Corvus: A Life with Birds, by Esther Woolfson

Corvus:  A Life with Birds
Esther Woolfson
Counterpoint, Berkeley, CA
ISBN:  978-1-58243-477-3
$25.00, 2009, 337 pages (Hardcover)

I have a love-hate relationship with some of the birds who live in the woods behind my house.  As do all creatures who are enslaved to the ground, I envy birds their capacity for flight.  I love seeing them at the feeders, or in the trees, or at our local ponds and parks.  But I want them at a slight distance.  I don’t like the sparrows who nest in my eaves, overflowing the gutters and leaving their droppings on my front porch banisters.  And I hate the woodpeckers who seem to prefer the wood siding of my house to the wood of the trees.  Their noisy arrival each year has ruined my sleep on many a weekend morning.

So, it was with fascination that I read this book about a family who rescued a tiny rook, fallen from a nest in a neighboring yard and raised her to adulthood, then kept her as a beloved family pet.  The rook, oddly named Chicken, a talking magpie named Spike, a baby crow named Ziki, and other birds have found a home with the Woolfson family.  And, though some of their habits would turn most of us against the idea of birds as pets, Woolfson paints such an endearing portrait of Chicken that we begin to see that birds might have qualities we never noticed.

It seems that Woolfson was drawn to birds in the beginning almost against her will.  She had fear of them, had no knowledge or understanding of their ways, or how to care for them.  But she did her research and learned by doing.  Her birds are not guests in her home, or caged.  She allows them the freedom to be as much birdlike as possible under the restraints of living within the walls of a house.

She describes Chicken’s beauty:    “In time Chicken developed her full adult plumage and became as she is now, beautiful, as are all crows, rooks, ravens, magpies.  She is in every aspect, as they all are, in every movement, a sharp, tenebrous grace in her stillness, in her wings and feet and head.  Corvids’ beaks are balanced, proportionate, burnished and striated like the metal of a Damascene sword.”

She also realizes that many people are frightened when arriving at her door to be met by a bird never seen indoors.  Visitors show fear, ask many questions, and seem at ease only when the bird is taken from the room.  Woolfson has researched the fear people have for wild birds.  She remains understanding, and says, “I was frightened of birds, at the beginning, not simply ignorant.  I remind myself that I was afraid not only of corvids but of doves too, of all birds, for I shared what now appears to me to be this near-universal apprehension, one that lies in not knowing what birds may do or wish to do, an unfamiliarity with their habits, their ability suddenly, terrifyingly, to fly.  The history is too long, the fears and superstitions too deep-rooted for flippant questions.”

She may have been frightened, but she soon became enthralled, and has read many books on bird care, intelligence, evolution, song and flight.  She shares this knowledge, but never in a tedious or scientific way.  Her prose is always straightforward and entertaining as she teaches us all that she has learned.

Woolfson has given much thought to the ethics of keeping a wild bird inside, and keeping her flightless.  She does explain, though, that having been raised in captivity, Chicken would not be able to live again in the wild.  Her adoption was a trade-off:  the love and care that enabled her to thrive also deprived her of her adult freedom.

She gives a great deal of thought to whether Chicken has been tamed, or remains wild.  And these thoughts are with her not only when she is at home with Chicken, but also when she is out walking through town, or when she travels to seek out other birds in the wild to observe their habits.  “I walk past two crows paying attention to some dropped food on a pavement.  They notice me but carry on.  I pass them at an appropriate distance.  We co-exist and do so because we have both learnt necessary boundaries, theirs the boundaries of fear.  Where does wildness begin and how far does it extend?  It’s more than what they are, what we are.  Wildness is a continuum.  Swifts or terns or albatrosses are wild because there is no point of meeting between them and us, but for other birds, the ones who live in greater proximity to man, their wildness is other, knowing, watchful.”

The relationship that has developed between Woolfson and Chicken is possible only because Woolfson respects their differences, and tries to allow Chicken the freedom to live instinctually and remain birdlike, while welcoming her into the home and heart of a human family.  Her recounting of Chicken’s fruitless attempts at nesting and laying are heartbreaking, not only because Chicken is doomed never to know the joys of motherhood, but because while nesting she is too preoccupied to be a companion to the human who loves her.  When the urge to nest has subsided, Chicken returns to her usual pastimes.  “Over the next few days, she returns to herself and to me.  By the first evening, she has come to stand on my knee again.  I look at her long, banded black feet and nails against the fabric of my jeans.  Over the evening, she sinks lower, warming my knee as she does so, head under her wing.  She is even more affectionate than usual, sitting very close to me, preening my hair, calling again from the bottom of the stairs.  She comes to stand beside me as I work, jumping onto my foot under my desk.”

Underlying all of her thought and study is the unrelenting question she harbors of why she and Chicken have formed a bond that she would not have thought possible.  “When I come back from wherever I’ve been, I unlock and open the outer door.  From inside, beyond the inner door, I hear Chicken call greetings.  Usually she is in the hall, or emerges from the study to greet me.  If I’ve been away for a few hours or a few days, she’ll run to meet me with wings outstretched, calling with what I like to believe is pleasure and welcome.”

“She comes, sometimes, when she is called.  I, on the other hand, invariably do.”

I am so happy that Woolfson has shared her singular experience with all of us.


The Vagrants, by Yiyun Li

The Vagrants
Yiyun Li
Random House, New York, NY
ISBN:  978-1-4000-6313-0
$25.00, 2009, 337 pages (Hardcover)

The Chinese culture depicted in this book is so distasteful to me, an American.  To live without the freedom to speak my opinions, to live in fear of every family member, friend, neighbor and stranger, to live under a government which spreads this fear in order to exert control, is too foreign to me.  The weight of this oppression is unimaginable.  And because this larger, impersonal picture is so difficult for most of us to imagine, Yiyun Li tells this story on a very small and personal scale.

The story begins on March 21, 1979, in the provincial city of Muddy River.  A young woman, Gu Shan, is to be denounced and executed on this day as a political prisoner.  Her parents wake, each faced with living through the day their daughter will die.

Teacher Gu, Gu Shan’s father, is so human, so real.  He tries so hard to make himself small, hoping to be unnoticeable.  He tries to focus on the small sliver of life that is right in front of him, as that is all that is bearable.

“When he ran out of things to do, he sat down and forced himself to take a short nap.  He was awakened by people returning from the denunciation ceremony, men talking and locking their bicycles, women calling their children for lunch.  He got up and started noisily cutting, boiling, frying things to prepare lunch.  He tried not to think about what had happened outside his home – the only way to live on, he had known for most of his adulthood, was to focus on the small patch of life in front of one’s eyes.”

His life is informed by responsibility.  An educated and intellectual man, he has no one with whom he can talk.  He has no one who understands.  After Gu Shan’s execution, he suffers a stroke, and begins to write letters to his first wife, the last person with whom he could have an intelligent conversation.

His second wife, Gu Shan’s mother, defies him to follow the old, now forbidden custom of burning clothing and shoes to aid her daughter’s journey to the next world.  During his hospitalization following his stroke, she befriends Kai, a beautiful news announcer who is married to a man from a powerful and privileged family.  Kai is ready to give up her position and family to make a statement in support of Gu Shan, and convinces Mrs. Gu to do the same.

Teacher Gu is not the only one who has no one with whom to talk.  Everyone in this city of Muddy River lives in fear of everyone else.  There is no trust or camaraderie, even within families.  Everyone lives alone, though surrounded on every side by people, houses so close one has no privacy from neighbors, houses so small one has no privacy from other family members.

We meet Nini, the crippled child, Bashi, the indolent young man, and Tong, the child recently reunited with his parents in Muddy River, who dreams of being awarded a red scarf for heroism.  We meet thieves, wanderers, revolutionaries and saints.  Each acts, and each action bears unknowable consequences.

The beauty of Yiyun Li’s book is that she takes the huge machine of the Chinese government, and reduces it to the effect it has on the lives of a few individuals in a small city over a period of a few days.  Through the telling of details, Li illuminates the greater story, a period of China’s history and the dark repercussions of a government bent on controlling a population at any cost.

This debut novel will be one of the best books published in 2009.

The Song of the Dodo, by David Quammen

David Quammen
Scribner, New York, NY
ISbN 0-684-80083-7
$32.50, 1996, 625 pages

Many of us, if asked, would say we care about the conservation of the planet on which we live. We would say we care about the species which seem one after another to become extinct. We would even say that we are trying to adopt a greener lifestyle to preserve the earth, to leave a smaller footprint. Yet, I don’t think most of us really understand what it means for a species to be placed on an endangered list. And, if we were honest, we would probably admit that some species seem more worth protecting than others: cute little lemurs as opposed to, say, warty toads or slithering snakes. I work with one woman who not only said that she could care less if all the insects and most animals in the world became extinct, but that she couldn’t see what possible difference it would make to her children, either. Luckily, that sort of gross ignorance is rare, and if more of us read David Quammen, it would become rarer yet.

Quammen wrote an award-winning column for Outside magazine from 1981 through 1995 called “Natural Acts,” many of which essays have been collected and published in book form, all of which are well worth reading. This book is different. In it, Quammen focuses on island biogeography to explain the extinction of species, and, by doing so, help us to see what we can do to stop it.

It was the study of remote island locations that laid the groundwork for both Darwin’s and Wallace’s separate but almost simultaneous discoveries of the evolutionary process. Over the years since their work was made public, many branches of science have been refined to explain the scientific underpinnings of evolution. In the last thirty years, much more has been understood about the geographical patterns in which animal and plant species appear across the globe, and the study of these patterns has been developed. Looking at the distribution of species on islands, and on mainland areas that have been made insular due to the loss of woodlands or the encroachment of cities, can tell us much about the appearance and extinction of species.

Why do island ecosystems experience higher rates of extinction? Answering this question could help us fight extinction in other areas as well. For eight years, Quammen travelled the world, visiting remote islands, meeting with the scientists studying there, seeing with his own eyes whenever possible the species, both endangered and plentiful, living in these habitats. Combining this with his years of devotion to scientific journalism and a stunning amount of research, Quammen is in the best possible position to teach us about the world in which we live and the effect we are having on the other species who share it with us.

That effect is huge. Extinction of species today has reached a cataclysmic rate, comparable to the mass extinctions of the past, such as the dinosaurs. Today, though, there is no singular, catastrophic event to point to as the cause. The cause is human. In his chapter, Message from Aru, Quammen asks several experts to compare the rates of extinction today to what would be considered normal rates over the history of the planet. One expert estimates that just considering birds and mammals, the extinction rate is roughly 100 times what would be normal. Another expert estimates that the extinction of rainforest species is currently 1,000 times what would be normal.

Throughout the course of this book, Quammen introduces us to scientists who break the mold of the stereotypical dry lab presence. They are committed, tireless, and no strangers to sacrifice. He makes them human, knowable. When he reaches too far back for personal contact, he uses personal journal excerpts and excerpts from other writings to make them come alive for us, such as with Darwin or Wallace.

That he can talk of all of these matters in a writing style that makes one feel as if the two of you are having a conversation, that he is never dry or overly scientific, that he is always interesting and provocative, well, that is what sets Quammen apart from other writers. That, and a heart big enough to encompass all of the wonder the world and its species have to offer.

In Quammen’s words, “Within a few decades, if present trends continue, we’ll be losing a lot of everything. As we extinguish a large portion of the planet’s biological diversity, we will lose also a large portion of our world’s beauty, complexity, intellectual interest, spiritual depth, and ecological health.”

Read this book. Make some hard choices. Haven’t we lost enough?

The Sister, by Poppy Adams

Poppy Adams
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY
ISBN:  978-0-307-26816-7
$23.95, 2008, 273 pages

This story is about two sisters, Virginia and Vivien, who grew up in an old Victorian mansion, the last of a family of lepidopterists who study moths.  Ginny has carried on the family studies, and has lived her life in the childhood home.  The story is told in Ginny’s voice, and begins as she waits for Vivi to arrive after an absence of almost fifty years.

The story takes place over six days, as Ginny moves back and forth between the unfolding of the two sisters’ re-acquaintance and the past events that led to the fifty year estrangement.  The sisters seem to have distinctly different memories of shared events, which results in Ginny’s increasing resentment of her sister’s return and brings about a tragic conclusion.

Ginny leads a solitary and ordered existence dictated by anxious obsessions.  She must know the exact time, and surrounds herself with clocks and watches for comparison.  She lives in only a few rooms of the many winged and storied mansion, having closed off the remainder and sold all of the furnishings over the years.  She never answers the door, and seldom sees even the man who lives on the premises and brings supplies.  She has never married, and in solitude pursued the family study of moths.

Vivi, on the other hand, has lived in London during her long absence.  She married, and seems to have led a more normal life, though unable to have children due to a childhood accident.

The telling of the story from Ginny’s point of view means that we only get to know Vivi through Ginny’s memory and their shared conversations.  Vivi’s character remains obscure, and, though Ginny’s psychological instability lends mystery to the story, it certainly doesn’t clarify where the truth lies in her telling of the past or present, which makes the conclusion less believable.

The study of the moths, while providing a creepy context for the unfolding of a mystery, became too much the focus of the story.  I felt that, as the story lost plausibility toward the end, the moths were brought in more and more as filler, until I was skimming through all the scientific detail, wanting to get back to the real story.  Much of this research material should have been cut from the final draft of this book.

Though I prefer to review only books I can earnestly suggest be read by others, I publish this review because this is a debut novel.  Adams can write, and can do the research necessary to lend credibility to her story line.  The story idea is meaty.  I hope she continues to write and publish and grow.

River of Heaven, by Lee Martin

Lee Martin
Shaye Areheart Books, New York, NY
ISBN:  978-0-307-38124-8
$24.00, 2008, 265 pages (Hardcover)

Lee Martin has written a perfect book.  His prose is smooth, his voice is faultless, his characters achingly real, and the tension of the plot keeps the reader reading.  I read this book yesterday for the second time, and it was every bit as good as the first.  Maybe better, because I knew when favorite parts were coming, so I could feel the thrill of anticipation, which one doesn’t get on the first reading.

I have heard that anyone has material for several books by the time they live to be twenty.  But so often, writers look at everyday life and think it too boring to be published and read.  This book proves that one can write about everyday people living everyday lives, and yet the writing can be literary, the plot can be gripping, and the characters compelling.

The tragic boyhood death of Dewey Finn cannot be forgotten by his family, or by the townspeople of Mt. Gilead, Illinois.  Dewey died on the train tracks outside of town.    Though his death was ruled a suicide, the verdict was never accepted, and decades later it is still spoken of in whispers of curiosity.

At the heart of the story is a boyhood secret, a wrong committed by two brothers, which irrevocably changes them both.  Sam Brady, now retired and in his sixties, tells us early in the story that he is a closet homosexual.  When, as a boy, he realized the truth about himself, he could not accept it, and feared being ostracized in his town and in his family.  His older brother, Cal, saw him with another boy, the soon-to-die Dewey Finn, and let him know that his sexual orientation was perverted and unacceptable.  Cal left town, and the brothers were estranged for decades.  As the story progresses, Cal returns, and turns Sam’s life upside-down.

This story is about families:  how the familial security we know as children rarely follows us into adulthood, while the loyalties engendered there are difficult to break.  It shows how a secret can dominate a life, and how decisions based on the will to keep that secret only lead one spiraling downward toward more lies and more bad decisions.  And it is about innocence.  Though Sam Brady sometimes seems a bit childlike in his disillusionment and desires, his inexperience reminds us all what it feels like to have our hearts broken, to yearn for life experiences that elude us, and how heroic is sometimes is to make the tiniest move toward a dream.

This story is also about the pain of knowing oneself to be someone unacceptable to society.  Dewey and Sam loved each other within the easy familiarity and innocence of childhood.  Dewey did not live to see that love tainted by outside opinion and rejection.  Sam Brady did, and it forced him into an unfulfilled life of hiding and regret.  Martin shows us that behind all the meaningless labels we affix to ourselves and others, we are all the same.

This book does not contain one extra word.  The prose is so simple it is deceptive.  The characters are the people who live down the street.  And this may be the best book written this year.

The After-Dinner Gardening Book, by Richard W. Langer

Richard W. Langer
Illustrations by Susan McNeill
The Macmillan Company, Toronto, Ontario
1969, 198 pages, (Hardcover)

On a recent trip to a favorite used book store, my son, an aspiring gardener, bought this book, and it is definitely the find of the summer.  We had made a small attempt at container gardening on the deck of our condominium.  We had planted some heirloom tomatoes, and beans and peppers, but were feeling the restrictions of having no yard of our own where we were free to experiment on a grander scale.

He quickly read this book, and encouraged me to do the same, and we were both hooked.  The object is to start plants from whatever is left after dinner.  The top of the pineapple, the pit of the avocado, or the seeds of the papaya can all become a mini indoor or outdoor garden in no time.  In the case of the author, and his long-suffering wife (who illustrated the book), the indoor garden was not so mini.  He referred to it as “living in a jungle.”  An avocado tree had to be moved to larger quarters – twice!  This, in a New York apartment, with less than perfect sunlight.

While Langer was experimenting with new varieties of plants, he did his research.  And that was not as easy in 1969 as it is today with the Internet.  He frequented the New York Botanical Gardens Library, and contacted experts in Illinois and Hawaii for assistance with problem plants, as well as his local library.  The book boasts an ample bibliography, which could provide some interesting further reading.

All of this research is distilled and offered to us beginners at one plant per chapter.  Langer gives explicit directions on how to proceed from table to pot, and his wife, Susan McNeill, illustrated the plants at various stages of growth.  He offers insight on the best way to germinate the seeds, the best potting mediums for the various plants, how often to water, how much sun is needed, etc.

Also, don’t be afraid of a large initial investment in pots, special growing mediums, or tools.  Langer believes in using what is at hand.  Sand from constructions sites, juice-can lids to cover drainage holes in the bottoms of pots, a knife, fork, and spoon for tools, and some disposable containers, such as cut-off milk cartons, were some of the ways he kept the cost of his jungle in line.  He rarely found it necessary to purchase special materials, and his results were spectacular.

The real fun of the book, though, is Langer’s retelling of his own first attempts at each variety of plant, and the mistakes inherent in that process.  In his funny, self-deprecating style, he makes us aware that most of the fun is in the process, not in a particular result.

A Map of Glass, by Jane Urquhart

Jane Urquhart
MacAdam/Cage Publishing, San Francisco, CA
ISBN: 978-1-59692-213-6
$14.00, 2007, 371 pages (Softcover)

It’s difficult to distill Jane Urquhart’s writing into a few paragraphs. Her story lines are so expertly woven, and her characters so deep, that one finds ever more layers and more connections. I believe her to be one of the best authors writing today. Every book leaves the reader wanting more, unwilling to part with the characters at the end.

Urquhart’s writing is so seamless that she can get away with changing voice from chapter to chapter, using flashbacks to fill in the backstory, and dividing her books into separate story lines. These techniques usually leave me cold, as most writers who use these techniques lose the flow and momentum of the story. Not so with Urquhart.

This book is divided into three parts. In the first part she introduces Arthur, who has wandered, old and in the fog of Alzheimer’s, to the island of his family’s history, and soon dies in a snow storm. Jerome, an artist visiting the island on retreat, finds him. And Sylvia, who had a love affair with Arthur, seeks out Jerome to learn about the circumstances of Arthur’s death.

The story of Arthur’s ancestors, which makes up the midsection of the book, is like a bonus story, complete and gemlike, enriching the other story lines of the book. The story begins with Arthur’s great-great grandfather Joseph Woodman’s emigration to Canada, living on what became known as Timber Island, as that was his trade. Urquhart takes us through his life there, with his children Branwell and Annabelle, and into the life of his grandson, Maurice. In old age, his own memory slipping, Joseph would sometimes dress and go to the office, failing “to recall that not one serviceable tree remained in the vicinity of the tributaries and rivers that flowed into the Great Lakes and that, in consequence, his business was all but defunct.”

In the third part Urquhart moves back to Sylvia and Jerome, who, over a period of only a few days, tell each other their stories and help each other find some measure of understanding and peace.

These changes are not jarring, as they so often are, due to Urquhart’s ability to draw one immediately into a story, and to make her characters immediately likeable and interesting. Jane Urquhart understands that the best characters in books are flawed. Sylvia has a ‘condition’ that is explained throughout the book, but is never named. Her marriage to Malcolm is brought about because of this condition, and limited by it. Because of this condition, it is only a great yearning for answers about Arthur’s death that moves her to make the journey to find and talk to Jerome. Jerome is a young artist trying to understand, and yet still devastated by, the childhood abuse inflicted on him by his alcoholic father. His relationship with his partner, Mira, is affected by his lack of trust and failure to move beyond the past.

When Sylvia finds Jerome, and they begin to talk, Sylvia is finally able to share the importance of her love for Arthur, and the loss she endured when Arthur became more and more unreachable due to the Alzheimer’s. And Jerome is able to share his stories of his father’s alcoholism and abuse with Sylvia. Urquhart writes so succinctly: “The term alcoholism slid into Sylvia’s mind. It occurred to her that like so many things that can go wrong, the word started with the letter a.”

There is sadness in their stories, but when Sylvia returns with her husband to their home, Jerome has a dream of his father, and begins to understand.

Urquhart understands that no matter how carefully we try to control our lives, they get away from us. They get complicated and messy. We do the best we can, some of us more honorably and effectively than others, but we still end up with a mess. We compromise most of the time, finding that having some of the life we want is better than having none. We never really get to have it all, and in the end are sometimes robbed of what we had when memory fails.

Her characters accept this more quietly and gracefully than most people I know. They are able to weigh their options, and know themselves enough to make the right decisions. Sylvia goes home with Malcolm. Jerome can begin to look forward to a life with Mira, having put to rest at least some of his demons. They quietly get through it, and move forward.

The Welsh Girl, by Peter Ho Davies

Peter Ho Davies
Houghton Mifflin Company, New York
ISBN-13: 978-0-618-0700-4; ISBN-10: 0-618-00700-8
$24.00, 2007, 333 pages (Hardcover)

Because I have read short stories by Peter Ho Davies in various publications, I was able to overcome my usual aversion to the World War II setting and read this novel anyway. I was not disappointed. This writing is flawless, and he brings the war into the story only as it brings people together and forces them apart, as it changes perceptions of home, family, freedom, and country. His focus is not on history, but rather on the very personal ways history changes individuals.

Davies made me care about his characters. Esther, the young Welsh woman living on a sheep farm in Wales, and Karsten, the German soldier who needs her help to escape the prisoner-of-war camp abutting her father’s sheep grazing fields, are brought to life in situations neither would have dreamed possible. War forces them into situations that require them, in very different ways, to redefine the principles and ethics which govern their lives. They grow to become more admirable in the short time allotted by the author. Each challenges in his or her own way the boundaries within which they live, and each moves beyond the war with dignity.

The questions asked by this book are the big ones. It questions honor and bravery, surrender and escape, success and failure, in a time when it seems one might only be admired for dying. Davies speaks of all these complicated issues and relationships with a calm simplicity that makes the reading effortless. One sinks into the story, feels surrounded by it, and is allowed total escape into the world he has created. The end comes much too soon.

The book’s ending isn’t the tidy one most authors would have written. But such an ending would have diminished the book’s narrative power. Instead, Davies has shown that, even within the small lives most of us live, we may surprise ourselves in unexpected ways. There is no simple definition of courage.