Posts Tagged ‘Bird Watching’

The Big Year : a Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik

March 11, 2014

A big year is when birders travel from Alaska to Mexico to see or hear the most different avian species from January 1 to December 31. The Big Year by Mark Obmascik, is the true story of three birders who competed for biggest Big Year in 1998 — when several factors converged to bring a record-breaking number of species within binoculars’ range of the competition grounds. The book was also the basis for the 2011 movie starring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black.

Think of it as Moby-Dick for bird nerds. Though the three protagonists never literally risk their lives like Captain Ahab did, they are just as single-minded about their quest. One risks, if not his life, at least his life savings. Another puts his livelihood at stake. And for what? Bragging rights. Anybody who has ever experienced how a pleasant pastime can become a relentless obsession will relate.

If the comparison to Moby-Dick has you certain that you don’t ever want to read this book, rest assured that author Mark Obmascik’s occasional treatises into Aleutian meteorology and human and avian nature are much more readable — and concise — than Herman Mellville’s digressions into the finer philosophical points of 19th Century whaling. I especially enjoyed the account of the ruby-throated hummingbird migration that starts Chapter Nine. It’s detailed and vivid enough that you’d believe the author made the 500 mile journey right alongside the tiny creature. Of course, he did not.

In fact, he spent zero time alongside his human subjects in 1998. His precise and vivid account of what each of the three contenders was seeing, thinking, feeling and experiencing during the Big Year comes entirely from after-the-fact interviews, from the birders’ field notes, personal journals, and receipts, and from the author’s own meticulous shoe leather reporting. “I relied on the old credo of trust but verify,” Obmascik writes in the acknowledgements page. “If a contestant recalled that he saw a bird a half hour before dawn with a half-moon still in the sky, I checked out government records for that day’s sunrise and moonset.”

Non-fiction readers will appreciate the fact-checking, especially since the official world record set during the contest required only that the winner give his word that he saw and heard what he said he did.

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Best New Books of 2013: Kate H’s Picks

December 6, 2013

Recently, I have enjoyed reading a lot of modern classics and historical fiction. I love to find new reads by browsing award winner lists, especially when I’m trying to find a good non-fiction or science fiction book.
My picks for 2013 are all novels which share themes of change, growth, and renewal, which is fitting during this wonderful transformative time of year!

Harvest by Jim Crace
Set in an ambiguous time period of British history, Harvest documents the decline of a rural town in the countryside struggling against the encroaching presence of industrialism. The close knit, close-to-being-inbred members of this community are forced to accept and eventually become displaced by the changes coming to pass around them. Their reaction to newcomers demonstrates a deep distrust of intrusion into their insular existence. Through his narrator, Walter Thirsk, Crace remains tender toward the members of this community, whilst also hinting at the dangers of a closed (literally and figuratively), society. A novel of many layers, Harvest is Jim Crace at his best.

The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell
Probably my favorite book of 2013, The Death of Bees is O’Donnell’s stunning debut in fiction. Set in Glasgow, Scotland, the story follows the lives of sisters Marnie and Nelly who, after discovering their parent’s dead bodies, decide not to report the deaths and instead, bury the bodies in the back yard. The characters of Marnie, Nelly, and their elderly neighbor Lennie who becomes their friend and guardian, are portrayed vividly; and their relationships feel real and touching. Wildly entertaining but also emotional and affecting, I highly recommend this novel which I raced through in a day.

Snapper by Brian Kimberling
Snapper is set in rural Indiana and follows the twists and turns of Nathan Lochmueller’s life. Reading as a series of short stories, or vignettes almost, each chapter portrays an event in Lochmueller’s life which has a lasting impact on future events. They eventually tie together as a bildungsroman of sorts, as Lochmueller comes to accept the past and embrace the present. A very relatable story, Snapper also taught me a lot about bird watching and Indiana, while remaining breezy and funny throughout.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
A novel about growing up, death, and faith, Ordinary Grace documents one summer in a Minnesota town in 1961. Hit with the death of his older teenage sister, thirteen year old Frank is thrust into an adult world of secrets, lies, and betrayal. Ordinary Grace is mysterious and ominous; never fully revealing itself to the reader and refusing to answer so many questions. The characters each portray the various meanings of what it is to have faith, and leaves us questioning its presence and power in our own lives.

The Shelter Cycle by Peter Rock
Combining mysticism with pure realism, Peter Rock explores an unusual part of America’s religious history. The Shelter Cycle tells the story of two children, Francine and Colville, who grew up in the Church Universal and Triumphant, a religion that predicted the world could end in the late 1980s. This book is haunting in its rendering of individuals raised in a cult and how they grow up in their own ways thereafter. A blend of fact and fiction, The Shelter Cycle provokes us into thinking about the nature of religion and family, spirituality and upbringing: how does one inform the other? How can we know what is credible and what isn’t? An unpredictable and beautifully written book.


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