Loving the Alien (or Not)

Spring has sprung. The earth renews itself and the grand cycle of life continues. And, oh yeah, the damn weeds are taking over the yard again. While definitely not rational (nature always wins after all) I’ve always thought there was a certain doomed nobility in taking up arms, in the form of spades and shovels, against the weedy invaders in my yard.

But does my relationship with weeds and other ‘undesirables’ need to be adversarial? Recent books about our relationship with nature have opened up a debate about the whole concept of defining species as desirable or undesirable, native or invasive. Maybe the problem isn’t in the yard, but in my head. Here are three newer titles that explore the line between good and bad in the animal and plant kingdoms.

Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction by Chris Thomas

This provocative work states that the widely accepted idea of human activities causing the destruction of the environment and the loss of species is actually looking at the situation incorrectly. Humans are altering the environment for sure, but, Thomas argues, this new environment actually benefits certain adaptable species. The end result?  More new species will be created than destroyed. The key to his argument lies in examining the animals and plants that are labeled invasive. For the author, these species are simply the ones that successfully exploit the new environment and survive. For Thomas, nature is ultimately more resilient and adaptable than we think.

The Aliens Among Us: How Invasive Species are Transforming the Planet—and Ourselves by Leslie Anthony

Anthony has little sympathy for those who refuse to see invasive species as a threat or who downplay their impact on the environment. Instead, he advocates for a vigorous defense of the native and an eradication of the invasive. To prove his point he goes on the frontline with the scientists and environmentalists battling undesirable species (such as Scotch Broom, Lampreys and Pythons) and celebrates their hard work and dedication to the cause. He also goes into an enlightening history of specific species and how they ended up in the wrong places: the Norway Rat owes its presence in 90 percent of the world to trade by sea for example. This book is an entertaining call to arms.

Where Do Camels Belong: the Story and Science of Invasive Species by Ken Thompson

Thompson argues that the real problem when it comes to invasive vs. native species lies in definitions. As the title suggests, he uses the camel as a prime example. We think of camels as native to the Middle East but in fact they evolved and lived in North America for millions of years, retain their greatest biological diversity in South America, and are currently only ‘wild’ in Australia. So where are they native exactly? He makes a convincing argument using other species as well. In the end he advocates for getting beyond the stark and illogical definitions of native and invasive and simply judging species by their impact on the environment as it currently exists.

So what is a conscientious gardener to do: take up arms against all that is invasive or let nature take its course? We all have to make our own choices, but as for me I choose to play favorites. The native Kinnikinnick is a great ground cover, but once it start encroaching on my beloved, and definitely introduced, Monkey Puzzle Tree the shears are coming out.

Skin Deep

When it comes to animals, everyone loves cute. If you need proof just visit your local zoo. People will be lining up and jostling each other to see the bears, lions, elephants and monkeys but you will have no trouble getting into the reptile house. This phenomenon is reflected in the book world as well. The majority of titles seem to be dedicated to animals we can relate to and that many see as cute or lovable. But there are exceptions. A dedicated few choose to write about, and often champion, the animals that we find odd, frightening and sometimes disturbing. While I would hesitate to call it a trend, I have noticed a number of new books that seek to appreciate the animals many find unlovable. Read on for a few recent examples.

Vulture: the Private Life of an Unloved Bird by Katie Fallon

Often seen in films circling a dead or dying victim and, let’s be honest, not being the most photogenic of birds, vultures are definitely in need of some good PR. Luckily, author Katie Fallon is up to the task. She creates a sense of empathy by following a typical North American turkey vulture throughout the year. Along the way the reader learns of the crucial role turkey vultures play in cleansing the landscape of carrion and the dangerous pathogens such as anthrax, rabies and botulism that carcasses can harbor. You will also come to appreciate the vultures’ keen sense of smell and its ability to soar on six-foot wings for extended periods of time. While few will ever consider the vulture cute, this work will make you appreciate them and reconsider their negative stereotype.

The Secret Life of Flies by Erica McAlister

Getting readers to appreciate a creature that many swat without a moment’s hesitation is a tall order but Erica McAlister manages to do just that. While there is plenty here to make you a tad nauseous, with a whole chapter dedicated to ‘the coprophages,’ you will also learn of the important role flies play in pollination and as a food source. Most importantly, the author realizes that many see those who study flies, a dipterist for those in the know, as rather odd and the flies themselves as, well, pretty disgusting. She counters this with a healthy sense of humor and curious fly related facts: Flies were the first creatures sent into space and are still being studied on the International Space station; vinegar flies enjoy alcohol and when imbibing they become more amorous and less able to choose an appropriate mate; there is such a thing as the The Society for the Study of Flies. In the end, you can’t help but be interested.

Squid Empire: the Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods by Danna Staaf

Perhaps it is the tentacles or maybe the large, sometimes saucer size eyes that put people off, but squid, and cephalopods in general, don’t get a lot of love from humans. But as the bold title of this work implies, squid don’t need your love. You see, they have been around a long time and I mean a long time: before the mammals, before the dinosaurs, and even before the fishes. Sure there are fewer of them around today, but they had a glorious 400 million year run as the ruling class on the planet. Danna Staaf charts their rise, dominance, fall and comeback in this fascinating work with humor and narrative skill. The key to their survival turns out to be an amazing ability to adapt. Starting out in shells, the cephalopods went on to develop tentacles, beaks, ink, and a masterful camouflage ability all to keep one step ahead of the competition. Long live the Empire!

Spineless: the Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone by Juli Berwald

While beautiful when seen floating behind plexiglas in a tank, getting close to a jellyfish in the wild can be a harrowing experience, especially while swimming. In this mixture of scientific inquiry, travelogue, and memoir Juli Berwald examines the prolific and ancient jellyfish and tries to allay some of those fears while describing its role in the ecosystem today. While this book is definitely packed with fascinating jellyfish facts, they are made of 95% water and have barbs that pierce with five million times the acceleration of gravity, it is also about the jellyfish as a bellwether of a changing planet. Their incredible success, with huge ‘blooms’ of billions of jellyfish causing damage to fisheries and infrastructure, says much about the acidification of the oceans and a warming climate. Finally, this book is also a tale of the author’s rediscovery of her love of science, and jellyfish in particular, after raising a family.

Modern Cat Lady 2017 Edition

Well hello there, kittens! With the holidays behind us and that calendar somehow saying “December” it’s the purrfect time to do a wrap-up of the best cat books of 2017! Stick with me like fur to black pants as I jump into the list like a cat into an empty cardboard box.

For all you modern cat ladies out there who can’t have a real live cat of your very own, I have some fantastic news! You can make your own lifelike kitty companion if you follow the steps outlined in Needle Felted Kittens by the amazingly talented Hinali. Okay, so this can be more than a little creepy and the techniques are way beyond my less-than-novice needle felting status. However, I can’t help but be fascinated with the eerily lifelike felines in this book. There are step-by-step instructions for everything from making the right shaped head to adding specific color patterns–the tortoise shell cat is especially adorable–and even advanced posing (a movable head and neck! Oh my). I mean, I would even love just a cat head on its own. Seriously! There are some instructions to teach you the basics of felting, like needle techniques and how to blend different colors of wool. My girl Kathy says this is definitely advanced, but beginners might like to see it as something to aspire to. Also, the author taught herself all this, so there’s hope for us all!

Want to make a cat but lack felting skills? If you can knit you’ll definitely want to check out Knitted Cats & Dogs by Sue Stratford. Yes, yes, there are dogs included. But all modern cat ladies should be secure enough in their cat lady-ness that they won’t balk at a couple of canines peppered throughout the book they’re reading. From fuzzy kittens to gorgeous Siamese and even a super cat–complete with superhero outfit, eye mask, and cape–you’re sure to find your next fun knitting project in these pages.

 

For a more sophisticated look at our feline friends, there’s no better place to start than Desmond Morris’s Cats in Art. This book is organized by time period, starting with prehistoric depictions of cats on cave walls in France and continuing through Warren Kimble and beyond. All but two of the 137 illustrations are in full color, which really brings the cats to life. Don’t miss the hidden gem at the back of the book: a three page bibliography full of sources of more kitty information.

 

If quirky is more your speed, you’ll want to pick up Crafting for Cat Ladies by Kat Roberts (OMG even the author’s name is on point!). Inside you’ll find thirty-five different projects using a variety of mediums and techniques. From party bunting to a clay jewelry tray, storage bins (with whiskers, so adorable!) to paw print stamps and bracelets–there really is something for everyone in here. The skill level seems to be low to medium, so for the crafty cat ladies with more enthusiasm than experience, this is the book for us.

Next I’ll briefly list some of the more traditional cat books that published this year. Jackson Galaxy has a new book out with Mikel Delgado, PhD (another cat-named author! How cool!) called Total Cat Mojo: the Ultimate Guide to Life with Your Cat. It covers the basics of cat ownership, as well as techniques for dealing with common kitty-human conflicts like biting and scratching. The Inner Life of Cats by Thomas McNamee also digs into the thoughts and psyche of our cat BFFs. The History of Cats in 101 Objects shows the direct influence cats have had over us (and vice versa) in some truly unexpected ways.

Poetry has been having a modern renaissance lately and I was delighted to find a book of poems focused solely on our relationships with our pets. Reading Darling, I Love You: Poems from the Hearts of our Glorious Mutts and All Our Animal Friends by Daniel Ladinsky and written by Patrick McDonnell is guaranteed to give you the warm fuzzies and maybe even shed a tear or two. This one gets me misty-eyed every time:

 

Gratias:
Food in my bowl
caring sounds
gentle hands

no longer alone
on the street weeping
at times

if you see me
kneeling in
prayer,

repeating
for
days

gratias
gratias, gratias
gratias

never
wonder
why

I’m not crying; you’re crying!

Okay, let’s pep ourselves back up with some fun books about real-life cats who have lived extraordinary lives in one way or another. Bolt and Keel by Kayleen VanderRee & Danielle Gumbley is based on the Instagram account of the same name. Follow these rescue cats as they go on outdoor adventures with their owner in the Pacific Northwest. Bookstore Cats by Brandon Schultz has the absolute best opening line in the introduction: “Confession: I’m a crazy cat person.” Do you really need to know anything other than that?! If cats living in bookstores aren’t quite enough awesomeness for you, check out Distillery Cats by Brad Thomas Parsons. In addition to all the cool cats between these pages, Parsons includes some cocktail recipes, too. Disclaimer: I’m fairly certain all cats survive to the ends of these books, but please read with caution. Nothing makes me sadder than reading about an amazing animal only to have to grieve for them at the end.

And last by not least is my favorite combination of practical nonfiction with an extremely humorous slant. If you’ve ever been accused of equating cat ladyship with being in a cult or religion, I can definitely relate. Some things are just different for us, you know? Thankfully the genius Jeff Lazarus has written Catakism: Bow to the Meow. It’s a funny take on how obsessed we humans can be with cats. While the photographs are downright hilarious and the text can be tongue-in-cheek, don’t miss the actual good advice inside. Covering cat pregnancy and kitten weaning as well as advice for human relationships when one person is pro-cat and the other is…not? Is that A Thing? I suppose I’m lucky I married a modern cat sir, but it’s good to know there’s help out there for those who want to make it work with someone who really isn’t as into cats as you are.

Those were my favorites, but of course there are so many more gems waiting for you to discover them in the stacks. Start at 636.8 (cats as pets) and go from there. And who knows? Maybe someday soon you’ll look like this:

Did You Know? (Bat Edition)

That the bumblebee bat is the world’s smallest mammal?

I found this information on page 175 in the book The Secret Lives of Bats by Merlin Tuttle. The name bumblebee bat is actually a nickname for the Kitti’s hog nosed bat from Myanmar (Burma). It was discovered in 1973-74 and weighs a third less than a United States penny! These bats are only about an inch long.

Bats by Phil Richardson tells about bats’ lifestyles and life cycles. He explains about the different classes of bats and that the Kitti’s hog nosed bat is considered one of the 930 species of ‘microbats.’ This book has excellent photos of many bats. The children’s book Bat Watching by Diane Bair and Pamela Wright has helpful information about removing bats from buildings and where to look for them for viewing. The Magic School Bus DVD has a ‘Going Batty’ episode where you really learn what it is like to be a bat: how they see with sonar, what they eat, and how they take care of their young.

On the other end of the spectrum is the world’s largest (baseball) bat. 1,000 Places to See Before you Die by Patricia Schultz shows the huge baseball bat outside of the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory in Louisville, Kentucky. I’m sure it will be much easier to see than the bumblebee bat, plus you won’t have to travel as far!

Smithsonian Baseball Treasures by Stephen Wong has a very interesting history of baseball bats and other items. For example, in 1885 a flat bat was used to aid in batting techniques like bunting. There is a great photo of Babe Ruth kissing his bats before the start of the World Series September 29, 1926. Combining both kinds of bats is Bats at the Ballgame by Brian Lies.

Lastly, baseball has a bat boy (or girl), but the world of super heroes has Batman! Here at the library we have The Batman Strikes, Going… Batty! by Bill Matheny. In this exciting graphic novel Batman fights a bad guy that turns into a bat.

Listening in the Rain

Looking up at the sky it is hard to deny that fall has arrived. While those who worship the sun may start to mourn, and those who secretly welcome the return of the big dark rejoice, one thing is certain: yard work abounds. The no longer dormant grass is making a comeback, trees and bushes are in need of trimming, and the weeds just keep coming. For me, one of the side benefits of spending all that time in the yard maintaining order is the added hours I have for listening to audiobooks. The only downside is that if the audiobook is really good, I find myself getting drenched as I stubbornly refuse to come in from the rain since I have to know what happens next.

The library still has a fine collection of audiobooks on CD, but I’ve been getting into the digital eAudiobooks lately. Basically it comes down to ease of use, a.k.a I’m lazy. The idea of actually having to put in another CD to continue listing seems like way too much work. This from a man who used to happily flip audio cassettes in his Walkman back in the day. I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that the process for downloading eAudiobooks from the library has actually gotten much easier. Both cloudLibrary and OverDrive have apps that are pretty simple to download to your device. I usually use my phone to listen and I’ve found that OverDrive’s new Libby app works quite well.

So if you want to take the plunge and start listening to eAudiobooks, here are four that I have enjoyed and are well worth your listening time:

Malice by Keigo Higashino
While showing clear influences of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, featuring an impossible to explain murder of a man in a locked room no less, this mystery is in a class by itself. The how of the crime is important, but the why is what really piques the listener’s interest. It is essentially a game of cat and mouse between the suspect, author Osamu Nonoguchi, and intrepid police detective Kyochiro Kaga. The story is told from both men’s perspective and the narrator, Jeff Woodman, expertly gives each character a distinctive voice and tone.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
Jason Dessen is content with his seemingly average life as a husband, father and physics professor at a small college in Chicago. One night he is kidnapped and drugged by a mysterious individual. He wakes up to find himself in a place that is familiar but just not quite right. Thus begins a long strange trip into the quantum multiverse, with alternative versions of the present and all that could have been. The one constant is Jason’s desperate attempt to get back to the wife and child he loves. The story is expertly narrated in a style akin to a film noir voiceover by Jon Lindstrom who draws you into the story and keeps you grounded.

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean
While a book describing the elements of the periodical table might seem off-putting to some, you would be making a mistake to dismiss this work as a dry academic tome. Instead it is a series of curious, exciting and dangerous tales of the elements and those who discovered them. Give this eAudio a listen and you will hear stories about the manic quest for absolute zero, the dangerous fashion for ingesting mercury capsules, and why Godzilla was vanquished by a cadmium tipped missile. The narrator, Sean Runnette, brings all this rich scientific history to life with impeccable pronunciation and a nice dollop of irony.

The Boy on the Bridge by M.R. Carey
Set in the same dystopian future as The Girl With All the Gifts, where a mutant fungus has turned most of the population of the United Kingdom into ‘hungries’, this novel is a prequel of sorts. It follows the trials and tribulations of the crew of the Rosalind Franklin, a mobile research vehicle, whose mission is to try to find a vaccine or cure for the dreaded disease plaguing humanity. While the plot may seem somewhat familiar, it is the character development that really stands out in this series. Each character is well crafted to the point where you actually care if a bite gets taken out of them. Finty Williams’ narration brings the characters to life (with their varying accents, ages and genders) and makes this work a great listening experience.

So in the brief periods between rain showers, get out there and weed with a good eAudio book. Don’t be surprised if you end up getting wet though.

Did You Know? (Woodpecker Edition)

That a woodpecker’s ‘tongue’ wraps around its brain to act as a shock absorber when it pecks on trees?

I found this information on page 16 in the book Woodpeckers of the World by Gerard Gorman. Technically, it is the cartilage and bones inside the tongue called the hyoid and an inwardly curved maxilla (an overhang of spongy tissue) that functions as a shock absorber. Their skulls can experience shocks of 1200 G (force of gravity), whereas a human is typically concussed at 100 G or below! This book shows all the species of woodpeckers and their habitats. There are a great many species located here in the Northwest.

Imperial Dreams by Tim Gallagher and The Race to Save the Lord God Bird by Phillip Hoose are about the Imperial and the Ivory Billed woodpeckers which are both endangered and/or presumed already extinct. There have been rumors of sightings, but nothing has been documented. You could join the birdwatchers trying to catch a glimpse of these giant birds…. and be famous if you got a photo!

We have The Russian Woodpecker on DVD. It’s a film by Chad Gracia who follows eccentric artist Fedor Alexandrovich. Alexandrovich reveals to the world an enormous secret weapon, suspected to be for mind control, that stands in the shadow of Chernobyl and makes a woodpecker type noise on a specific radio frequency heard all over the world…. After going on for years, the noise had stopped right after the Chernobyl accident, but is now back on the air! Fedor’s conspiracy theory is that the reactor was deliberately destroyed as a grand cover up because the ‘woodpecker’ was supposed to be inspected by the Russian government the next month, and it would have failed.

Finally, growing up, we always looked forward to watching cartoons. Woody Woodpecker was always one of my personal favorites. We have Woody Woodpecker and Friends Holiday Favorites on DVD so you can remember just what a character he was and introduce him to your family.

Did You Know? (Lobster Edition)

That in 1880s Massachusetts servants went on strike so they wouldn’t have to eat lobster more than 3 times a week?

I found this information on page 215 in the book Good Eats, the Early Years by Alton Brown. This book is based on his TV series that explains the science of different foods, with lots of tidbits and trivia facts. Alton also gives very good instructions for preparing and cutting up a lobster, as well as a recipe for Stuffed Lobster.

The New York Times Seafood Cookbook edited by Florence Fabricant has many lobster recipes. I actually can’t wait to try my hand at making the Lobster Thermidor or risotto. For those of you who don’t have the opportunity to get or use fresh lobster, 200 Best Canned Fish & Seafood Recipes by Susan Sampson has recipes for Lobster Newberg, Lobster in Américaine Sauce and Shortcut Lobster Thermidor.

We mainly think of lobsters as an expensive delicacy but, back in the day, they were plentiful and cheap. As yummy as any one food can be, too much of a good thing can be very tiresome. Craving: Why We Can’t Seem To get Enough by Omar Manejwala, M.D. explains the science of why we crave certain things. Let’s just say it has a lot to do with neurotransmitters, serotonin, enkephalins, and norepinephrine. The author has lots of advice on how to break the cycles of addiction and craving.

Lobsters are crustaceans that belong to the larger family of arthropods. There are more than a million species of animals, and 3/4 of them are arthropods. Lobsters and other Crustaceans is a good book from the World Book’s ‘Animals of the World’ series. This children’s book explains all about lobsters being decapods (10 legs), their exoskeletons, molting, breeding and almost everything else you ever wanted to know about them! Animals Without Backbones by Ralph Buchsbaum gives even more details about these fascinating creatures.

And lastly, The Lobster is a funny movie about finding love… The story centers on David, as he searches for love at an exclusive resort. But, there’s a catch: you have 45 days to find love or you will be turned into an animal of your choosing!