Tuesday, November 28, 2006

on zitting cisticolas & spotted pardalotes

Field guides rank high on my list of life’s excellent things. You can open them anytime & discover a creature new to you; transport yourself to another world by, say, reading about flora typical of wetlands in the Indus valley in Pakistan; or simply confirm the identity of a visitor to your back-yard feeder. And if you’re fond of words, well, there’s an abundant supply of specialized vocabulary & downright good names in books about insects, mushrooms, or tropical fish. All this & plenty of illustrations, too—what’s not to love?

Peterson’s guides have long been the standard, & deservedly so; you can’t go wrong spending part of your paycheck on any volume in that series. The huge popularity of birding means more bookstore shelf space devoted to the subject than ever before, & in the interest of keeping today’s post a manageable size, I’ll mention several notable entrants in the wing & beak category.

National Geographic’s “Field Guide to the Birds of North America” has been the one I reach for most often, & the fifth edition, published earlier this year, contains 967 species. The familiar northern cardinal & American robin are here, of course, but so too is the tawny-shouldered blackbird, an accidental sighted in Key West back in 1936. In other words, if you’ve got out your binoculars in the United States, whatever you encounter is going to be in this book. The plates are lovely—more than once I’ve turned to the index for the name of the artist (Cynthia J. House paints ducks stunningly; H. Douglas Pratt & Diane Pierce are great with songbirds). Indexes of bird families & species on the cover flaps allow you to quickly locate the sections on woodpeckers, hawks, or warblers.

Princeton University Press rocks. I own “Birds of Australia” & “Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania,” but I’d gladly make room for a dozen more titles. While the illustrations may not be as consistently fine as National Geographic’s, nearly a third of “Birds of Australia” is given over to “The Handbook,” highly readable notes on behavior, nests, courtship, breeding, & migration. There you’ll learn that lorikeets have specialized brush-tipped tongues for collecting nectar or see the diving sequence of the azure kingfisher. Australia’s geographic location means it has loads of endemic species (12 types of fairywrens & 41 kinds of honeyeaters alone), which are indicated by an E in the field information opposite the plates. As with the Australian guide, when you flip through “Birds of Kenya” you’ll be treated to a host of avian wonders. Wattle-eyes & batises, leaf-loves & bristlebills, widowbirds & whydahs—no wonder birds find their way into poems so often. I particularly delight in the pages depicting what must be a gerund-crazed species, the cisticola. Besides the singing & the whistling varieties, there are also the trilling, rattling, croaking, winding, siffling, wing-snapping, & zitting cisticolas.

Another Princeton offering is “Finches and Sparrows” (1999), which is concentrated beauty, since it focusses on two of the most colorful & attractive bird families. Every plate is dazzling, &, as is expected from this press, the notes are excellent. Spend an hour of two in the company of red-eared firetails, dusky twinspots, & magpie mannikins—you’ll be glad you did.
Although I tend to prefer guides that feature artists’ renderings, the quality of photography has risen impressively in recent years, & “The Shorebird Guide” (Turtleback, 2006) is astonishing in this regard. Its extensive detailing of the seasonal changes within a species—juvenile, breeding, or molting birds can appear quite different from each other—is essential information, but the full-page portraits that occur throughout the volume are gorgeous. I marvel that we are on the same planet as these birds.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

hommage a tasilo ribischka

New Directions Publishing celebrated its 70th anniversary Tuesday evening at Housing Works Used Books Café in SoHo, & some of the talk centered around whether poet Nathaniel Mackey (“Splay Anthem”) would win a National Book Award the following night. The party was also an occasion to show off a beautifully illustrated tribute to ND Founder James Laughlin, who died in 1997 at the age of 83. “The Way It Wasn’t” is packed with photographs, letters, & ephemera of a man who, at the advice of Ezra Pound, became “something useful”—a publisher. At twenty-two Laughlin started New Directions with funds from his father—the family had made its fortune in steel—and went on to amass a list of some of the most important Modernists as well as brought numerous works in translation to American audiences. Pound, Vladimir Nabokov, Tennessee Williams, Jorge Luis Borges, Djuna Barnes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, William Carlos Williams, Pablo Neruda, Yukio Mishima, Dylan Thomas…the lineup of authors almost defies belief. In addition to its amazing backlist, the small press continues to unearth a host of original voices: W.G. Sebald, Javier Marias, Forrest Gander, Dunya Mikhail, Kamau Brathwaite, Robert Bolano, Susan Howe, & Yoko Tawada, to name a few.

Which brings us to Nathaniel Mackey. “We knew it was a longshot,” recalled Jeffrey Yang, Poetry Editor at ND, “but we also had a slight hope because of the panel.” Several judges were fans of Mackey’s work, he said; still, the National Book Award traditionally has gone to the most famous author in the group of finalists. “Jean Valentine [who won in 2004] was a surprise, but when I look at the list of past winners, it’s all big names.” Nathaniel Mackey is not only not a big name, but, Yang explained, "was unread by most of the poetry establishment, and was for many years published by City Lights and now-defunct Sun & Moon press and belonged to a group of innovative writers who kind of kept each other going—no one like him since maybe William Carlos Williams ever won before."

Yang, Barbara Epler (Editor in Chief at ND), & Mackey rode up the glass elevators in the Marriott Marquis Hotel to last night’s ceremony, described in the New York Times as “a splashy event drawing many of the most prominent names in the book publishing industry.” “We barely knew anyone from the enormous publishing houses,” Yang said, laughing infectiously. In fact, ND usually doesn’t nominate its authors for National Book Awards because of the expense—$250 for the entry fee, & an obligatory $1,000 for publicity if an author is shortlisted. In a world in which independent presses generally struggle to survive, this is one more way in which the scales are weighted in favor of big corporations.

But at this black-tie affair, the little guy would triumph. When Nathaniel Mackey’s name was announced, “Barbara & I jumped up & yelled, ‘Whoooo-hoooo!’ Nate was totally taken aback,” recounted Yang. Those at the Norton table (which the ND people shared, saving on the cost of seats) all stood up applauding, with Adrienne Rich (winner of one of the evening’s two lifetime achievement awards) leading the tribute.

When asked what it will all mean for New Directions, Jeffrey Yang said, “It will affect sales for sure. It will certainly affect Mackey—already people have called requesting interviews. It’s a well-thought-out book, & more people are now going to find out who he is. We’re just so happy.” The press today placed an order for an additional print run of 6,000 copies of “Splay Anthem.”

Friday, November 10, 2006

political turnaround & readers' poll

With Jim Webb’s victory in the Virginia Senate race, the Democratic Party now controls the two houses of Congress. Donald Rumsfeld is gone. Rick Santorum has been soundly spanked. We have a female speaker-elect in Nancy Pelosi & even a Moslem from Minnesota joining the House of Representatives. The loss of Republican power is largely due to voters’ reactions to the violence & mess in Iraq, & I am hoping for an end to the American invasion in the near future. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to change the stark fact of the dead & maimed soldiers sacrificed by both countries.

The war has been the obvious focus of these midterm elections, but one of the most heartening developments reported in today’s New York Times is that Senator Barbara Boxer, a liberal from California, will likely take over the Environment and Public Works Committee, replacing Senator James M. Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), who has denied the existence of global warming. “He thinks global warming is a hoax and I think it is the challenge of our generation,” Boxer was quoted as saying. “We have to move on it.” I couldn’t agree more.

Although I have not read David McCullough’s biography of John Adams (Simon & Schuster, 2001), I’m going to recommend it during these times to anyone interested in a genuine American hero. My dad, who has had his nose in the book for the past week or so, pretty much finds a way to admiringly mention the second President of the United States in every conversation lately, & is indignant that no Washington monument honors the man.

Clearheaded, hardworking, and fluent in French at a time when such an asset was crucial, Adams also had integrity, a quality we almost expect to be missing from present-day politicians (and often find lacking in figures from the past, if we delve deeper than the school textbooks). He tirelessly pushed for the Declaration of Independence when the colonies weren’t ready for it: McCullough writes that “It was John Adams, more than anyone, who had made it happen.” My dad, however, might be more impressed by accounts of less-important events that illustrate Adams’ character, like the time a fire broke out in the Treasury Building & the President immediately ran over & joined the bucket brigade. Or how, unlike materialistic Thomas Jefferson, John Adams was never extravagant. Sunday dinners in Quincy were “plentiful but modest.” Clearly this was not a guy who’d spend $90,000 of state funds on limousine service for his wife if he were alive today. When his presidential term ended, Adams left Washington with no fanfare & took a public stagecoach home to his farm in Massachusetts.

Being able to talk to my family about books is a great & fortunate pleasure—which leads me to pose a question to those of you checking out this blog: do your parents like to read, & if so, what’s on their bookshelves & nightstands? What fiction (or essay, or graphic novel) has your dad or mom mentioned lately? I’d like to hear about it.

Monday, November 06, 2006

the heft of a hardback

Several handsome new volumes of the Everyman's Library are being released in time for the gift-giving season, including collections of Alice Munro, Roald Dahl, & Joan Didion. So either buy one for a friend, or hint without shame about your own wish list. Alice Munro is probably the best short-story writer you're likely to come across, & this month it's a double treat, because "The View from Castle Rock: Stories" (Knopf) hits the shelves tomorrow as well. As for Dahl, I not only loved his children's books, but had a worn copy of his adult tales when I was a kid, & read it more times than I can count. (If he, Edgar Allen Poe, & Paul Auster could have a dinner party together, I'd sure like to hear that conversation.) Publishing Joan Didion's nonfiction in a single volume ("We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction") is a fine idea; it's a book I'd recommend without hesitation. Plus there's that irresistible ribbon bookmark in each Everyman tome. Given that I'm in the mood to reread "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" & am always thinking about California when winter approaches, photographs taken in Los Angeles will illustrate today's entry.
An update on Eden, for those of you who checked the Jonah House site & might not have seen the news in small type: her charges were dismissed last Friday.

Friday, November 03, 2006

book report #1

Last evening Nell Freudenberger returned to Three Lives & Co. (my favorite bookstore on Earth) to read from her new novel, The Dissident. Her debut book, a fine collection of stories called Lucky Girls, immediately established the young writer’s lively intelligence and understated wit, & I am happy to report that her sophomore offering is even better. Freudenberger said she was “glad to have the chance to spend three years with these characters,” as opposed to undertaking the quicker process of composing a short story.

The dissident is Yuan Zhao, an experimental Chinese artist who has accepted a yearlong residency in Los Angeles, where he will teach art to private-school girls & live with a wealthy family whose dysfunction becomes quickly evident. Freudenberger’s skill is that she’s equally at home describing illegal performance art in the hutongs of Beijing as she is revealing the self-aware inner workings of overprivileged yet dissatisfied Americans. I never like being given too much information about a book before reading it myself, so I will limit this to the briefest of summaries—& add that you, too, will be grabbed by the tale. “Just one more chapter,” you’ll promise yourself as the clock approaches two a.m., “I just want to see what happens next.”

You know how, if you run into a friend you haven’t seen for a couple of years, you want to be able to give a compelling answer to “So, what’s new with you?” Well, Nell Freudenberger is the kind of cool girl who can. Since she last visited Three Lives (where, as it happens, she had the first reading of her career), she’s travelled to Asia, won a Whiting Writers’ Award, & started learning Chinese. And, of course, given us The Dissident. Go & get yourself a copy.