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The Big Year

A book lent to me by a firend who is a fellow casual birder. I really enjoyed this story of three competitive type birdwatchers and their quest to see the most different types of birds within the confines of US territory. This includes multiple pelagic trips out to see birds that never come to land, and a necessary trip to Attu, waaaay out on the end of the Aleutian Islands where you hope for birds to be blown over from Asia. The writing in this book is sharp and lively without being too jokey or bird-nerdy. The author assembled the narrative form the journals and hundreds of interviews of the three main characters but has also complemented them with his own research into bird trivia which added greatly to my enjoyment of this book. Whether you’re really into birds or just wonder what all the fuss is about, you’re likely to enjoy this book.

The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup

Loved this. Orleans writes very well about people so normal that they become fascinating. Her character sketches are at one sort of commonplace -- here is the guy who runs the fan store, here is a ten year old boy and what he does, here is a lady who sells buttons -- and totally captivating. Part of this is her low drama but also very intense way of describing her subject. Everyone becomes three-dimensional under Orleans' eye and she seems to know both what makes the characters interesting to themselves as well as what a random reader might want to know. Each chapter is better than the next. It’s worth trying to track down this book.

Possum Living: How to Live Well Without a Job and With (Almost) No Money

Mixed feelings about this one. It’s a reissue of a 1980’s classic in which Dolly Freed, homeschooled girl living outside of Philadelphia, talks about how she and her dad live more or less off the wage-slave grid, raising their own animals for food and growing most of their own vegetables. There’s something really captivating about it in its own way - living without a job! the good life! -- and at the same time it just seems a little weird. There is an entire chapter (later recanted by the author in this reissue) about how to “convince” people of things, mostly by going to their house late at night and scaring them. There is also an awful lot of space dedicated to how to distill your own liquor. Which, hey, to each their own and maybe I’m just a fussy prude, but with the added afterword by the author about how her father eventually drank himself pretty much to death, the book seemed framed in a fairly different way.

There is a lot of lip service given to how you just need to want to do something and you can do it when they discuss going without health insurance and how Dolly eventually got a job at NASA, but her adult self is a lot more mellow and forgiving about things. People who are interested in this particular book and Dolly Freed in particular should check out some of the meta-information that’s available about this book including this documentary short and this longer article.

Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops?

A terrific and fun book that takes the nostalgia thing we all feel for the toys and gadgets of our childhood and makes a smart and entertaining book out of it. These sorts of books are popular, so it’s easy to phone it in when writing them and you’ll still have a hit, but these writers really dug for background information and amusing anecdotes that makes you excited to turn to the next page. Great gift, great book, highly recommended.

The Magicians

I enjoyed this. Grossman’s last book that I read was Codex which some people likened to a Da Vinci Code ripoff btu I actually liked it better than the Da Vinci Code. This book was terrific in that Harry Potter sort of “kid goes to Wizard School” way but I’m afraid it sort of petered off for me at the end when the kids grew up and got fighty and then had to fight som sort of WAR in the magical world they found themselves in. Excellent characters, excellent sense of place, the plot wasn’t my thing.