Month: November 2022

Island Biogeography in An Age of Extinctions

by David Quammen

This is a hefty doorstopper of a book that I’d given up on twice before- my last attempt I remember putting it aside thinking it was a pretentious slog. Now I wonder what was I thinking? So glad I reshelved it. Now it feels vivid and lively (as lively as a science book can get while still being very serious). All the asides felt relevant, the dashes of humor actually made me laugh, and the personal stories about the author’s travels to do research or view the animals in question, were a delight to read. It took me about three weeks to get through, reading off and on since I started the latest Maugham collection and then a dozen more. It’s dense material, but also so intriguing, the kind that stretches your brain and fills you with both wonder and gloom (at the end).

Song of the Dodo is about (as it neatly states on the cover) island biogeography- a discipline of study that examines why certain animal species are only found on certain islands. Quammen goes into this in meticulous detail. From the very beginnings of island discoveries, when Darwin and Wallace were figuring out that evolution was real, through later scientists who put together how it actually works, and then the people who studied the flip side of that phenomenon- extinctions. There’s so much in here I hardly know how to tell you about it all- and it’s written so well, crafted so methodically, it all makes sense in a way that fills you with dread. This book is very firmly alongside The Ancestor’s Tale in my mind, with how clearly it helps me understand things. How things fit together. How incredibly complex the nautral world is, and how dismaying that just as we are beginning to understand its complexity, it’s starting to fall apart. Because of us.

The book looks at islands. How islands are populated by plants and animals, why those isolated animals take such strange forms. How other species arrive and fit in. Why some animals become smaller on islands than their mainland counterparts (or larger), loose certain abilities (like flight) and so on. Why their existence can be so precarious. What the tipping points are for them to disappear- and it’s not the same in every case, though many things are now measurable. Minimal population size to keep a healthy gene pool, distance between isolated groups that still allows for animals to move between, how environmental changes or disease outbreaks or other random events can push already-tenuous species over the edge into oblivion. But this book doesn’t just describe how these things are, it explains how we came to understand them, with viewpoints from before they were concepts anyone talked about. I found this fascinating, although the data, formulas and descriptions of scientists arguing ideas via journal articles was a tad tedious (and the author assures us, that reading those original sources- articles, papers and journals themselves is even more so!)

I loved reading all the details about animals, odd and curious and terribly unique species such as the tenrec, indri, komodo dragon, thylacine, bird of paradise, Mauritius kestrel (and the amazing sleight-of-hand performed by researchers to save it). More well-known creatures such as giant tortise, passenger pigeon, grizzly bear, red fox, etc. And of course the dodo. All of it to show how untenable the existence of so many animals has become, or will become in the future- because human destruction and encroachment on habitat has turned many wildlife populations into essentially, island populations. They are separated from each other by obstacles they will or cannot cross, and as the author detailed so painstakingly in the first few hundred pages of the book, animals in populations that have no individuals moving in and out, are eventually doomed to fail. One final section of the book is called World in Pieces, because it really is. It makes me so sad. But I’m glad it closes on a final, partly hopeful note, that some people are working hard to make a difference, with examples of places where those efforts have actually mattered, with animals kept from disappearing altogether, even when their numbers were so low statistics would say they’re doomed. Not always though! After turning the final pages, I looked a few things up. Twenty-five years ago, this author opined that the chuckwalla (a lizard) on Isla Ángel de la Guarda would go extinct. It’s still here!

But still, such a fantastic book and it made me feel glum.

Rating: 4/5
702 pages, 1996

More opinions: Shelf Love
anybody else?

made by Cra-Z-Art ~ artist Abraham Hunter ~ 1,000 pieces

This was a nice puzzle. Has the same box design as those Ceaco puzzles, the same very shiny surface that reflects a tad too much. However the colors are super bright and distinct, so it didn’t matter much. Pieces bit on the small side, but enough variety it wasn’t too difficult to do. There was one piece missing, which I successfully patched (my kid couldn’t find the replacement piece in the puzzle until I pointed it out!)


from CList- bought used

by Cait Flanders

Found browsing. I liked this one, even though I notice quite a few other reviews complain about the personal stories and repetitive, scattered storytelling. I didn’t mind that too much. The subtitle in full: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in a Store. It’s based on her blog (which I never read) and tells all the personal stories behind things, that she had not shared with her followers earlier. She started the blog to make herself accountable for following a year-long shopping ban: outlining rules for herself, keeping track of progress, sharing the struggles and so on. Her main goal was to only buy essentials, so she could save money to do more worthwhile things she really wanted to (travel with friends family). The book relates how she decluttered her apartment,  outlined what she decided could do without, and learned to fix or make some things (with some failed attempts). But really it’s an introspective look at all the things she struggled with that also affected her finances: alcoholism (in the past), buying too many things because they were convenient or on sale, overeating to deal with emotional stress. Breakups, moves for a new job, finding out her parents were getting divorced (and how deeply that affected her even as an adult), and then testing the waters for ditching the job and working for herself. I noticed the repetitiveness but let it slide, I didn’t mind the meandering style, and I tried to let the lessons she learned from this experience sink into me. Some parts I could relate to, others not at all. Note that she didn’t consider herself a shopaholic, always had a rationale for what she bought, but the amount of items that weren’t really useful or necessary just kind of crept up on her. She aimed to be far more thoughtful about her consumerism, and I think the book reflects that really well. I did wish for more stories about the payoff- how she enjoyed the travel, the hikes, the family moments- rather than just notes about what percentage of her belongings she gave away in a month, or numbers on money saved. It seems to be more focused on the overcoming and changing habit parts. That’s okay. Still inspirational.

Borrowed from the public library as an audiobook, 5 and a half hours listening time, read aloud by the author.

Rating: 3/5
216 pages, 2018

How Thieves, Hoarders, Scientists, and Other Obsessives Unlocked the Secrets of the World's Favorite Insect

by Wendy Williams

Picked this one up at the library browsing my favorite section: such a pretty cover and intriguing subtitle. It has lot of really interesting facts about butterflies. I learned all about detailed butterfly fossils and how rare they are, about Darwin’s early observations on insect evolution, and how a butterfly actually uses its proboscis (more like a sponge than a straw), about an early woman scientist who was the first to specifically study butterfly life cycles and connect caterpillars with their adult forms, that butterflies retain knowledge the caterpillar obtained through experience (nobody knows how), more about monarch migrations and physiology, and so on. But the delivery kind of failed me. It’s told in a very friendly style, easy to read, unfortunately I kept mentally stumbling over the odd inclusions of pop culture reference- made to help the common reader relate? or to be funny? I’m not sure, but it always annoys me when these feel out of place or forced. Which they did here. It got in the way of me feeling really immersed in the book, or simply carried away by fascination with what I was learning. I often found myself setting the book aside, not really inclined to pick it back up for a while. It got better when I started just skipping over all the asides, and skimming the personal bits. Usually I like it when science writers tell about their personal experiences travelling to collect data and interview people, but in this case those parts did nothing for me.

Rating: 2/5
224 pages, 2020

by Jean Craighead George

This is not nearly as good as the first book, but I read it because I have Frightful’s Mountain on my shelf and want to have context for that one. Unfortunately, this was so dull I found myself skimming most of it. The first half of the book is mostly about Sam’s survival skills and things he’s built, complete with explanations of how they work and sketchy pictures (a compass, an oven, a plumping mill to beat acorns into flour, an outdoor firepit with grates for cooking, a smokehouse, a dam (improved by watching how beavers built, when their first attempt failed), even a saw mill! All very clever and a bit unbelievable. You have to admire the boy’s adroitness with tools and skill at building things from the guidance of library books, but honestly just reading about what he made out of what for which purpose, was kind of boring. Through all this we’re filled in with flashbacks from Sam reading his own journal, about what happened after his family showed up at the end of My Side of the Mountain. The father tried to farm on the land for a while, then realized why the original grandfather’s farm had failed, and abandoned the effort. They all left except one sister Alice, who insisted on staying with Sam.

This story really starts going somewhere, when two things happen. A conservation officer confronts him and takes Frightful, because of course it’s illegal for Sam to have an endangered peregrine falcon. He’s worried how he will get enough to eat now, without the falcon to catch game. Then Sam discovers that Alice left the treehouse he’d built for her. At first he thinks she ran away to live by herself, surviving in the wilderness alone like he did, but then he figures instead she’s playing this elaborate game of theirs- where he has to track her by clues she leaves behind. Only this time her track goes all the way across the mountain and beyond. Her clues are left in the landscape, in little notes, and in things she said to people she paused to visit, knowing Sam would stop at the same places and hear about it. She’s got a pig with her too. And Sam has a companion helping him follow her. They’re both concerned about Alice being alone, but she seems pretty resourceful. So this part of the book is all a kind of mystery- where did Alice go? what does this clue mean? and again, I didn’t really find that interesting. Except for the little details here and there about animal communication, and what the pig might have done (that the trackers notice).

The final part of the book rapidly picks up speed and tension, as Sam and his friend finally locate Alice, and also a gang of men from Arabia who are catching birds of prey to sell illegally. They get the law involved and discover what happened to Frightful. Sam has the opportunity to take a young goshawk in place of Frightful, but he decides instead the birds are best left free. It’s a bittersweet ending- but I felt- nothing. I don’t know if it’s from the choppy beginning, with so many flashbacks telling the story, or the long tracking section, with so much about map reading and using a compass- interesting to the right person I’m sure, but that wasn’t me. By the time it got to the end where something was actually happening, I was just ready to be done with the book, honestly.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5
170 pages, 1990

Volume Four

by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Can’t help it, there will be SPOILERS if you’re reading earlier in the series. But I’ll try and minimize that.

Had to wait for volume four from the library, and then I read it in one sitting. I continue to enjoy this, in spite of the sex scenes and heads getting chopped off. It opens with another birth- the son of TV-head robot prince who’s gone missing. I haven’t really liked the robot people before, but now their story is getting a bit more interesting, with evidence of class strife, oppression, and personal difficulties among the royal family. Who now suffer from a violent backlash from the lower class (they have blockier TV heads with dials instead of remotes, thus they’re derisively referred to as “knobbers” and “black and white scum”. I laughed out loud when the king finally makes an appearance- his head is a flat widescreen, completely filling the double spread.

Getting back to our key mixed-species family, the ones I’m really reading this storyline for. Alana and Marko, along with their pink ghost babysitter and grandmother from one side, are now living on a different planet. Still in their cool treehouse/spaceship, and trying to keep a low profile. Thus Marko stays home and Alana tries to earn a living- acting on stage for a kind of virtual reality platform. There’s work complications, from co-workers, her boss, and the interactive audience alike. She finds out that most of her fellow actors use drugs while performing, and decides to participate. Meanwhle, while supervising their little one Hazel on the playground, Marko starts reluctantly chatting with another parent, who offers his child dance lessons, and then starts subtly flirting with him. When Marko finds out about some of Alana’s isuses at work, and Alana hears the name of the dance teacher from Hazel, things get rocky. There’s other stuff going on- with the bounty hunter who’d been injured, Marko’s ex and Sohpie still tracking him down, and reporters for a tabloid noticing Alana onstage. I really enjoy how the fiction writer in this world continues to be imbedded in the story. It’s sci-fi with interplanetary war, strange aliens, political conflicts, gory bits and too much skin, but then there’s also this very down-to-earth stuff about Marko and Alana trying to make a stable home life for their child who is a living embodiment of the possibility of peace. And the words of a fictional writer thread through it all, with his books in the hands of characters. I like the contrast.

Borrowed from the public library. Previous book in this series. Next book.

Rating: 3/5
144 pages, 2014

by David B.Agus, MD

I picked up this one on a whim when browsing audiobooks at the library- it was right next to What to Eat When. Found this a much better read (or listen, ha) even though, like usual, I am not quite sure how to judge the veracity of all that’s said here. Certainly a lot to think about. I admit he lost me a few times with the details, and one section where he promotes his own company I really zoned out on. But I feel it was worth my time getting to the end.

It’s about improving your health individually, and starts by explaining how very complicated the human body is, how anything that affects something, will have an influence on something else. This is down to the cellular level, protein interactions, etc. Then it goes into genetics, but it gets into a lot of future projections, what medicine might be able to do in the future. There’s also plenty of very familiar advice: get better sleep, eat real food, exercise regularly – but some of the particulars were a bit different than I’ve heard before. Another main point was to eat the freshest food possible (frozen sometimes being a better choice than what’s in the produce section!) and that juicing produce to make drinks might not give your body the best nutrition. I’m not into juicing things, but wonder about that idea- that juicing oxidizes things quickly, and apparently that degrades the food quality. I was surprised that this doctor says daily multivitamins are worthless and possibly even harmful, but claims everyone over forty should be on baby aspirin and statin drugs. Hm. Not sure what to think about that. There’s a lot more in here, and most of it about cancer (even though he says near the beginning this isn’t a book about cancer, it really feels like it is) but the main takeaway is: take care of yourself, prevention is better than a cure. Which most of us probably already agree with. In the end he goes into a lot about how medical knowledge and patient info should be more freely shared, and laments the lack of young people going into research, which is stalling progress in the field. It was kind of an odd note to leave the book on.

Borrowed from the public library in audiobook format, 10.7 listening hours. Voice by Holter Graham (intro and conclusion read by the author).

Rating: 3/5
384 pages, 2012

How the Struggle for Survival Has Shaped Birds and Their Behavior

by Roger J. Lederer

Very factual book about the body features and behavior of birds, in particular how they came about because of evolutionary pressures. Each chapter is about one particular aspect: physical attributes (from beak shape to digestive tract), their very fine senses (including the ability to see ultraviolet light), all aspects of flight (feather structure, wing shape and so on), why and how birds migrate and how shifts are happening, how birds survive weather extremes including global warming, the complexities of bird communities- interactions between different species and the pressures they put on each other, and finally, the lasting impact that humans have had on bird life- both positive and negative. This book was one of those that delivers a lot of information at a very rapid clip, giving myriad examples in quick order without a lot of lingering over the details. I found it plenty interesting, felt like it was pretty seamless in motion from one topic to the next, but can readily see how other readers might find it a bit overwhelming. Learned many new interesting things, such as: that toucans use their large bills to dissipate heat, that many shorebirds have pressure sensors in their bills to find prey under the sand, there is an owl that deliberately puts a live snake in its nest as pest control, zebra finches move their eyes independently of each other, and finally- birds never have hearing loss from old age, because their hair cells that detect sound waves continually regrow. Also, I used to assume when I saw a perched bird with wings drooping, that it was injured or perhaps tired. Now I know it was probably drooping the wings because it was simply hot– its one of the methods birds have of cooling off. There’s much in here about how birds fit specifically into their environment, and how things that happen to that environment change them- or they disappear. But many are adapting, too, in hopeful ways that I hadn’t heard of before. A good read.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
280 pages, 2016

made by Cobble Hill ~ artist Geoffrey Tristram ~ 500 pieces

Another relatively easy puzzle- I really liked doing this one. Cobble Hill has such fun shapes! There was one piece missing. I made a replacement. Instead of cutting cardboard I used thinner material from a food package box. Had to glue four layers to get the right thickness, but it was easier to cut out the shape this way, even though I had to do it four times.

from online swap - Puzzle Exchange Group

made by Master Pieces ~ artist Dona Gelsinger ~ 300 pieces

I always wanted a puzzle with a rooster picture. Needed something easy- just relaxing and fun- after that hummingbird headache. This one perhaps a bit too easy- rather low piece count for me, and they’re large too. I liked it, though. This one had lovely linen texture with minimal glare, and the shapes of decent variety.

Closeup of the head, since it was washed out in all the progress shots:


a thrift store find


All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it


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