Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms by Richard Fortey

Find in catalogMy background is not adequate for this book, so I struggled through most and skipped a couple of chapters. But what I did read is so fine that I give it a highest rating. It has all the information, of course, about the origins of life and the creatures that emerged over time. What kept my interest was Fortey’s delightful descriptions of his travels to find these creatures and those organisms themselves. Who could resist a scientist who explains that stromatolites are built up “layer by layer – a little like those giant stack pancakes an unwary visitor gets offered in New York for breakfast.”

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Tinkers by Paul Harding

Find in catalogToo poetic for my taste, with lengthy insertions that I don’t see the point of. Yet the book has wonderful descriptions and characterizations. ”Ray Morrel, at twelve years old, had the air of a chaste, fastidious old bachelor, someone who knew about commemorative coins and prevailing winds…” Harding evokes without glamour a hard-working small-town life, close to the earth, of less than a century ago. Men drive wagons or trucks, boys bring in the wood, mothers clean, take care of sick children, and cope.

My Backyard Jungle by James Barilla

Find in catalogHaving fought off nutria that devoured my lovely garden lettuces, I particularly appreciate a book that helps me understand the wild beasts that share our urban environment. Humans and wildlife in our cities have a fraught relationship: we may love deer and value honeybees, but even they present problems. The author ventures out – and often in and down – with pest control experts who remove raccoons, squirrels, and rats, all creatures searching for our leftovers.

Barilla’s book is a fine example of creative nonfiction, as he manages to make an entertaining personal story out of material that can be distressing, scary, and often creepy. He starts out planning to create a wildlife habitat in his yard, a “quiet and harmonious refuge from the fretful roar of urban existence.” But “what I am coming to see as typical urban wildlife habitat,” he writes,”is what I might call the landscape of neglect, an unclaimed and untidy swath of urban decay.” That may be charming when it’s a patch of wildflowers serving as bee forage, but alarming when bears discover the opportunities of swampland near an industrial park. My take: whatever we build, they will come.

The Good Rain by Timothy Egan

Find in catalogAn older book, but well worth reading, especially for those in Oregon, and still relevant. Egan takes many small local stories of the Pacific Northwest, and without blending them creates an overall impression of a region. These are personal stories, not an account of scientific research or a policy study. He travels from the upper reaches of the Columbia down to Ashland, looking at the geography, history, the character of each place and listening to the residents. What emerges is his sense of sorrow at the loss of sweeping forests, the destruction of clean rivers, the degradation of Native American tribes.

The battles Egan recounts are still being fought, and the consequences even more apparent. But Egan is fair-minded and a touch hopeful. While the book came out twenty-five years ago, his epilogue seems prescient: he considers that we may be entering “the polyglot future of the Pacific Rim,” offering a chance for renewal.

Besides, the man has a sense of humor, Discussing tree plantations, Egan comments: “Their trees, green-housebred for maximum growth, are to the rest of nature what silicone-filled breasts are to a beauty contest. They stand out, but there is something…odd…about them.”

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Find in catalogAs McEwan starts his book, Briony, young and overly imaginative, creates a story that has terrible consequences for the rest of her family and for her life. This is certainly a gripping book, and I followed it eagerly to see the results of her action, to see how she will “atone” for her foolishness. And then McEwan ups the ante. What is real, what is the truth? How can we tell the truth, or at least our version? When we gather up our courage to make amends, will others be willing to accept us? What will the consequences be ? And then reflecting on the act of writing: if an author uses her own life as some kind of source, is it being used to reveal or to conceal? As usual, McEwan leaves the reader with after-thoughts.

Even when young, Briony reflects: “It wasn’t only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding, above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you. And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value. That was the only moral a story need have.”

Round Rock by Michelle Huneven

Find in catalogThis book might have more meaning for someone concerned with recovery from alcoholism, but I found the characters pat and their struggles with relationships not leading to much understanding on anyone’s part. They do a lot of feeling and talking, but not enough reflecting. I felt as though I was in a very small universe, where the characters all mean well, everything somehow works out comfortably, and nothing outside matters.

The Burning Room by Michael Connelly

burning roomThis is a police procedural, another Harry Bosch story,  with minimal thriller aspects.  Instead, Connelly shows us the dogged working through of a cold case investigation,  lengthy car trips around crowded Los Angeles freeways,  internal politics of a police department,  the way a senior officer mentors a rookie, and the struggles of a working father to stay connected to his teenage daughter. It’s long hours, not much glamour or much pay, and some powerful people are not on Bosch’s side. If you are familiar with Southern California, you’ll recognize the mariachis, the view from Mulholland Drive, run-down inner-city apartments – so real.

The pleasure in this book is not the writing or the excitement of the chase, but the tangled interplay of motives and feelings in those who commit a crime,  those who are solving the crime, and even some of the victims.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Find in catalogThe two main characters could not be more opposed but are so appealing and so finely drawn that in spite of ourselves we can’t help rooting for both: Werner, the Nazi, on the hunt, and Marie-Laure, the young woman drawn into the resistance in  occupied France. Doerr manages to avoid the usual cliches while describing the horrors of World War II. His descriptions of the  physical details of life, from snails at the ocean’s edge to the sounds from an old Victrola, made me feel that I was in the setting.

Questions this book raises: what is the value of art, music, stories, nature, in holding a life together? And what keeps us going? Werner lives for his radio; Marie-Laure, for her father and for her shells; and the frightened, reclusive uncle finds he is alive again when he engages with the struggle.

The time shifts in the book confused me and I don’t see their purpose, but that seems like a small weakness in a gripping yet sensitive book.

The Forger’s Spell by Edward Dolnick

Find in catalogWell worth reading on several levels. In this mystery, we know the perp, the man who forged the Vermeers and fooled Goering – so the mystery lies in how he was discovered. Along with this surprising and sometimes ironic story, Dolnick carefully shows just how a forger works and how experts checking out dubious paintings investigate. The techniques are  fascinating, but  I especially enjoyed the background issues Dolnick addresses. What psychology  leads buyers and experts to become gullible? In fact, what induces any of us to cling to errors of judgment, in the face of evidence to the contrary? Dolnick offers a thoughtful explanation of what determines the value of a work of art: why is an original Vermeer valuable while a beautiful, accomplished fake is not?

This book is a great complement to  “The Monuments Men, “ and to “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” all of which present different aspects of the Nazi theft of art treasures.

The American Ambassador by Ward Just

The American AmbassadorThis was hard to get into because of shifts in time, location, and points of view, but well worth it. In a prologue, the ambassador’s son recalls observing his father discussing politics and condemning him as part of a corrupt, decadent America. Later the ambassador learns that the CIA suspects his son of terrorist involvement. The ambassador also, as a young man, confronted his father over the government, and angrily declared his intent to become a diplomat. In his complex book, Just asks, how does the personal become political, the political, personal? This insightful book examines the influence of history, father-son relationships, loyalty, compromise, consequences. Beautifully written, atmospheric. Ward deserves to be much better known.

Published in 1987, this book is frighteningly relevant. A quote: His father “was frightened of America. America’s potential, its reach, its grab, its ignorance of the dark side of things. America had no understanding of true malevolence.”

Reviewed by Sarav