Life on the Mississippi

Life on the MississippiLife on the Mississippi
by Mark Twain
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 2006
Pages: 384
Genre: Literature, Memoir, Non-fiction
Publisher: Folio Society

Fashioned from the same experiences that would inspire the masterpiece Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi is Mark Twain’s most brilliant and most personal nonfiction work. It is at once an affectionate evocation of the vital river life in the steamboat era and a melancholy reminiscence of its passing after the Civil War, a priceless collection of humorous anecdotes and folktales, and a unique glimpse into Twain’s life before he began to write.

Written in a prose style that has been hailed as among the greatest in English literature, Life on the Mississippi established Twain as not only the most popular humorist of his time but also America’s most profound chronicler of the human comedy.


I have to admit, here, to a bias; a prejudice.  It’s a bias that I have fought against a spare few times in my life, but by and large, it has ruled my reading life.  The bias is this: It is my perverse nature to avoid books and authors considered to be classics.

I know it’s contrary and based on no rational; I just don’t like being told what to do and what to like.  Occasionally, the grown-up in me will rear her annoying head and insist that I at least try a classic or two – who knows?  I might like it, and I don’t have to finish it if I don’t.

This it is why Life on the Mississippi has been sitting on my TBR shelf; that, and the fact that I found a Folio Society copy for a bargain.  I grabbed it earlier this month, figuring that I could fulfil my yen for non-fiction and mark off a classic author at the same time.

The Introduction to my Folio edition doesn’t fill the reader with optimism.  The story of Life on the Mississippi‘s creation is interesting, but finding out that fully half the book was considered ‘filler’ is not an auspicious start.  The author of the introduction made it sound like Twain just filled out the second half of the book with a hodgepodge collection of other peoples’ articles and anecdotes.  Which he does, but what they don’t tell you is that he folds it all into a cohesive narrative that works fairly well, if a little chaotically.

So with this introduction read, I resigned myself and started.  What I found was a very time-consuming, but absorbing read, made enjoyable by Twain’s voice and trademark humour.  Definitely not riveting, but it draws a picture of life in the late 1800’s that is vivid and brings both a pang of nostalgia for those easier days and a relief not to have been born in that age.

Twain gets full marks for making the life of a steamboat man sound romantic; it’s a testament to his talent that he even makes it interesting to read.  And while I can’t say I loved it, or that I’ll ever really re-visit it, except for perhaps to randomly dip in and out, I can say that I feel I got something out of it, if only a better respect for the mighty Mississippi as it once was, wild and independent.

Random update about my 2021 reading so far

As I write this during a new, snap 5 day level 4 lockdown in Melbourne, looking at events of the last 6 weeks, it certainly appears as though 2021 doesn’t have much more to recommend it than 2020 had.  It’s early days yet, and at least 2021 has offered hints for optimism here and there.  It’s not much, but in the absence of water, people will drink the sand, to quote Aaron Sorkin.

Still, I’ve tried not to let it all bog me down too much – or at least any more than it already has.  I’ve been reading consistently, though not as frequently as I usually do.  This has more to do with a birthday gift than it does current events though.  Anybody heard of the board game called Wingspan?  I hadn’t until I received it; it calls itself an engine building game – your goal, using cards, food tokens, and eggs, is to build out a bird habitat.  It’s a beautiful game, but we were dubious – the instructions cover 3 different booklets!  Still, we gave it a go and after a few awkward games, started to get the hang of it and now we’re hooked.  We play pretty much every night, at least one game, sometimes 2.  It’s not a high-intensity, action packed sort of game, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable.  I’ve already bought the European expansion pack and have put my name down for the back-ordered Oceania expansion.

In other bird related news, the beginning of our snap, 5 day lockdown coincided with the Great Backyard Bird Count, which I’d planned to hit big with several national park excursions.  That was obviously nixed, but we did hit a couple of local parks within our 5km limit.  No new and exciting birds, but one or two less common ones were spotted.  And of course, I’ve actually counted the birds in my own backyard.

A Long-billed corella, dismantling pine cones from the top down.

I’ve been on a non-fiction reading streak; 2021 has not seen a single fiction title read so far.  Which is good, since I have an alarming number of non-fiction titles on my TBR, so I may be reading slower, but I am accomplishing a more significant TBR reduction.

Also unusual this year is that to date, every title has been written by a man.  I don’t make any effort to read more of one gender than another; my natural reading taste for mysteries makes my shelves female heavy without any effort, and even a large percentage of my non-fiction, popular science books are written by women, so the string of all male authors felt unusual.

The biggest accomplishment amongst these reads it my completion of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, which has been on the TBR some years now.  I’ve also completed a long-in-process book about feeding wild birds.  Both reviews will be forthcoming.  Just the other night I grabbed another book – non-fiction, travel, but the first by a woman for me this year – called The Stone Boudoir about small villages in Sicily.  Yes, please.

Birdland

BirdlandBirdland
by Leila Jeffreys
Rating: ★★★★★
isbn: 9780733631061
Publication Date: November 5, 2015
Pages: 188
Genre: Non-fiction
Publisher: Hachette Books

Fine art photographer Leila Jeffreys captures the beauty and diversity of some of our most colourful and elegant feathered friends.

In BIRDLAND, Australian fine-art photographer Leila Jeffreys presents us with a bird-watching experience like no other, drawing birds out from their leafy shadows and airy territories and presenting them to us with the skill and intricate detail of a portrait painter. The result is a stunning encounter with some of the world's most beautiful birds.

On display are fine feathers of all types-eagles in burnished battle armor, fairy floss pink cockatoos, owls in spangled evening wear, and the finches and parrots who couldn't settle for just one or two colours, so chose the whole palette instead.

Captured in a moment of stillness, Jeffreys's feathered sitters reveal qualities and features that invite human projection. Meet the sociable gang-gang cockatoos Commander and Mrs. Skyring, always up for a soiree; the dignified and kingly black kite Fenrick; and the adorably gamine Pepper, a southern boobook owl with impossibly huge eyes and irresistibly cute skinny legs.

Sydney-based Jeffreys works with animal rescue and conservation groups to create her portraits. Her love and compassion for her subjects is evident throughout, and every bird has a story, which Jeffreys shares in a profile of nearly every species in the back of the book.

There are working birds, like Soren, the wedge-tailed eagle, who patrols areas to prevent cockatoos from damaging buildings and lorikeets from overindulging on sugar on hotel balconies; Blue, the orange-bellied parrot who is part of a breeding program to increase the population of this critically endangered species; and Sirocco, New Zealand's kakapo conversation superstar.

BIRDLAND invites us to rediscover birds, to gaze unhindered, and to marvel at their many-splendored glory.


A gorgeous book that I’d eyed about a year ago and dismissed as too decadent; coffee-table art books generally don’t make it into my book budget.  Luckily, I received it as a birthday gift last week, so I could wallow in the beautiful bird portraits guilt-free.

Then, at the end, I saw the List of Works, in which Jeffreys included general information about the species, and almost always, a small anecdote about her experience photographing the individual bird.  They were, apologies to Jeffreys and her obvious talent, the best part of the book, because while her photos are stunning, those little anecdotes brought them, and the bird, to life.  So much so that at some points, I found myself a little misty-eyed and a lot jealous.

A beautiful book for those that enjoy birds and photography.

Running with Sherman

Running with Sherman: The Donkey that Survived Against All Odds and Raced Like a ChampionRunning with Sherman: The Donkey that Survived Against All Odds and Raced Like a Champion
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781781258279
Publication Date: July 2, 2020
Pages: 338
Genre: Memoir, Non-fiction
Publisher: Profile Books

When barefoot running guru Christopher McDougall takes in a neglected donkey, his aim is to get Sherman back to reasonable health. But Sherman is ill-tempered, obstinate and uncooperative - and it's clear his poor treatment has made him deeply fearful of humans. Christopher knows that donkeys need a purpose - they are working, pack animals - and so when he learns of the sport of Burro Racing or running with donkeys, he sets out to give Sherman something worth living for.

With the aid of Christopher's menagerie on his farm in rural Pennsylvania, his wife Mika and their friends and neighbours including the local Amish population, Sherman begins to build trust in Christopher. To give him a purpose, they start to run together. But what Sherman gains in confidence and meaning is something we all need: a connection with nature, the outdoors, with movement. And as Christopher learns, the side benefits of exercise and animal contact are surprising, helping with mental and physical health in unexpected ways.


A good friend of mine – whose idea of a good time is competing in triathlons –  and I met for our weekly coffee/tea a couple of weeks ago, and she said “I have a book I think you’d like.”  I looked at her with heavy scepticism, because she reads running books and cookbooks, and I’d rather starve than cook, and be eaten rather than run.  “No, really; it’s written by a runner, but it’s about a donkey and I SWEAR nothing bad happens to the donkey, and it’s ends happily.”  She knows me well.

So I brought the book home, and when MT saw it, he said, with heavy scepticism, “Is that supposed to be for me to read?”, thereby proving that the only person he thought less likely to be interested in the book than himself, was me.  So I started explaining how the book ended up on our coffee table and as I did, I opened it to the first page.

And was completely captivated.  I don’t mean “oh, this actually looks good” in an idle sort of way, I mean once I started reading it, I couldn’t stop and I heard MT ask about 30 minutes later: “Did you mean to start reading that now?”  Er… no, but shhh…

Part of this easy engagement definitely stemmed from my friend’s assurances that the story ended well; if she hadn’t sworn up and down that this was so, I’d have thrown the book down before I got to page 2 and refused to touch it again.  The donkey may end up in a great place, but he doesn’t start there.  Horrifying fact: donkey’s hooves never stop growing; they have to be trimmed or else they start curling upwards.

The story in a nutshell is this: the author, a runner, agrees to shelter and rehabilitate a donkey rescued from a hoarder.  Part of the donkey’s recovery success depends on being given a purpose, and at a loss for anything more purposeful, and with a secret curiosity about the sport of donkey racing, the author starts the donkey on the long path from death’s door to racing fit.

That nutshell makes it sound like it’s still more about racing than the more sedentary reader would like, but it isn’t.  This book is about the donkey – Sherman – and his fellow goat and equine friends, Lawrence, Flower and Matilda; it’s about the people involved in helping Sherman be his best donkey self, and, as filler to pad out the page count, a lot of interesting asides about related topics, such as the history of donkey racing (honest to god, it’s a thing), the people involved in racing donkeys, the benefits of animal/human relations, the benefits and dangers (in excess) of athletic training, depression, and the Amish.  Yes, the Amish.  It works.

McDougall is, at heart, a journalist, and the writing style and narrative reflect that.  It’s well written and an easy read, but it lacks that formal, reserved style sometimes found in similar books.  It’s chatty, and his personality comes through clearly, as does Sherman’s and his furry friends.  Who are awesome, by the way.

Running with Sherman is the best kind of feel good book, where the animal triumphs in the end, and everybody wins.  As the reader who’d rather be eaten than run (not really, but it’s a close thing), I’d happily recommend this book to anybody looking for an easy but worthwhile read.  Even MT is planning on reading it.

To See Every Bird on Earth

To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Lifelong ObsessionTo See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Lifelong Obsession
by Dan Koeppel
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781594630019
Publication Date: May 5, 2005
Pages: 278
Genre: Memoir, Natural Science, Non-fiction
Publisher: Hudson Street Press

What drives a man to travel to sixty countries and spend a fortune to count birds? And what if that man is your father?

Richard Koeppel’s obsession began at age twelve, in Queens, New York, when he first spotted a Brown Thrasher, and jotted the sighting in a notebook. Several decades, one failed marriage, and two sons later, he set out to see every bird on earth, becoming a member of a subculture of competitive bird watchers worldwide all pursuing the same goal. Over twenty-five years, he collected over seven thousand species, becoming one of about ten people ever to do so.

To See Every Bird on Earth explores the thrill of this chase, a crusade at the expense of all else—for the sake of making a check in a notebook. A riveting glimpse into a fascinating subculture, the book traces the love, loss, and reconnection between a father and son, and explains why birds are so critical to the human search for our place in the world.


The other day, I was having my weekly coffee with friends when one of them said to me, (in relation to a FB post of mine she’d recently seen): “You’ve become a real Twitcher, haven’t you?”

I hadn’t started this book yet, but my answer was a resounding “no” for several reasons, though it was hard to really define them for her.  Now that I have finished this book, it’s much easier, and I’ll get back to that at the end of my post.

To See Every Bird on Earth is meant to be, if you believe what it says on the wrapper, a book that explores the thrill of the chase across the world to witness as many of the earth’s birds as possible in a lifetime.   There’s some of that, but mostly, it’s the culmination of what I’m guessing was a lot of therapy for the author; a psychological catharsis of his family’s dysfunction, written and published.  In many ways, this book was marketed to the wrong demographic; those that find personal substance in others’ stories about personal journeys would find a lot to like in this book.  Needless to say, it’s not my jam.

BUT having said that, in between the family drama being laid bare, there was a lot of interesting insight into the world of Big Listers.  Big Listers are those that have seen thousands of the known species of birds in the world.  Known species is a moving target, and is currently around 10 thousand.  The biggest Big Lister has seen over 8 thousand.  This is about big numbers, big money, and big obsessions – and very little about the birds.  Koeppel, when he focuses on these people, does a better than credible job getting into their heads and their world and it was fascinating for me, in a rubber-necking kind of way.  The chance to see the birds these people have seen is tantalising; how they go about it, like a military invasion, isn’t.

And ultimately, this is why I’m not a twitcher, neither of the hobby sized or obsessive Big Lister variety.  True, I have the list of birds in my state, and I do check them off when I see them, noting the time and place.  But I don’t count, I don’t plan, set goals, or study, and I’m embarrassed at how few bird songs I can identify after the 10 years I’ve spent tramping around the bush – and at how easily I can confuse myself over identifications.

But I have no desire to ‘do better’  because my hazy goal, set when I started this and unchanged since, isn’t to just see the birds.  When I moved to Australia, not knowing how long I’d be here, I wanted to see Australia, I wanted to experience this place so far away from the rest of the world on so many levels.  Looking for birds (which are, let’s be honest, the low-hanging fruit of the wildlife tree), makes me look up, down, and into the bush; I have to actually explore my surroundings, and in doing that I come much closer to actually experiencing this amazing land.  The added bonus: not only have I seen (and am seeing) Australia in a way that will stay with me, but I have a new found sense of wonder wherever I go, including home to Florida.  I apparently lived 90% of my life alongside hundreds of bird species I never knew about because I never paid attention.  And by looking for the birds, I’m finding an entire world of wildlife right there for me to appreciate (or not, in the case of some).

So while I didn’t enjoy To See Every Bird on Earth as much as I’d hoped, I do thank its author for helping me clarify in my own mind my motivations for my avian hobby that definitely isn’t bird-watching.

A Brush with Birds

A Brush with Birds: Paintings and stories from the wildA Brush with Birds: Paintings and stories from the wild
by Richard Weatherly
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781741176445
Publication Date: November 12, 2020
Pages: 282
Genre: Natural Science, Non-fiction
Publisher: Hardie Grant

A Brush with Birds celebrates the exquisite artworks and incredible life of one of the world's finest bird painters, Richard Weatherly.

A skilled falconer and artist, Richard has spent more than fifty years observing birds and their natural habitats around the world, from Antarctica to Zimbabwe to New Guinea, Australia and America. In A Brush with Birds, Richard accompanies his stunning paintings and sketches with fascinating insights, anecdotes and knowledge gathered throughout his career.

Richard's work continues to document and celebrate the natural world, and reminds us of the importance of conserving our unique environment.


A few years ago, MT and I adopted the Icelandic holiday tradition of Jólabókaflóð.    We gift each other a book on Christmas eve, then retire to read our gifts and eat chocolate.  This year’s gift from MT was A Brush with Birds, which he bought because he thought it was written by an artist about how to draw and sketch birds.

He was half right; it’s written by a well-known wildlife artist.  But Weatherly is also something of a naturalist; when his art led him into the field, he worked with scientists and conservationists to a degree that his CV, I imagine, would be equally weighted by his artistic and scientific accomplishments.

The result turned out to be so much better than a how-to book about drawing birds.  This, instead, is a memoir of a kind, lightly touching on Weatherly’s journey from his family ranch (station) in Australia and his first personal encounter with a bird, to his higher education in England and his first forays into creating his own art, back to Australia and the homestead, and then on various adventures through Africa, North America, and Antartica.   Generously laced throughout the pages are his sketches, watercolours, and full oil paintings, done throughout the years, chronicling his journeys.

The narrative appears to be his own voice; it’s very much the printed equivalent to sitting on someone’s porch and hearing them tell their stories.  This mostly works, but I did ding my rating 1/2 star, because while that authentic voice made the narrative a warmer, more relatable one, the lack of editorial polish also made it harder to understand in spots.

A genuinely beautiful art book that is also an enjoyable read; it looks good and is good.

A-Z, my likes and dislikes: letter “D”

Themis-Athena has started this project, and I’m joining her – an alphabetical list of what I like and don’t like.  Some fun, some not.

Like:  Democracy

I was struggling with a “D” like, until events of last week.  I’m not going to use this post – or any other – to advocate political agendas.  My politics are my business.  But last week was appalling; seditious acts and an insurrection in the nation’s Capital building.  Nobody’s grievances are so just that they justify the actions of last week.

But one truly wonderful thing did happen in the midst of that lowest point in US history:  Congress stood up and got on with the business of putting the nation first and upheld the constitution.  And not just the Democrats who will be dining out on this for ages, but the die-hard Republicans too.  Mitch McConnell and Mike Pence, both of whom I often find problematic, made me proud last week.  They had nothing to gain and a lot to lose, and still they did their job with dignity; they upheld the Constitution.

 

Dislike: Disco.

As a child of the 70’s I should look back with nostalgia on those halcyon days when disco was king, right?  Er, no.

The thing is, I have never liked disco.  All the lights swimming around, and too many men singing in falsetto registers, about absolutely nothing to music that me feel like a needle was skipping inside my brain.  The women musicians that fall into the disco category at least had song lyrics I could get behind, but again, the music grated on my young brain.   I have no memory of ever wanting to see Saturday Night Fever as a kid, cementing my belief that disco was never meant to be for me.

 

The Windermere Witness (Lake District Mystery, #1)

The Windermere WitnessThe Windermere Witness
by Rebecca Trope
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9780749012694
Series: Lake District Mystery #1
Publication Date: August 26, 2013
Pages: 414
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Allison & Busby

Following a personal tragedy, florist Persimmon 'Simmy' Brown has moved to the beautiful region of the Lake District to be nearer her charismatic parents. Things are going well, with her latest flower arrangements praised and Simmy content to lose herself in her work. But the peace she has found is shattered when, at the wedding of a millionaire's daughter, the bride's brother is found brutally murdered in the lake.

As the wedding florist, and one of the last people to talk to Mark Baxter alive, Simmy gradually becomes involved with the grief-ridden and angry relatives. All seem to have their fair share of secrets and scandals - an uncaring mother, a cheating father, and a husband twenty-five years older than his bride. When events take another sinister turn, Simmy becomes a prime witness and finds herself at the heart of a murder investigation. The chief suspects are the groom and his closely knit band of bachelor friends. They are all intimidating, volatile and secretive - but which one is a killer?


I picked this up at a used book shop during our aborted Christmas travels; having spent time in the Lake District, specifically, the towns of Windermere, Bowness, and Ableside that this story is set in, it appealed to me instantly.

Alas, it was no more than a drab average.  The characters didn’t know what they wanted to be: the MC tells an inspector at the beginning she’s moved to Windermere after her divorce, that she was childless and insisted that there were “compensations”.  By the end of the book she’s barely coping with the stillborn birth she had 2 years before.  Coping and repression are likely, of course, but they aren’t part of of the narrative, so the reader is left with no grasp of this MC.  The Inspector is either attractive and friendly or greasy-haired and antagonistic.  The MC’s mother is supposed to be a hippy, but acts more like a criminal attorney; I never once got the impression she liked her daughter.  The bride of the story is either flaky, naive and needs to be protected, or a headstrong woman who is the only one that can steer her much older husband’s life.  Flip-flop.

The elements of the plot were interesting, but the plot itself wasn’t anything special.  The motivation was pathetic and unbelievable, given the characters, and the murderer pretty obvious after about half-way.

The setting was what I’d hoped for, at least.  My memories of the Lake District are still vivid, and I loved the area, so ‘re-visiting’ it through the book kept me picking it back up.  This is the first in a series all set here, and while weak, not so bad that should I come across another one at a used book shop, I’d probably pick it up.

A-Z, my likes and dislikes: letter “C”

Themis-Athena has started this project, and I’m joining her – an alphabetical list of what I like and don’t like.  Some fun, some not.

Like:  Cascades

Waterfalls are a definite ‘like’ too, but for my money, cascades are a lot more fun.  Their rambling style lends itself to a multitude of picturesque nooks and crannies, pools, and small spots of white water.  Best of all, as far as I’m concerned, you can clamber about on them, letting the inner-kid out to roam and climb, discovering all those nooks and crannies close up.

Australia’s terrain lends itself to cascades, and MT and I have let the inner-kids out on a few of them over the years:

We’ve discovered all sorts of interesting bits at each of the cascades we’ve been to so far, from weird crayfish and dragonflies and tadpoles to wallabies, water dragons and whirligig beetles.

 

Dislike: Cockroaches.

Some people have a real, pathological problem with spiders, or snakes or rats.  Me, it’s cockroaches, to the extent that I struggle to even type the word.

In Florida, they’re called Palmetto Bugs.  They’re large, growing to just over 1.5 inches or 40mm, they have wings and they know how to use them.  I can’t prove it, but I’m certain they chase you.  When I was a kid, I had a particularly large specimen fly across the room to land on my face.  A katsaridaphobic was born in that moment.  Even here in southern AU where the specimens are a great deal smaller and wingless, I can’t handle them.  MT says he always knows when I’ve stumbled across one by the sound I make, a sort of inhaled scream; the sound of my psyche imploding.

I’d post a picture but you can believe if I can’t type the word there’s no way in hell I can deal with posting a picture.  Google “Palmetto Bug” if you’ve never run across these minions of satan and you’re curious.  Given the choice, I’ll take spiders any day.

 

A-Z, my likes and dislikes: letter “B”

Themis-Athena has started this project, and I’m joining her – an alphabetical list of what I like and don’t like.  Some fun, some not.

Like:  Bloom County Comic Strips

There were some contenders for B; boating was almost a shoe-in, until I looked up and saw my favorite Bloom County strip hanging on the wall.

Bloom County is an American comic strip that started in 1980 and featured a cast of characters with Opus the penguin the star (though I’d argue secondary characters Hodge-Podge and Portney got some of the best lines).  The author, Berkeley Breathed, burned out on deadlines and censors in 1989 and quit, but not before winning a Pulitzer for his work.  In the one good thing Facebook was ever good for, Breathed brought back Bloom County on the site in 2015, bringing much joy to unsuspecting fans.

Bloom County is one of the few – the rare few, unfortunately – forms of entertainment that make me laugh until tears fall.   Here’s a random sample of one of his strips; I tried to choose one that might resonate with any international readers (Breathed is known for his political strips, which can sometimes rely on cultural ‘in-jokes’).

 

Dislike: Bitter … anything.

There are five universally accepted basic tastes perceived by our taste buds: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami.  I can’t tolerate bitter.

Coffee, really dark chocolate, beer, marmalade, many of the leafy greens (ie chicory/witlof).  None of these are anything but the equivalent of chewing aspirin for me.  With the exception of cocoa, I can’t even tolerate them as flavourings – coffee flavoured anything is just … aspirin.  (I know how awful aspirin are because as a kid I thought they all tasted like Bayer’s children’s aspirin, only to eat one and find out differently.) Whether this can be attributed to lack of exposure, or training, or special snowflake taste buds, I don’t know but the result is the same.  I avoid bitter foods the way I avoid bitter people.