etc. We are glad the cover artist got their design through.

Note: I am going to share some details about the events in the book, so skip if you don’t want spoilers. But I honestly don’t think knowing any of this would detract from enjoying Educated.

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Book Report: The Inner Life of Animals

Back to my old habits of reading nonfiction about nature, I just finished this book: The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief, and Compassion―Surprising Observations of a Hidden World, by Peter Wohlleben. The author is a caretaker for a forest in Germany, which gives him lots of time to observe the habits of the animals and plants he encounters there. He’s also the author of The HIdden Life of Trees, which has amazing information about how trees feel, communicate, and more. There’s a third volume in the series coming out soon, too.

The author and his goats

You’ll either love Wohlleben’s approach to observing the feelings, morals, and behaviors of animals or be a little uncomfortable with it. He uses a lot of scientific evidence to back up his claims (the footnotes are a book unto themselves), but there’s plenty of gut feelings and assertions that an animal felt this way or that way, because it just looked like it to him.

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