One-Minute Book Reviews

August 4, 2009

‘Disappearing Destinations,’ 37 Places to Visit Before THEY Die

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:11 pm
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A book I haven’t read but ecotourists might want to look at: Disappearing Destinations: 37 Places in Peril and What Can Be Done to Help Save Them (Vintage, 400 pp., $15.95, paperback). Kimberly Lisagor and Heather Hansen won the American Society of Journalists and Authors 2009 Outstanding Book Award for general nonfiction for this collection of travel essays on spots that face an arsenal of threats, including logging (Lapland), mining (Appalachia), overdevelopment (the Galápagos), rising waters (the Maldives), and melting permafrost (the Alps). Pico Iyer writes in his foreword that “many of the marvels of our collective inheritance are disappearing, and because of human neglect or corruption or greed,” and Lisagor and Hansen sought out spots that, if unique, represent the dangers facing many other places.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

February 9, 2009

The Little Parrot That Could – Irene M. Pepperberg’s ‘Alex & Me,’ The True Story of a Lovable Bird That Could ‘Say Better’ Than Others

A scholar’s 31-year-experiment in avian learning had spectacular results

Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence — and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process. By Irene M. Pepperberg. Collins, 232 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Copycat titles like Alex & Me usually appear on weak imitations of the books that inspired them – in this case, the bestselling Marley and Me, John Grogan’s memoir of his wayward dog. Not Irene Pepperberg’s true story of her 31 years with an African Grey parrot that, on the evidence of this book, was the Einstein of the bird world.

Like Marley and Me, Alex & Me is an affectionate and entertaining portrait of a larger-than-life creature. But Pepperberg’s memoir is in some ways more interesting because it tells two stories at once.
The first tale involves the life and death of an extraordinary parrot who followed his owner to colleges from Tucson to Boston, where she did research on his ability to learn. Alex could recognize numbers from one to six and and do simple addition. He could identify objects by color, shape and material. He seems to have grasped concepts such as “smaller” and “larger” and the idea of object permanence (that a thing still exists when hidden from view), which children generally acquire during the first year of life.

Alex’s most endearing trait was that he learned to express his wishes in ways that were as forceful as they were colorful. He bombarded Pepperberg’s student assistants with requests: “Want corn … Want nut … Wanna go shoulder … Wanna go gym.” During lab tests, he corrected parrots who responded incorrectly (“You’re wrong”) or answered indistinctly (“Say better”). Yet he seemed to sense when he had gone too far, a realization he expressed by saying “I’m sorry.”

The second story Pepperberg tells – nearly as interesting – involves her efforts, beginning in the 1970s, to be taken seriously by her peers despite two formidable obstacles. First, she was a woman when recruiters still asked female scientists questions such as, “What kind of birth control are you using?” And she was fighting the prevailing scholarly belief that animals were automatons who lacked cognitive abilities.

Pepperberg parries inflammatory topics such as, “Did Alex have language?” and instead speaks of his ability to “label” objects. She also avoids some obvious questions – notably when she tells us that Alex would have an autopsy but not what it revealed about his walnut-sized brain.

Fortunately, it doesn’t matter in the book. Pepperberg writes in a lively, conversational style as engaging as Grogan’s. Yet she provides enough scientific detail to persuade you that something remarkable happened during her work with her adored parrot. Alex’s last words to Pepperberg were, “You be good. I love you.”

Best line: “Alex became quite a fixture at the vets’, talking to everyone who had time to stop and listen. His cage was right next to the accountant’s desk. The night before I was due to take him to Tucson, the accountant had to stay late, working on the books. ‘You want a nut?’ Alex asked her.
“‘No, Alex.’
“He persisted. ‘You want corn?’
“ ‘No, thank you, Alex, I don’t want corn.’
“This went on for a little while, and the accountant did her best to ignore him. Finally, Alex apparently became exasperated and said in a petulant voice, ‘Well, what do you want?’ The accountant cracked up laughing and gave Alex the attention he was demanding.”

Worst line: Pepperberg quotes a Guardian obituary: “Alex, the African Grey parrot who was smarter than the average U.S. president, has died at the relatively tender age of 31.” The evidence in Alex & Me doesn’t support the Guardian‘s claim, so it isn’t clear why it’s quoted. Alex could label numbers up to six. If the Guardian claim were true, the average U.S. president couldn’t tell you the address of the White House.

Sample chapter titles: “Alex’s First Labels,” “Alex Goes High-Tech,” “What Alex Taught Me.”

Published: October 2008

Watch a video of Pepperberg interacting with Alex on the HarperCollins site.

Furthermore: Pepperberg is an associate research professor at Brandeis and teaches animal cognition at Harvard. She also wrote The Alex Studies (Harvard, 2000).

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer.

One-Minute Book Reviews will announced the finalists for the Third Annual Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books on Feb. 26 and the winners on March 15, 2009. To nominate a passage in a book for a bad-writing award, leave a comment or send a message to the e-mail address on the “Contact” page.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 24, 2009

Carin Berger’s Caldecott-Worthy ‘The Little Yellow Leaf’

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:00 pm
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A fable about an oak leaf that doesn’t want to leave its tree

The Little Yellow Leaf. By Carin Berger. Greenwillow, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 2 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Carin Berger first caught my eye when her wonderful pictures nearly stole the show from Jack Prelutsky’s whimsical poems in Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant. Now she’s back with The Little Yellow Leaf, a book that has turned up on many lists of favorites for the Caldecott Medal that the American Library Association will award on Monday to “the most distinguished American picture book for children.” The ALA judges have good reason to consider this lovely fable.

Its plot works well on its own terms. A yellow oak leaf is “not ready” to fall from the tree in autumn and bides its time until early winter, when it finds a scarlet leaf left on the bough and the two agree to leave together. And throughout the book, Berger maintains suspense about how or whether the yellow leaf will leave its perch.

But The Little Yellow Leaf also works a parable about teamwork, or how a friend’s encouragement can make the difference when you’re facing a change. In that sense the book resembles such classics as The Story of Ferdinand and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, which tell good stories that have a second layer of meaning: They are parables about nonviolence and growing old, respectively.

Berger works in her signature mixed media that include exquisite cut-paper collages made from everyday items – a 1914 water bill, graph paper, faded snippets books or articles in several languages. Her most memorable illustration helps to show how the yellow leaf (actually, yellow and tawny) clings to its branch day and night: It’s a two-page image of the sun made from thousands of tiny hand-cut squares and rectangles, each unique, laid out in a parquet design. Such humble materials show the beauty of recycled objects.

Berger also has a fine and subtle sense of color, one of the best I’ve seen in a living picture-book artist. She knows how to infuse a muted palette with drama by using techniques such as shifting perspectives that show her leaf from varied angles and distances. Her work benefits further from two exceptional design elements: an unusual vertical format that suggests the shape of a tree and an extra set of endpapers at the front and back (for a total of four in front and four in back) that trace the path of a leaf in midair and draw your eye into and out of the book.

The Little Yellow Leaf is old-fashioned book in the best sense of that term — meticulously crafted and free of commercial taint — that will compete against flashier books, some of them much less effective, in the Caldecott stakes. So I’d guess that if it wins a 2009 award, it will be an Honor Book citation, not the top prize. And although it isn’t the only medal-worthy book of the year, I’d be delighted if I were proved wrong on Monday.

Best line/picture: “Into the waiting wind they danced … ”

Worst line/picture: “A chill filled the air / and the sun sank slow.”

Recommendation? Apart from its high artistic merits. this book could help children explore their feelings about many events for which with they don’t feel ready, such as the first day of school, preschool, or day care.

Published: August 2008

Furthermore: The Little Yellow Leaf was one of the New York Times’s Best Illustrated Books of the Year. Carin Berger lives in New York City and shows an unusually generous number of illustrations from the book on her Web site.

You can also follow Jan on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 2, 2008

Two Classics of Environmentalism and Nature Writing – Aldo Leopold’s ‘A Sand County Almanac’ and John Muir’s ‘My First Summer in the Sierra’

On Thursday I wrote about 100 One-Night Reads, a collection of 100 essays on short books — a volume I liked partly for its variety. David and John Major don’t pander to book clubs by focusing on recent bestsellers or other popular choices. They cover many kinds of good fiction and nonfiction – travel, humor, science, memoirs, mystery, fantasy, history, public affairs – though they favor 20th century classics.

Here are excepts from their comments on two books that have helped to shaped the modern environmental movement, A Sand County Almanac and My First Summer in the Sierra:

On Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac:

“Aldo Leopold is one of the heroes of modern environmentalism, and A Sand County Almanac is one of the movement’s classics. In the half century since it was published, this book has inspired readers with its impassioned call for radical change in human attitudes toward the planet that sustains us. …

“The first part of the book is the almanac proper: observations from the Leopolds’ family retreat arranged seasonally. The writing here is memorable; many books remain in one’s consciousness only in general terms, but after reading A Sand County Almanac you will find yourself startled by the immediacy of the author’s vision. … a chorus of sound in the middle distance might bring to mind Leopold’s precise comments on ‘the proceedings of the convention in the marsh’ (March) or the virtues of the songs of the more elusive birds (September).

“The second part of the book, ‘Sketches Here and There,’ collects some of Leopold’s essays written about regions in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, describing perspectives and incidents that contributed to the formulation of his mature views.” www.aldoleopold.org/books/Default.asp

On John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra

“After explorations that included a thousand-mile walk to the Gulf Coast, [John Muir] traveled to California, arriving in San Francisco in 1868. In the summer of 1869, he book a job with a rancher acquaintance, overseeing the movement of flocks to mountain pastures.
“As a supervisor of the enterprise, Muir assembled a crew of two – a shepherd named Billy and a borrowed St. Bernard dog, Carlo – to go on the trip. Able to rely on their expert work in dealing with the sheep, Muir found himself with time to indulge his passion for the explorations of nature. My First Summer in the Sierra, based on his contemporary journal (though not published until 1911), is the record of that extraordinary time. Although Muir was in the Sierra that summer for less than four months, we come away from the book feeling that his time there was much longer, and in some sense permanent.”

Read the first chapter of My First Summer in the Sierra at www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/my_first_summer_in_the_sierra/chapter_1.html

To read the review of 100 One-Night Reads, click here www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/10/30/ .

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 25, 2007

Erich Hoyt’s Modern Classic About Killer Whales

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:55 pm
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The true story of an acclaimed writer’s seven summers of living (and sometimes swimming) with orcas in the wild near Vancouver

By Janice Harayda

Many popular books about nature have a problem: They’re weak on science but strong on stories, or they’re strong on science but weak on stories. Erich Hoyt offers a rare blend of scientific authority and deep personal engagement in his modern classic Orca: The Whale Called Killer (Camden House, $12.95). First published 25 years ago by Dutton and still in print, this fascinating book tells the true story of the seven summers its author spent living (and sometimes swimming) with killer whales or orcas in the wild near Vancouver. And while I may be biased because Hoyt is a friend, the praise Orca has received from others is even more extravagant than mine. So instead of writing the usual review, I’d like to quote from some of that praise:

“I have never read a better book about whales …” The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Superb … One of the best nature books of the year.” Publishers Weekly

“One of those rare, genuine books about a wild animal.” Nikolaas “Niko” Tinbergen, co-winner of the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

“Erich Hoyt’s book is a splendid introduction to one of the most fascinating and charismatic animals in the world.” Sir Peter Scott, Founder, World Wildlife Fund

“Packed with action, [this] is the only [book] I have ever read that treats this glamorous sea predator in depth.” Roger Tory Peterson, naturalist and author of the Peterson Field Guides

A senior research fellow of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, Hoyt has won many awards for his science writing. Those honors include the 2002 Outstanding Book of the Year Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors for Creatures of the Deep: In Search of the Sea’s Monsters and the World They Live In (Firefly, $40). School Library Journal called Creatures of the Deep “a splendid overview” of undersea life for adults and high school students, adding: “The photographs, sidebars, and unique life-forms presented offer opportune ways of catching the attention of reluctant readers.” Orca is a similarly good choice for both adults and high school students who like science or real-life adventure stories.

Links: www.erichhoyt.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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