About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks

About Time coverAbout Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks
David Rooney
W. W. Norton & Company (August 17, 2021), 279 pages
Kindle edition $9.18, Hardcover $24.43

I have always been a time nerd. When I was in elementary school I wanted both a watch and an alarm clock. I eventually got both. Later on, perhaps in my high school years, I became obsessed with accuracy. Folks in urban areas serviced by Pacific Telephone could call a number and get a voice telling them the exact time every ten seconds. Here in Hemet our phone company was General Telephone. For a long time we didn’t have a time service. When we eventually got one we had to listen to a one-sentence ad, followed by the time accurate only to the minute.

At Pitzer College in Claremont I was in the dorms my first three years and had to deal with the campus phone system and all its limitations. But I had my own phone my senior year when I lived off campus and then after graduation when I stayed in town for two years. General Telephone also serviced Claremont, but I could dial area code 213 and then the time phone number to get the accurate time from Pacific Telephone. My other option was to listen to the all-news radio station, KNX. There was always a tone at exactly the top of the hour that started the CBS radio newscast.

As an adult, when I lived in Oklahoma City I bought a boom box that included the shortwave band. That allowed me to listen to WWB, where a recorded voice gave the time every ten seconds. Later, in Silicon Valley, I bought watches that would sync to WWB’s automated time signal counterpart, WWVB. I still own two of them. These days, of course, our computers, smartphones, and cable boxes offer that accuracy transparently. I use my WWVB-synced watch or the cable box to ensure that the clocks on the stove and microwave are accurate.

So it should be no surprise that when I came across the book About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks I bought it. Fascinating stuff.

The author David Rooney tells us that the Roman general Valerius brought a sundial to Rome in 263 BCE. It was immediately unpopular as suddenly there was a new way to order people’s lives. He says that the science of measuring and ordering time goes back much further than that. He writes that the first water clocks date back over 3,500 years to ancient Babylon and Egypt.

Rooney writes about the extent to which humankind has gone to display accurate time. He writes about the astronomical clock at Strasbourg Cathedral which was finished in 1574. Rooney tells us that the clock displayed religious teaching and astrological prediction as well as the number of days between Christmas and Shrove Tuesday for a given year.

The implementation of electricity and the telegraph brought in a new phase of timekeeping. Telegraphs could also transmit time signals and in the late nineteenth century businesses could subscribe to a time signal service. A pub owner, for example, would know exactly when it was time to close.

Today’s clocks are incredibly accurate. Rooney explains that today’s financial markets require clocks that are accurate to 100 millionths of a second. I tend to think only of the GPS system that we use in the United States for time and location, but it turns out that there are at least three other satellite time and location systems.

Rooney claims that standardized time came into use not because of the railroads but because 1870s anti-alcohol reformers used clocks to manage their protests. Perhaps that was the case in England (Rooney is British) but I believe that in the United States our four time zones were closely tied to the railroads and their timetables.

Time nerd that I am, I found About Time a fascinating read with a lot of material that was new to me.

The Bohemians

The Bohemians coverThe Bohemians: A Novel
Jasmin Darznik
Ballantine Books (April 6, 2021), 334 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $16.99

I don’t often read historical fiction, but a favorable review of The Bohemians prompted me to add it to my reading list. I’m glad I did.

The novel is a fictionalized account of the life of photographer Dorothea Lange. With Dorothea speaking in the first person, it follows her as a young woman coming from the East Coast to San Francisco in 1918. She brought only her Graflex camera and a small amount of money, which a good-looking thief stole from her at the ferry terminal. The novel tracks her industriousness and how she convinced a wealthy San Francisco businessman to provide financial backing so she could set up a portrait studio.

Central to the story is Caroline, a Chinese American woman who becomes her assistant. Through Caroline Dorothea learns that San Francisco of 1918 was a bigoted city where people held a strong prejudice against Asians and Italians. The climax of the book centers on a horrific act of violence against Caroline and Dorothea’s efforts to identify the attacker and exact revenge.

Most of us are familiar with Lange as the photojournalist who documented the Great Depression, in particular via that iconic photo of the migrant farm worker with her children. But in the novel this part of her life represents only a small section at the end of the book. Darznik focuses most of the novel on her effort to create a business out of nothing and then on her success as a portrait photographer to San Francisco’s rich and famous. That, and how her life was intertwined with Caroline.

Darznik intermixes what we know historically with wholly imagined fiction. She provides both an Author’s Note and a Historical Notes section at the end of the book. These sections tell us what we know as fact and what the author has imagined. For example, the novel describes her marriage to and eventual divorce from the artist Maynard Dixon, a much older man. All of that really happened. On the other hand, all we know about Dorothea’s assistant is that she was of Asian background and that some sources refer to her as Ah-yee. Darznik in her author’s note tells us that “Caroline Lee comes from my imagination.”

The author does a good job avoiding anachronisms until near the end of the book. There she has a couple of slip-ups. She uses the word “scrum” when referring to a crowd of people. That, of course, is a rugby term more recently adopted by the high-tech world. People in depression-era America wouldn’t have known the word. She refers to pulling off the freeway during her travels. I don’t believe there were freeways in the rural Bay Area of the 1930s. In another narrative disconnect she mentions coming home to her sons after being away taking pictures for several days. Sons who up to that point the narrator hadn’t mentioned.

Those are minor faults, however. Darznik’s writing flows beautifully and her plot is compelling. The Bohemians was enjoyable reading and offers a vivid portrait of San Francisco in the first half of the twentieth century.

Studying with Miss Bishop

Studying with Miss Bishop coverStudying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life
Dana Gioia
Paul Dry Books (January 5, 2021), 125 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $16.95

Dana Gioia is a contemporary of mine, being only two plus years older than me. Like me, he grew up in Southern California. And like me he was a book nerd as a youngster. He writes “I still find it exciting to remember the titles and luridly exuberant covers of those Ace and Ballantine paperbacks.” Ah, yes, those marvelous afternoons at Hungry Eye books in downtown Hemet when I was in high school.

Gioia got his undergraduate degree from Stanford University and an MA in comparative literature from Harvard. He then returned to Stanford to get a graduate degree in business. Gioia is best known for his poetry, but the current volume is a memoir in which he recalls six people who helped further his skills as a writer.

The first person Gioia writes about is his uncle. The man was from Mexico and a merchant marine. He was self-educated and an avid collector of books. He didn’t have his own home but stayed in with Gioia and his parents when he wasn’t at sea, and so that is where all his books were. After his premature death in an airplane crash the books remained in Gioia’s parent’s house for the youngster to peruse and enjoy.

The author says little about his undergraduate influences at Stanford, but two of his influences at Harvard each merit their own chapter.

Elizabeth Bishop was a highly regarded poet who was persuaded to teach a class at Harvard. Although a graduate student, Gioia enrolled in Bishop’s undergraduate course in poetry. By the time the class shook itself out at the beginning of the semester there were only four undergraduates and Gioia. Harvard administration relegated the class to a small basement room. Although Bishop did not enjoy teaching the course, Gioia and Bishop developed a mutual respect as they walked across campus together after class.

Gioia’s second influence at Harvard was the poet and classicist Robert Fitzgerald. I certainly know Fitzgerald as it was his translation of The Odyssey that my classics professor assigned at Pitzer College. Although not as reluctant a teacher as Bishop, neither was he enthusiastic. Gioia writes, “When Fitzgerald arrived, he surveyed the mob with weary resignation.” He was, however, a demanding professor. He shared with Ezra Pound the view that “You cannot learn to write by reading English,” and insisted that his students read poetry in multiple languages.

We learn about how the author, while an adviser to undergraduates, was assigned to be John Cheever’s host at Stanford when the novelist visited campus with his son, a high school senior. Poet James Dickey angrily accosted Gioia at a party after Gioia had published a negative review about Dickey’s latest work in a journal Gioia thought no one read. The last influence Gioia writes about was the poet Ronald Perry. Gioia and Perry never met but developed a relationship via postal mail (this being before the days of email). Perry died suddenly just before the two were to have met. Although Gioia was an executive at General Foods at the time, he used some of his evenings and weekends (time meant for his own work) to help establish Perry’s literary legacy.

Studying with Miss Bishop is a slim volume, but it is a delightful behind-the-scenes look at one man’s experience in the literary world.

English Grammar Boot Camp (revisited)

English Grammar Boot Camp coverEnglish Grammar Boot Camp
Anne Curzan, PhD
University of Michigan
Watch for the sale price to recur at The Great Courses
or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription

The Great Courses released this lecture series in 2016 and I had great things to say about it at the time. I thought this would be a good time to revisit it.

Much has changed in five years. Curzan was then a member of the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary, which was for decades my favorite dictionary. Sadly, as I wrote, the usage panel no longer exists and the dictionary is now frozen in time. I now go to Merriam-Webster for my dictionary inquiries. The Chronicle of Higher Education shut down Lingua Franca, the great language blog to which she refers. On the upside, the Google Books Ngram Viewer, which tracks the use of words and phrases over time, now goes up to the year 2019, and not just to 2008 as it did in 2016. And professor Curzan herself? She is now dean of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan.

The passage of time and all these changes notwithstanding, the course holds up nicely five years later. Curzan tells us it is all right to split an infinitive and to end a sentence with a preposition. She says that while it is best to use the active voice in most cases, sometimes flow or style might mean that the passive is more appropriate. There are a couple of things that she emphasizes repeatedly. Curzan tells us that while a certain construction might not be wrong, its use may be jarring to an intended audience and distract them from your message. Or it may simply cause them to view your writing skills negatively. (Depending on your audience, any of the three usage styles mentioned above might be examples.) Curzan also talks about the importance of consistency. Style guides disagree, so she tells us to select one approach and use it consistently.

Curzan does not take a strong stand on the Oxford comma (or serial comma as it is sometimes known). She tells us she prefers it but does not insist on it. Simply be consistent, she says. Personally, I am a big fan of the Oxford comma, as is the Chicago Manual of Style, my preferred style guide. I believe it helps to reduce ambiguity. My favorite example of ambiguity caused by the missing final comma is a book dedication, probably apocryphal (I hate to say): “I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

Curzan is both a linguist and a professor of English, so she offers a balanced approach to grammar and usage. As a linguist, she also provides a lot of historical background and shows us that certain constructions which we might view as recent and incorrect have been around for centuries. For example, Curzan tells us that Shakespeare used both singular they (which Chicago now accepts) and double negatives (Celia in As You Like It: “I cannot go no further.”). The Bard even uses the subject form of a pronoun where we would expect to see the object: “Yes, you have seen Cassio, and she together.” That’s not to say that we should be doing so in formal writing today.

The course title is misleading. This series is both fun and informative. In fact, of all the Great Courses series that I have purchased, and that number now exceeds one hundred, it is the only one for which I have purchased the full course transcript (as opposed to the guidebook that comes with the course).

If you are a grammar or language nerd you will find English Grammar Boot Camp well worth your time.

Vesper Flights

Vesper Flights coverVesper Flights
Helen Macdonald
Grove Press (August 25, 2020), 272 pages
Kindle edition $9.45, Amazon hardcover $15.98

I had this book in my collection of Kindle samples, and when I saw that it appeared in the 2020 NPR Book Concierge under the category Seriously Great Writing I decided I would make it my next book selection.

Helen Macdonald is a scientist and a naturalist based in England. She writes both about her childhood and the travels and encounters she has experienced in her career. She writes about growing up in a house in a rural community owned by the Theosophists (who decided to allow non-members to live there), and how that land changed over the decades. In a long essay she writes about her travel to Chile with a French woman trained in astrophysics. Her specialty was the search for life on Mars, and she believed this remote area resembled the surface of Mars at one point in its history. Macdonald watched migrating birds from the roof of the empire state building and visited a wildlife rescue center. She recounts the history of tracking the swan population on the Thames (it’s called swan upping). She goes mushroom hunting with a distinguished British mycologist.

Macdonald’s writing is, in fact, seriously great, and when appropriate she is an expert at understatement. On her Chile trip, while at the base of a volcano, she writes:

quoteWe find out that very recently there’d been a 5.5-magnitude earthquake in Calama, only an hour and a half away. That isn’t optimal: if water makes its way into the magma chamber beneath the volcano, the volcano might explode. This is not comforting.

She also knows how to deliver a vivid image: “The sky was congested and bruised.” Who would have thought to refer to the sky as bruised? Macdonald’s insights are worth paying attention to, and not to be lost amidst appreciating her writing style: “Animals don’t exist in order to teach us things, but that is what they have always done, and most of what they teach us is what we think we know about ourselves.”

I have to give you one more example of Macdonald’s skill at subtle understatement. She is talking to a friend about the racial rancor that accompanied the run-up to the Brexit vote. She says of her friend, “She shook her head at the tide of recent history and offered me a mint.”

There is much to ponder and reflect on in Vesper Flights. As the author tells us, “No matter how old I am, I thought, sometimes I’ll encounter things that are new.”

Hollywood Eden

Hollywood Eden coverHollywood Eden: Electric Guitars, Fast Cars, and the Myth of the California Paradise
Joel Selvin
read by Peter Berkrot
Blackstone Publishing, April 06, 2021
$13.99 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

If you would like an inside account of the Hollywood Music business in the late fifties and early sixties this is your book.

Author Joel Selvin opens the book with a portrayal of University High School in Los Angeles during the late 1950s. The children of Hollywood actors, directors, and producers attended the school. He describes members of the school football team singing in the locker room shower after a game, led by Jan Berry and his buddy Dean Torrence. The two eventually became the musical duo Jan and Dean. Nancy Sinatra was another University High graduate. Several University graduates were involved in music and worked together in various iterations.

The formation of some musical groups was delayed, or their makeup altered, by the threat of the draft. While this was in the pre-Vietnam era, the draft loomed large in the lives of the men then. Many joined the National Guard or the Navy Reserve to avoid full-time military service. Some enlisted directly while others drew the short straw and were drafted. Jan had another musical partner until Dean returned from his military service.

Selvin describes how the Beach Boys were a backup band, including for some of Berry’s ventures, before making it big on their own. Berry continued to collaborate with the group as they became headliners in their own right. The author talks about how Beach Boy Brian Wilson had a nervous breakdown on the road and limited his role to composing and studio work while the rest of the group performed on concert tours. He writes that the group which became the Mamas and the Papas arrived penniless from the Virgin Islands only to be introduced to a producer by the person with whom they were staying in Los Angeles.

Selvin writes about the management and business side as well. He tells the story of Herb Alpert and Lou Adler. The two had a small management company which was rather slim on assets. They had a falling out and liquidated the company, agreeing to split the assets. That amounted to Alpert taking the Ampex tape recorder and Adler management of Jan and Dean.

The Los Angeles rock music community was small and everyone knew everyone else. More or less the same group of session musicians played in the recording sessions at the small handful of studios in the city. Selvin reminds us that Glen Campbell was an in-demand session guitarist before he made it big as a country rock vocalist.

Ethical behavior was borderline at best. Producers regularly ripped off tunes and arrangements. Different groups would record the same song that would compete on the charts. A promoter would give a group a name and send one set of musicians out on tour while an entirely different group of musicians would record under the same name in the studio.

The sections on studio sessions are particularly interesting. Both Barry and Wilson were real perfectionists, cutting, rearranging, and remixing. They would do multiple, sometimes a dozen or more, takes on a single song. Wilson would have a recording done and complete while the Beach Boys were on tour, leaving only the vocals to be recorded when they returned.

Selvin provides many interesting trivia tidbits. Nancy Sinatra wanted to get married primarily so she could have sex in an honest and legal manner. She didn’t always follow her own rule, however. It seems that her mother helped her arrange an abortion at some point before she married. When Barry McGuire recorded “Eve of Destruction” it was the third song in the session and thrown in as an afterthought. Even though he didn’t get all the words right, the allocated session time ran out he didn’t get to do another take. It was that version that was released as the B-side of a single and which became that huge hit. Brian Wilson spent weeks working on “Good Vibrations” and it was one of the most expensive singles produced up to that time. The other members of the group were dubious. One of them suggested that either they would be washed up as a group when it came out or it would be the biggest hit ever. You know which one of those happened.

Peter Berkrot’s narration of Hollywood Eden is stellar. His voice and inflection capture the élan of the fifties and sixties Hollywood music scene perfectly. The audiobook version of Hollywood Eden is a superb choice for this book.


Wayfinding coverWayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World
M. R. O’Connor
St. Martin’s Press (April 30, 2019), 354 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $22.29

These days we take for granted access to GPS navigation, whether with a GPS device or, more likely, via the Google Maps or Apple Maps app on our iPhone or Android smart phone. Of course all of us have experienced the reality that these tools often do not select the optimal route to our destination. The interim rector at my church a few years ago did not know our area. He was going to a diocesan conference in a city on the other side of the mountain in the desert. Had he asked anyone in the congregation they would have told him to simply take state Highway 79 to Interstate 10, drive through the pass, and shortly after exiting the freeway he would be there. Instead, he relied on his GPS app which took him on the two-lane Highway 74 up the mountain and down the other side. Definitely not the most direct nor the easiest route.

In her book Wayfinding M.R. O’Conner investigates how humans navigate not only without a GPS, but without a traditional compass or sextant. She begins by investigating the Inuit people in the Arctic. This was a particularly good place to start because in that region people don’t even have the stars for navigation throughout the summer. In winter the sun is of little use since it is always below the horizon. Instead people use both the subtle clues they know how to find in the flat, white landscape and their own innate sense of direction.

O’Conner also discusses how animals find their way about. On her visit to the Arctic she learns that sled dogs too have an innate sense of direction. They can get their driver home in whiteout weather conditions with minimal effort. O’Conner describes how migratory birds seem to use the hippocampus portion of their brain as a navigational tool.

The author visits Aboriginal people in Australia to learn how they navigate the outback using dreamtime. She meets Pacific islanders to find out how they navigate the ocean. During these travels she discovers how colonization has done considerable damage to such cultures and their ability to use their traditional methods of navigation.

Near the end of the book she discusses GPS and its limitations. She quotes one arctic native who describes how GPS would have taken a rescue team via a dangerous route over thin ice (literally) while his innate navigation skills got them to their destination in safety.

The book was published in 2019, but I do wonder when it was written. O’Conner states, “The race to fill the world’s roads with driverless cars is well underway. Some ten million are predicted to be in use by 2020.” Obviously, one year past that mark we are nowhere near that number. But that is a minor complaint about what is a fascinating and readable book.

Wayfinding is a reminder that technology is not always the best solution.

Travels with Herodotus

Travels with Herodotus coverTravels with Herodotus
Ryszard Kapuscinski
translated by Klara Glowczewska
Vintage (November 11, 2009), 290 pages
originally published in Polish in 2004
Kindle edition $12.99

My acquaintance with Herodotus goes back a long way. His book The Histories was assigned reading for my Ancient Greece and the Near East class during the first semester of my freshman year at Pitzer College in the fall of 1971. I have revisited Herodotus periodically since then, so it intrigued me when I came across a mention of this book.

Herodotus, you likely know, was from the Greek city state of Halicarnassus in Asia Minor. Born around 484 BCE, he traveled much of the known world and collected stories about the people and cultures of his time. Although his primary interest, he asserts, is the cause of the wars between the Persians and the Greeks, he wanders off into many diversions. Apparently he made a living and financed his travels by giving public readings, but we are fortunate that a written version of his work has survived. (The word “history,” by the way, as Herodotus uses it is closer to the sense of “inquiry” than how we commonly use the word.)

Ryszard Kapuscinski was a college student in Poland as World War II was ending and was fortunate to have a professor who taught Herodotus. He got a job at a newspaper in Warsaw and was sent to India as a correspondent. His boss gave him a copy of a Polish translation of The Histories before his departure. Never mind that Herodotus never went to India or wrote about it. Both Herodotus and Kapuscinski were travelers.

Kapuscinski’s employer had an interesting approach to his work as a correspondent. It was essentially, “Send us dispatches about whatever you find that is worth reporting.” He was pretty much left on his own. After India the newspaper sent him to China as part of a planned exchange between the two Communist countries. They recalled him after a shakeup at the newspaper for apparently improper political views. He thought it best to move on and went to work for the Polish Press Agency where he spent several decades. Kapuscinski spent a lot of time in Africa and was in Iran when the revolution overthrew shah.

Throughout his travels Kapuscinski kept his copy of The Histories with him and interweaves tales of his own activities with reflections of Herodotus and how he viewed the world. Kapuscinski points out that Herodotus repeated unlikely stories he had heard, though often expressing doubt about their veracity.

Rather than having quotes from Herodotus translated from Greek to Polish to English, the publisher received permission from Oxford University Press to quote their translation of The Histories by Robin Waterfield. The words of Herodotus are in italic, and so are easily distinguished from those of Kapuscinski.

The writing in Travels with Herodotus is lucid, clear, and flows smoothly. I know nothing of Polish or of how Kapuscinski’s writing might flow in that language, but Klara Glowczewska’s translation is nicely polished, and it’s a pleasure to read her sentences.

Travels with Herodotus, though not a new book, will engage the interest of both those interested in ancient Greek history and the person who enjoys the Paul Theroux-style travel narrative.

In Praise of Paths

In Praise of Paths coverIn Praise of Paths: Walking through Time and Nature
Torbjørn Ekelund
translated by Becky L. Crook
Greystone Books (May 5, 2020), 175 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon hardcover $17.39

After a mishap one day, the author found himself in the hospital with a diagnosis of epilepsy. Under Norwegian law that meant he had to give up his driver’s license. So he turned his thoughts to walking.

Not that he hadn’t been walking before. He tells of his childhood and visits to the rural family cabin, where there was lots of walking to do. But after his diagnosis he really got serious about walking. He had a friend with whom he plotted walking adventures. One trip took them to a protected wilderness area just outside their hometown of Oslo. For some reason they chose to see how they might get along without maps or GPS, only following the sun. They found out that they weren’t as savvy as they thought they were.

Ekelund distinguishes between walking and running. He writes:

quoteA person who walks slowly sees much, and a person who walks quickly sees little. A person who is running as quickly as possible has their attention focused on their own body. Whereas the attention of a person walking slowly is aimed away from themselves, toward the world and everything outside.

He points out that for Friedrich Nietzsche, Charles Darwin, Søren Kierkegaard, and Virginia Woolf walking was a creative catalyst.

Ekelund does commit a sort of literary heresy within the canon of fantasy literature. He conflates The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He refers to The Lord of the Rings and says that it has the subtitle There and Back Again. He talks writes about how Bilbo returns home, the ring destroyed, to his normal life. There and Back Again is, of course, the subtitle of The Hobbit, not The Lord of the Rings. And it is Frodo, Bilbo’s nephew, in The Lord of the Rings whose adventures center on that ring of power. While Bilbo returns home after his adventures to his normal life, the Shire is not the same for Frodo and his company after the ring is destroyed. In fact, even humble Frodo is unwilling to give up the ring in the end and has to lose a finger in order for the ring to be destroyed. You may recall that the destruction of the ring meant the end of the Third Age of Middle Earth. Things were not the same. A quick reference check on Ekelund’s part could have allowed him to avoid this embarrassing confusion.

In Praise of Paths, however, evoked much in my own experience, so I can accept the Rings error. When we lived in Gilroy Terry and I used to go hiking at Uvas Canyon County Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains. (They’re actually hills, but that is the name of the range.) The book brought back memories of that magical spot. The park is a marvelous place with natural springs and streams. To get there you have to drive through a private Swedish community called Sveadal, a place where people live a much simpler lifestyle than in the Silicon Valley communities below.

Near the end of the book Ekelund writes about returning as an adult to see the mountain behind his grandparents’ property that he knew growing up. I grew up beneath the shadow of Mt. San Jacinto, as is obvious from this blog’s header images. When Terry and I bought our house here in Hemet in 2015 we discovered that we have an unobstructed view of the mountain from our front yard. That was a marvelous bonus as I returned to my hometown after forty-one years away.

In Praise of Paths is enjoyable reading. It certainly resonated with me.

A World on the Wing

World on a Wing coverA World on the Wing: The Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds
Scott Weidensaul
read by Mike Lenz
HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books (March 30, 2021)
print edition published by W. W. Norton & Company
$18.37 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

Scott Weidensaul is not a disinterested observer. By trade he is a journalist and author, but he has a passion for his subject and has been involved with the study of migrating birds for decades.

Weidensaul provides some amazing detail about how birds migrate. He makes clear that the instinct to migrate is genetic; it is not learned. He talks about how birds will bulk up before their flight to such an extent that it would be unhealthy in other species. They know how make unnecessary organs dormant when they are traveling and revive them when they reach their destination. Birds may travel many thousands of miles before they reach their ultimate seasonal habitat, or an before arriving at an intermediate stopping-off point.

The author talks about the many perils migrating birds face. Climate change is one of the most serious, but they also must face predatory species and human foes, both hunters and the clearing of habitat for development.

For his narrative Weidensaul travels the world. He visits Alaska, China, the Bahamas, the East Coast of the United States, Northern California, Cyprus, and India. He participates in the tagging of birds so scientists can follow their migratory patterns. He writes about the heroes in the realms of investigation and conservation.

The narration by Mike Lenz is adequate but imperfect. Lenz does a great job of following cadence of Weidensaul’s narrative and is as good as anyone I’ve listening to at translating dialogue from print to narration. I have also never heard any audiobook reader mispronounce so many words. I noticed mispronunciations of the words gunwale, herculean, Marin (the Northern California county), zooplankton, and gyre. Those are just the ones I noticed. Overall, though, I have to say that Lenz is very pleasant to listen to.

For summer reading (or listening) A World on the Wing is a first-class choice.