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David Sibley’s Sibley’s Birding Basics

David Sibley, the author and illustrator of Sibley’s Birding Basics is best known as the man responsible for The Sibley Guide to Birds (second edition 2014). David Sibley is also the content expert behind the iOS app The Sibley eGuide. The son of an ornithologist, Sibley grew up birding, beginning to draw birds as a young child, eventually leading birding tours. Deciding that the current birding field guides could be better, he released his first New York Times bestselling bird guide, The Sibley Field Guide to Birds in 2000 (second edition 2014). He’s also partnered with Audubon in producing the new Audubon Online Field Guide To North American Birds.

cover of Sibley’s Birding BasicsSibley’s Birding Basics is not a bird identification field guide; instead, it’s a how-to manual about bird watching and identification. Or, as Sibley says in his “Introduction”: “It is the challenge and the process of identification that is the primary focus of this book.” This isn’t a book for the casual birder, instead it’s a book for the kind of birder who keeps a list of birds they’ve seen at their feeder (or in their life). It’s a book intended for someone interested in the next level of birding, someone who already has a field guide (or three) and is interested in becoming a better birder.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“It is the challenge and the process of identification that is the primary focus of this book.”[/perfectpullquote]

In addition to the Introduction, there are sixteen chapters; the first eight are broadly about locating and identifying birds based on physical traits and behavior. The first chapter, Getting Started is particularly helpful int terms of specific tips like “Learn to see details,” and “Focus on the bird’s bill and face.” He talks about the importance of watching for various patterns in terms of appearance and behavior. I particularly like that he talks about the value of not only a good field guide and binoculars, but suggests using a notebook for quick notes and sketches (whether or not a birder is artistic, sketches help remind us of what we noticed). I also liked that Sibley points out the usefulness of marking up a field guide with annotations or stickers as a way to help remember and to make finding information easier.

Sibley also covers “Finding Birds,” “The Challenges of Bird Identification,” “Misidentification,” “Identifying Rare Birds,” “Taxonomy,” and “Using Behavioral Cues.” He offers lots of specific examples of what to avoid in terms of attempting to identify a specific bird, and a wealth of tips. The tips are both specific and practical, for instance, “A simple method of ‘measuring’ part of a bird in the field is to compare it to another part of the bird.”

I’m particularly pleased to see an entire chapter of Sibley’s Birding Basics devoted to identifying and paying attention to “Voice,” or the songs and calls that birds make. Sibley offers clear description and definitions of the distinction between calls and songs, and breaks them down even further, with kinds of calls: Contact call, Flight call, Other calls. I also like the way he notes the common mnemonics birders use to remember what birds make what songs; like the White-throated Sparrow “Old Sam, Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” This is one of the most helpful things for a new birder to know. I wish that he had included more (and that more birders knew about them).

The second half of the book is largely devoted to bird anatomy and the correct terms of art for various parts of birds in order to specifically focus on identifying the species, and even the age and sex of a particular bird. There are particularly helpful and deep discussion about feathers, how they function, what the various sections are called, coloration and color patterns, and the nature and function of molting, both as a seasonal event and in terms of the changes some birds pass through as they age from fledgling to breeding adult. I am particularly glad that the final chapter is on “Ethics and Conservation” in the context of birding.

The ebook version seems to have all 200 illustrations (though I didn’t count them), but honestly, this is an instance where personally, I’d much rather have the printed version than the ebook. The artwork is fantastic, and it really does add a lot to the book. The binding is a semi-rigid “flexibound” plastic binding. It’s flexible but durable. The paper is high quality and the artwork, which includes full birds as well as detailed images of specific features, really does shine.

David Sibley’s Sibley’s Birding Basics is very much like having an experience birder by your side. Lots of specific practical tips, terms of art carefully explained and illustrated, and loaded with specific examples, often profusely illustrated with 200 of Sibley’s paintings. Birding Basics is not a substitute for a field guide, but it is a wonderful introduction to birding effectively and a great companion to a field guide.

David Sibley has a Website. He’s also written a number of other books about birds, birding, and trees.

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Cover of Samuel Fromartz IN Search of the Perfect Loaf

Samuel Fromartz, In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey

Cover of Samuel Fromartz IN Search of the Perfect Loaf

I was intrigued by the basic premise of Samuel Fromartz’ book In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey. An experienced journalist with a weighty list of credits, Fromartz got That Call in late 2008. The economy was in a downward spiral and he lost two major long term gigs on the same day. When a travel publication appeared on his horizon, he pitched a story about going to Paris to learn how to make the perfect baguette, that iconic symbol of the Parisian boulangerie. The editor accepted, and that initial article was the starter for this book.

Fromartz, an experienced home baker, had tried to make the classic baguette (his “perfect loaf”) at home and been less than satisfied. The book begins with his trip to France, and his experience working in a French bakery (Boulangerie Delmontel). From there, successive chapters discuss trips to other bakers, covering a variety of bread and baking styles, ranging from sour dough and flat bread to archaic and heritage wheats and grains, to a trip to Germany to learn the secrets of working with rye.

As much as I value Ken Forkish’s Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast, I think Fromartz’ book is a better place to start as a serious home bread baker (honestly, you’ll want both books). There are some important concepts explained exceedingly well in In Search of The Perfect Loaf, most notably, the idea that a long rise is ultimately beneficial for good bread. This is not unique to Fromartz, of course; in fact he notes that it’s part of the reason that “no knead” breads popularized by Jim Lahey and Mark Bittman work so well. But Fromartz explains the whys and the wherefores very clearly, both in terms of the science of bread making, and perhaps more memorably, by anecdote. The other concept that underlies his introduction and the narratives that frame his recipes is the idea that a lot of the difficulty of bread making is removed by practice. By being open to less than successful loaves, and willing to try again, bread makers will learn. As Fromartz notes, “it takes time to learn.”

The chapters each feature a recipe, its difficulty graded as Easy, Moderate or Difficult. The measurements are given in gram weights (you really do need a kitchen scale and a thermometer, at least at first), but one of the most helpful aspects of the recipes are the detailed instructions about the process, including the schedule, divided into sections as “Morning, First Day,” “Evening, First Day,” “Second Day,” and “Baking.” Having said that, his explanation and tips for a baker’s first time creating a sour dough starter are the clearest and least fussy I’ve seen.

There’s a glossary at the end of the book, though Fromartz does a great job of explaining words in context, and end notes for those interested in the particulars of, for instance, the history of grain cultivation, the nature of yeast, or celiac disease, an extremely useful and clear “Bibliographic Note,” and an index. There aren’t a lot of pictures, but they’re well chosen, and do more than offer eye candy.

In Search of the Perfect Loaf was short-listed for the Art of Eating prize and won the Literary Food Writing award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals for the first edition (Viking, 2014). I read the paperback edition for this review, and I would encourage Penguin to list the difficulties for the various recipes in the table of contents where they list the included recipe as part of the chapter detail. This book is a perfect book to publish as a video annotated multimedia ebook; I hope that that happens some day.

Samuel Fromartz has a website. He blogs and is on Twitter as @fromartz. For a typically clear and practical example of his writing, see this post on his blog about dough temperature and successful bread making; the book is full of such information.

(Penguin Books, 2014)

Cover of Neil Rudenstine's Ideas of Order

Neil L. Rudenstine, Ideas of Order: A Close Reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Neil L. Rudenstine is a retired English literature professor specializing in Renaissance literature, a former President of Harvard University, and a Rhodes Scholar. Ideas of Order: A Close Reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is exactly what the title says it is—a close reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

Cover of Neil Rudenstine's Ideas of Order

Rudenstine is neither the first nor the last to engage in a detailed examination and reading of the Sonnets; he is preceded most notably by Stephen Booth, in An Essay On Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Yale, 1969), Booth’s facing page edition with a modern spelling and a Quarto version side by side, Shakespeare’s Sonnets Edited with an Analytic Commentary (Yale UP, second edition 1977) and Rudenstine’s Harvard colleague Helen Vendler’s The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Harvard University Press, 1997), as well as numerous scholarly editions like Shakespeare’s Sonnets edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones (Arden, 1997).

What differentiates Rudentstine on the Sonnets from other editors and scholars is, first, his emphasis on reading Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets as a series, a cycle, in a particular order. Secondly, that he takes his initial thesis from an essay published in 1961 by Richard Blackmur (“A Poetics of Infatuation” collected in in Outsider in the Heart of Things. University of Illinois Press, 1989) on the innate order of the Sonnets as printed, or as Blakmur puts it: “the sequence we have seems sensible with respect to [the poems’] sentiments, and almost a “desirable” sequence with respect to the notion of development (6). Rudenstine in Ideas of Order embarks on an effort to read Shakespeare’s Sonnets as a sequence, in context.

He is successful, I think, in providing a sensitive and coherent reading of the Sonnets “in order.” That order, for Rudentstine, is the numbered sequence of the sonnets as presented in their first complete printing, the probably-unapproved-by-Shakespeare “pirate” printing in 1609. Unfortunately, Rudenstine, who states he is writing for the ordinary reader rather than the academic, never specifically states that the order is derived from the numbered sequence in the 1609 edition, the order most editions follow, a point that must be confusing to some readers, but must have seemed patently obvious to a scholar and academic.

In Ideas of Order Rudenstine begins with an introduction that offers an overview of the Sonnets in terms of a thematic, even a narrative, progression. Successive chapters discuss individual sonnets and as parts of smaller sequences. Rudenstine presents his reading of the Sonnets in the first 157 pages, then follows that with a lightly edited edition of the sonnets using conventional Modern English spelling and punctuation, absent any further glosses or annotations. He includes a short bibliography as a guide to those interested in reading more about Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

Rudenstine’s reading focuses on the argument of the Sonnets, the constant waning and waxing and fluctuations of relationships between the poetic speaker and his young male friend in the first 126 sonnets, and later, with the poet’s mistress. The first 126 sonnets from the poet to his friend are followed by 25 more in which the poet addresses his mistress (sonnets 127–54), also discussed and closely commented on by Rudenstine.

Rudenstine observes that the relationship between the poet narrator and his friend, is a matter of love, and that “This love is utterly transformative for the poet, and he remains firmly devoted to it, regardless of the friend’s (as well as his own) unfaithulness” (8). Rundenstine perceptively also draws attention to a different relationship between the poet narrator and the friend; that of the friend’s “chosen or favored writer,” a phrase Rudenstine prefers to the more conventional “patron” because while “Important elements of patronage exist, but the poet’s frequent critiques of his friend, and the intimate nature of the love, take us well beyond anything conventional” (10).

Rudenstine’s reading and thematic tracing of the relationship’s recursive and digressive patterns through the Sonnets is followed by a short conclusion, in which Rudenstine discusses the changing rhetorical selves, or “roles” that the poet presents in the Sonnets. Rudenstine also uses his conclusion to examine larger thematic concerns of the Sonnets, in terms of thematic patterns, of opposition and balance, and finally, of transformation.

This is neither the best nor the worst introduction to the Sonnets, but it is very much worth the time to read it, then progress to reading the unadorned Sonnets themselves; I expect that you will find yourself, as I did, returning to the earlier sections to re-read Rudenstine’s commentary.

In November 2015, next month, Farrar Strauss and Giroux will be bringing out a paperback edition of Neil L. Rudentstine’s Ideas of Order: A Close Reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, for those interested in perusing the book for themselves.

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)

Cover of Stephen King's Finders Keepers showing an open book with blood raining down in front of it

Stephen King, Finders Keepers

Cover of Stephen King's Finders Keepers showing an open book with blood raining down in front of it

Stephen King’s summer release, Finders Keepers, picks up the saga of retired police detective (“Det Ret”) Bill Hodges, a story King began in his previous novel, Mr. Mercedes. Although it’s book two of a planned Bill Hodges Trilogy, Finders Keepers doesn’t suffer from any of the usual middle-of-a-trilogy weaknesses. The novel stands easily on its own, the story is compelling and complex, the characters are engaging, and the conflict had me holding my breath for the inevitable resolution.

The plot of Finders Keepers unfolds in narrative that alternates back and forth in time, starting with the infamous unsolved murder of a renowned American novelist in the 70s, and ending up in the present day of adolescent protagonist Peter Sauber, who is dealing with the effects on his family resulting from a mass-murder during a recession-era job fair (these are the events from the first novel in the planned trilogy,  Mr. Mercedes) — where young Pete’s father was badly injured.

Cover of Sephen King's Mr Mercedes showing an open umbrella and a rain of blood

Pete finds a buried treasure, and must struggle with questions about doing the right thing, familial obligation, filial love, and that ultimate bugbear of adolescence: Life isn’t fair.

Ultimately, of course, the terrifying (and somehow pitiable) antagonist of the piece (the guy who buried the treasure in the first place) comes looking for it.

When King writes about writing and writers, the reader automatically assumes a degree of self-reflexive storytelling. Just a few such examples over the years include Misery, The Dark Half, Bag of Bones, and Lisey’s Story — each of which are powerful novels that provide as much internal character exposition as external. But where the aforementioned novels examine the internal struggle of writers floundering between worlds both internal and external, Finders Keepers examines the experience of readers entering the world created by a powerful story. The novel examines the experience of reader-engaging-text almost as a kind of conversion narrative.

King holds a secure place in a long line of fundamentally Puritan New England writers. He returns again and again to themes of good versus evil, faith versus cynicism, innocence versus wickedness, judgement versus revenge, and ultimately, damnation versus redemption.  He’s subversive, however, in that an innocent reader is unlikely to suspect there’s more going on than than a tear-you-along-by-your hair narrative guaranteed to keep you up and reading well past your bedtime.

Finders Keepers fits neatly into that body of work, while remaining compulsively readable and never preachy. The novel poses unanswered questions regarding literary compulsion, desire, and the sometimes dysfunctional symbiosis between writer and reader — yet remains a rollicking good thriller completely suitable for a summer-blockbuster beach read.

And, as usual, I can hardly wait for King’s next book.

(Scribner, 2015)

Archie Fisher, A Silent Song

I should confess right up front that Archie Fisher is one of my very favorite song writers and performers. It isn’t overstating the case to say Fisher (along with Jean Redpath and NPR’s Fiona Ritchie and Thistle and Shamrock) had a lot to do with my interests in the Child ballads, Scots, Middle Scots, and ultimately, medieval literature.


A Silent Song is Fisher’s latest album, one of at least a dozen I can name. For those of you who don’t know who Archie Fisher is, he was producing albums, playing guitar, and performing with people like Bert Jansch and Tommy Makem and producing for groups like Silly Wizard for the last thirty years or so. He has at least six previous solo  albums. Fisher comes from a family of musicians, including a Scottish Gaelic speaking mother, and two sisters (Rae and Cilla Fisher) with albums of their own, not to mention a joint album featuring the Fisher family. He’s toured with Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Garnet Rogers. His songs have been covered by all sorts of people, including Tommy Makem and Garnet Rogers. His most famous song is probably “The Witch of the West-Mer-Lands,” a song which for years I thought was a traditional ballad that Child just missed, because Child did miss some. But no, “Witch of the West-mer-lands” is Archie Fisher’s own (“The Final Trawl” is his too). Fisher worked on several documentaries for BBC Radio Scotland and from 1983–2010 was the host for the folk and traditional music program Travelling Folk. That, in turn led to Fisher directing the Edinburgh Folk Festival from 1988–1992. Those achievements led in part to Archie Fisher being awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth II in 2006.

Fisher’s first solo album was the 1968 Archie Fisher (Transatlantic Records), but while there have been a handful of albums since then, A Silent Song is his first new album since 2008’s Windward Away (also from Red House Records). Its 15 tracks feature not only Archie Fisher on guitar and voice but also Luna Skye on cello, Linda Richards on vocals, Phillip Mazure on guitar, Isaac Alderson on flute, and Rob Norris and Joel Sayles on bass. A Silent Song is a mix of new songs by Fisher, traditional songs, and songs by others. Some of the songs are partly old, and partly new, like Judy B. Goodenough’s “The Parting Glass,” (middle verse added by Fisher) of which Fisher notes “The finale song that I joined in on in my time with Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy, with an added middle verse for the lads and my late buddie [sic] Alan Barty.”

This is a meditative album, thematically, with songs about loss, about parted friends, and the passing of time setting the tone. Four of the songs (“Waltz into Winter,” “Half the World way,” “Song for a Friend,” “You Took the Day”) are new songs by Archie Fisher. Two (“Mary Ann” and “Bonnie Annie Laurie”) are as Fisher puts it in the PR material “revived historical favorites.” “No Way to Treat a Friend” was written by Kirsty McGee, “A River Like You” is by Ian Davison, “The Gifts” is from Richard Berman, all three contemporary singer-song writers. But, aside from the overall theme of contemplation about time and relationships, there’s also a common thread in that even the modern songs like “The Gifts” are comfortable with tradition, albeit linguistically contemporary, as in this verse from “The Gifts”:

My father gave to me a saddle of tooled leather
A restless horse, a well-honed blade passed down by his father
He asked me if I knew the way
I answered I will find mine
Just come back is all he’d say
So long ago so far away

The first two lines might almost, like so much of Fisher’s repetoire, be pre-1800, even if the rest of the song is clearly later. And that brings me to what, for me, is the highlight of the entire album; the track Fisher titles “The Lord of the May.” Fisher’s album notes for the song say “I found the words on an old Xerox text in a book of Robert Burns poetry and it had a kinda banjo feel to it.” The tune is Archie Fisher’s own. This is a song with the chorus “Rede ye beware of the hunting young man.” It is, as Fisher notes in this video from 2012, a shape-changing ballad, wherein a father inadvertently kills his daughter in a hunting accident. It is reminiscent, in terms of motifs, of the extended version of “Orfeo,” Fisher wrote and performed that was based loosely on Child # 19 “King Orfeo” (Decca 1970/. The lyrics in “The Lord of the May” include

For the lord of the May has sorrow for aye
His daughter away by the fairies was ta’en

This is the song that will stick with me the most; it made me sit up when I first heard it on YouTube, and again when I first played the CD of A Silent Song.

the Red House Records website features videos of the tracks on the album as well as audio samples. You’ll also see the dates for Archie Fisher’s current concert tour, starting on 9/18/2015 in Minneapolis, and ranging through New England and Pennsylvania. Some of the shows feature Garnet Rogers along with Archie Fishers. I’ve seen them both in concert; if you possibly can, you should too.

(Red House Records, 2015)

Cover of Ursula Le Guin's Finding My Elege, showing landscape and sunset

Ursula K. Le Guin, Finding My Elegy

Cover of Ursula Le Guin's Finding My Elegy, showing landscape and sunset

I have to confess, I’ve stalled writing this review because I don’t want to think about reading any elegies for Ursula Le Guin. Ive been reading and treasuring her books and essays and poems since I was child growing up in the 70s in a single-wide trailer on the wind-scoured American Great Plains. Le Guin wrote doors for me to other places, fascinating places, places to dream of visiting and aspire to reach. An elegy traditionally laments someone’s death. In a more contemporary sense, an elegy may be an expression of existential or metaphysical loss, sadness, or yearning. To consider an elegy for Le Guin means having to admit she’s old and cannot live and write forever. I hate that. Not only because it requires facing the realization that I’ve gotten a great deal older as well, but because the notion itself makes me sad, anticipating the inevitable loss of a treasured friend and ally regardless of the fact that she’s not someone I know personally.

There’s no introduction, no forward, no dedication; Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems, byUrsula K. Le Guin opens quite simply and immediately after the colophon and table of contents with a short, early poem. Offering serves as both preface and invocation, entreating the reader and invisible gods to judge a poem made of the verge of sleep but then forgotten upon waking, and if finding it good, to accept it as an offering. Taken with the resonance of elegy in the collection’s title, and the clear symbolism of sleep as a metaphor for death, the initial poem is a clear invitation to the reader to explore these inner lands with the writer, then make up our own minds regarding the worth and weight of the journey.

Inner lands are familiar territory for Le Guin. Her essay collection, The Language of the Night, begins with a 1973 essay called “A Citizen of Mondath” in which she opens with a quotation from A Dreamer’s Tales, by Lord Dunsany:

Toldees, Mondath, Arizim, these are the Inner Lands, the lands whose sentinels upon their borders do not behold the sea. Beyond them to the east there lies a desert, for ever untroubled by man: all yellow it is, and spotted with shadows of stones, and Death is in it, like a leopard lying in the sun.

Le Guin concludes her essay with the observation that, “Outer Space, and the Inner Lands, are still, and always will be, my country.” It’s fitting, then, that nearly forty years later, Le Guin is still exploring those Inner Lands with additional maturity, insight, and gravitas.

It’s sometimes difficult to explore big and abstract ideas in prose without sounding pompous and impenetrable, and likewise its hard to express simple daily observations without sounding trite and a little dull and droning on with too many words to convey what was an instant of experience. These are the sorts of insights sometimes better reserved for poetry.

Finding My Elegy offers poems written between 1960 and 2010, so some of them will likely be familiar to the longtime Le Guin reader. Seventy of the poems were selected from earlier volumes, and seventy-seven are presented for the first time. The poems range in length and form, romp with expression and wordplay, and wind about exploring the impossible and inexpressible, the sacred contrasted with the profane.

There are quiet poems about life and work and sleeping cats, here, reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s gift for juxtaposing the mundane with the profound. There are longer, more structured, careful poems, exploring the faces of god and motherhood and love and sex and despair and sleep.

The poems span the entirety of Le Guin’s career so far, from 1960 to present; collected and presented together, they distill much of Le Guin’s writing life. Finding My Elegy is not so much lament as examination, a recollection of a literary body of work that is rich, evocative, and sometimes whimsical much like any life.

An elegy for such a remarkable body of work and thought must be sought, because theres so very much to recall, sort, and consider, that there are no simple summations. The entire retrospective taken as a whole reads like a single long poem made of many smaller parts.

Nothing about Le Guin’s selection and presentation of these poems is accidental or random, and as a reader its only fitting that we approach this collection with the same attention to detail and mindfulness, both of the parts and of the whole of the book. As Le Guins reader, we seek so that we, too, may find her elegy.

If you haven’t read much poetry,don’t worry: Finding My Elegy is an excellent door into the inner lands for any reader. If you’re a long time poetry lover,you’ll find the journey extraordinarily rewarding and well worth your consideration. Ultimately, the collection, itself, is a long and lovely elegy to be remembered, reconsidered, and revisited again and again.