Obmascik’s The Big Year is for the Birders

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

I really hesitated to read this book. Though I have only recently become a birder myself, I have loved the film adaptation of this book for years. It is, for reasons I am not sure I can explain, in the top five of my all-time favorite films. So when I read a review that said the book is darker and not as lighthearted as the movie, I was afraid to read it in case it ruined one of my favorites.

I had nothing to worry about. The movie is so far removed from the book that one has no affect on the other, and I would hardly call it dark. Funny, entertaining, and informative certainly, but not dark.

Mark Obmascik begins with a brief story about how he got into birding after being urged to interview a professor who had a prodigious life list, which is birder speak for a list of every bird that a birder has seen during his/her lifetime. Why he starts with this, I really can’t say because he never comes back to his own interest in birding which just makes the end seem a bit incomplete, but since it’s not really the meat of the story, let’s get to the good stuff, the core of the book: three birders who decide in the same year that they are going to do A Big Year, i.e. a year in which they try to break the North American record for most birds seen by a birder in a one-year period beginning on January 1st at 12 am and ending on December 31st at 11:59 pm.

I wonder if there is some kind of footnote for leap years that denotes their extra day of birding? Hmm, I digress…

A Big Year only includes the continental United States (was anyone else shocked that Hawaii doesn’t count? I mean, think of the number of birds one could see there!), yet somehow does not exclude the Aleutian Islands and the bird mecca that is Attu, a destination closer to Russia than to the U.S., but that birders say must be visited in order to win A Big Year. It also includes pelagic cruises off either coast of the Unites States to catch those elusive land-dissing seabirds that simply have no use for shores or binocular-clad stalkers.

In 1998, three men from completely different geographic, financial, and career backgrounds set out to complete A Big Year only to find out that they have some very stiff, very avian-obsessed competition, which eventually dissolves into an orchestrated battle plan of one-up-manship and psychological warfare.

Obmascik could not have done a better job of describing Greg Miller, Sandy Komito, and Al Levantin, whose personalities, love of birds, and very different approaches to birding come alive in the pages of this book. From the brash and grating Komito to the self-doubting, underfunded Miller, they are simply a delight to read about. I can’t imagine flying 100,000+ miles in a single year or taking out a $9,000 loan from the Bank of Dad after maxing out six credit cards just to see some birds…and yet while reading this I could completely understand their drive. Go big or go home is the number one rule of A Big Year, and none of these men went home!

It was a nice feeling to not only be entertained by a well-told story, but to be learning about birds at the same time. Who knew (not including experienced birders) that the Chiricahua Mountains were an ideal place to see four different species of owl? I certainly wish I had known that when I was there. Or that our dimwitted government spent $750,000 to import Himalayan Snow Cocks for sport hunting only to have them be too difficult to actually hunt? Good on you, birds! Who’s the bird brain now, government?

So whether you are a hard-core birder, a person who watches birds through your windows from the comfort of a recliner, or just someone who occasionally notices that winged creatures are flitting about, you can find humor and enjoyment in this story. Even if you can’t understand birding, all humans understand competition. And A Big Year is a 365-day marathon of competition.

 

Blood Vow: A half-assed review of a half-assed story

imagesBlood Vow: Black Dagger Legacy #2 by J.R. Ward

I am going to put as much effort in reviewing this book as Ward seems to have put into writing it…which isn’t much, so here’s my list of thoughts:

The MCs aren’t bad, and they’re not original either. She’s a Glymera chick with an overprotective asshole dad, and he’s a badass fighter with loads of issues. Where have we seen this before? Oh right, in just about every freaking BDB book Ward has written.

Really Ward? An Iron Bowl is playing in the background and it’s the one damn bowl game where those war chickens managed to beat the Crimson Tide? There’s a lot of garbage in your books that makes me cuss a blue streak, but that bullshit ices the profanity cake. ROLL TIDE ROLL!

Oh, Manny went to Auburn? That explains why I have always hated him! Aside from the fact that he is a pointless, unnecessary character.

When did Rhage become such a bad fighter? He gets shot, stabbed, and almost-killed as often as most people inhale and exhale.

If Lessers are getting harder and harder to find and easier to kill because they are all new recruits, then why the hell are there so many of them in this book, and how do these so-called newbies come so close to almost killing a Brother and two BDB-trained fighters?

The brothers v. Lassister banter is still ridiculous and pointless.

Why is Boone the only trainee we know nothing about? It’s like Ward just occasionally throws his name in the mix just to remind us that there are six trainees.

Well, knock me over with a feather. Z not only had speaking lines, but an actual poignant scene in this book.

I miss the Brothers. You know, those badass fighters from the first six books. Where the hell are they?

I really don’t care about Bitty or the whole adoption story line at all.

And I still find Bitty creepy and off-putting.

I really want to nut-punch Rhage and tell him to man the fuck up now!

Not a single speaking line for Blay or Qhuinn. That makes me an angry reader!

Manny’s mobile operating/medical vehicle is ridiculous.

What is Peyton’s deal? He can’t be this effed up just from the whole Allishon thing (or however the hell her name is spelled).

Oh, so that’s who Saxton is going to end up with.

I guess anyone, ANYONE, can just move into the mansion and live with the King and the Brotherhood. Next thing you know, lessers will be living there.

And just how freaking big is this place? I know it’s called a mansion, but there must be 40 people living there now.

Okay, I just did a tally, and I came up with 33 people living in the mansion. And that only includes two doggen because who knows how many servants it takes to run that place.

I don’t know what half these fucking acronyms mean, and I am not wasting my time looking them up!

The next BDB book is about Xcor? Oh crap, I hate him and Layla, but their story will have to include Qhuinn and Blay, so I am going to have to read it. I see a lot of skimming in my future.

 

The least discussed topic in Dodge City is Dodge City

Dodge City by Tom Clavin

Reviewed for Netgalley

The blurb and title of this book are severely misleading. Claiming to be an account of the days when Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson came to Dodge to help friend Luke Short, it is instead a collection of stories of a variety of places, people, and occurrences in the Old West.

One hundred pages in, and the tale hasn’t reached Dodge yet. Instead, readers have gotten a history of the Earps, the Mastersons, the killing of the buffalo, brief accounts of forts in the location that would one day become Dodge City, and lots of Old West name dropping. The pace is glacial, and the author cannot stay on topic.

Having finally reached Part Two, I thought we might get a glimpse of the Dodge City that the legendary lawmen teamed up together to tame, but no. Instead, we get brief accounts of outlaws who passed through Dodge City at some point, but none of the incidents written about actually took place in Dodge. This is followed by Samuel Colt and his creation of the famous Walker Colt six-shooter and then we’re right back to buffalo hunting.

Finally, after a 122 pages, Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson become lawmen in the lawless Dodge City. Unfortunately, the pace does not pick up at that point. Despite being quite a history buff, I found my interest lagging more and more. The writing is all over the place with very little focus and too many side stories that add nothing to the subject matter that was promised in the blurb. This book would be better marketed as a collection of short truths about the Old West and the characters who made it so infamous.

Lost Detroit is a heartbreaking account of the loss of architectural beauty that infects this nation

Author Dan Austin and photographer Sean Doerr capture Detroit’s abandoned architectural gems in Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City’s Majestic Ruins. Detroit was once a thriving metropolis, driven by the booming auto industry. As a result, it was rich in culture, architecture, and the arts. However, with Americans no longer buying American made cars, Detroit’s automotive industry has been on death’s doorstep and, as a result, the city and its once beautiful structures have fallen into ruin and decay.

Reading this book just makes me sick. Our society has no appreciation for architectural beauty. We build ugly, throw-away structures today that aren’t expected to last more than a few decades and can be torn down without any sense of loss, but even just a century ago, Americans built with pride and a sense of design and architectural achievement. Schools were built to be as beautiful as the young minds they educated. Theaters were decked out with marble columns, domed ceilings with gorgeous frescos, and chandeliers that sparkled like diamonds. They were as much a work of art as the movies that flickered across their screens. But with our lack of appreciation for beauty and history and with an economy that continually struggles, these buildings are being abandoned, left to rot until they are finally demolished.

I think what I am most shocked by is that even putting a building on the National Register of Historic Places cannot save it. I guess where there is no money, there is no hope, and a plaque noting a structure’s historical significance holds no weight with vandals and thieves set on destroying beauty and taking what is not theirs for their own gain. I will never understand the vandal mentality of pointless waste and intentional destruction.

Since this book was published in 2010, the Eastown Theater, with its gorgeous plasterwork and paint scheme, has been torn down. At the time of its demise, its stunning domed, fresco-adorned ceiling still looked as new as the day it was painted. The detail, design, and artistic integrity that went into the creation of The Eastown will never be recreated or replicated. We have lost something that we will never have again. Tearing down structures like this one is the same as pouring bleach on the Mona Lisa or spray painting The Sistine Chapel. The demolition of this theater is so much more than the loss of a building. It’s evidence of total disregard for our history, our creativity, and our community.

“If Detroit loses the Metropolitan Building, we will lose not only a very unique building, but we are saying we don’t care about Detroit’s heritage and we don’t care about America’s heritage.” – Architect Lucas McGrail.

Sadly, McGrail’s quote could be about any abandoned historic building in any American city.

If you take one thing away from reading this book, I guess it would be this: Look around you. Take in the old, forgotten structures of a once grand past. Look at Corinthian columns, wrought iron fencing, stained glass windows, crystal chandeliers, art deco flooring, marble stairways, ceilings with rosettes and frescos, and ornate plasterwork. Look at them, study them, commit them to memory because once they are gone, and most of them will be in the not-so-distant future, we will never see their like again. In a disposable world, the architectural beauty of the past is unappreciated and will not be replicated in future construction.

A follow-up to the review…

And now that I’ve had some time to cool my anger over the loss and neglect of these places, I realize that I never really said what a fantastic job Austin and Doerr do in preserving the memories and beauty of these structures. Austin gives a wonderful history of each location and informs readers of what may lie in store for those that still survive. Doerr’s beautiful photographs capture the surviving details amid the decay. In a collapsing ruin, he showcases the artistry, talent, and love that went into building them and that still manage to shine despite years of neglect. If you enjoy the images from the book, you can see more of his fantastic work here: http://snweb.org/category/portfolios/

Why I haven’t read the latest Harry Potter book

Like millions of people the world over, I loved the Harry Potter series. I thought it was magical and wonderful and unlike anything I’d ever read. I didn’t grow up with this series. In fact, I wasn’t too familiar with it until I saw the first movie. I was in college at the time. My mom wanted to see the film, so we went, and I remember sitting in the theater, watching the scene where Harry and all of the Hogwart’s students are in the Great Hall for their meal. Watching the changing scene on the ceiling, the food appearing out of nowhere, I remember thinking, if the books are half as good as this movie then they are going to be some amazing books. I’d underestimated just how much I would enjoy them. In discovering them much later than most, I was rather lucky because it meant less waiting. The first four books were already out, and I drove straight to the store and bought the boxed set. I loved the characters, the magic, the imagination that went into creating such a unique and magnificent world. I waited with anticipation for the fifth book, with trepidation for the sixth, and with severely bitten fingernails for the seventh, which I went to Midnight Madness to purchase on the release date, drove straight home, and stayed up all night and all the next day reading it. I was happy with the ending.

And that’s what book seven was supposed to be: The End.

But then the J.K. Rowling reveals began. First, the author told us that our beloved head master, Albus Dumbledore was gay. Okay, cool. Wasn’t that surprised by that revelation. I thought what she revealed next – what Dumbledore saw in the Mirror of Erised – was sadly sweet and very in character for Albus. Nice tidbit of information. Oh, but we’ve all been pronouncing Voldemort incorrectly for the last 18 years. Um, you couldn’t have told us that sooner or maybe cleared it up in the movies or something? Our trio of Hogwart’s heroes all went on to have appointments in the Ministry of Magic. Really? That’s a bit boring. I really thought Hermione might be a professor. I would have liked some variety for them. After that, Rowling started, on the anniversary of the Battle of Hogwart’s, apologizing for character deaths. OH HELL NO! This was a war between good and evil. People die in war. An author should never apologize for killing off a character. It looks weak or like you’re admitting to having made a mistake, and killing Fred was a huge mistake! How could you, Rowling? How could you? I will never ever forgive you for this terrible decision! Your apology is not accepted! You could have killed off anyone else, and I’d get over it, but Fred? It couldn’t have been Percy or Bill or someone else we never really cared about??? That is the worst thing you ever did to your fans! But to get back on track, with the exception of Fred, you should never ever apologize for offing a character. And then there was the revelation about how many schools of magic there are in the world and something about wizard segregation and Pottermore and more character death apologies, and I’d had enough!

Enough already! Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was supposed to be the end. I felt like I was being strung along by these bits and pieces of information. Few of them really added anything to a story that was already done, and I was tired of getting these little insubstantial teases.

And then there was the HUGE reveal: another Harry Potter book was on its way. Okay, a script really for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Was I ecstatic? Was I online pre-ordering my copy? Was I offering a kidney to anyone who would sell me their theatre ticket? Nope. I wasn’t filled with anticipation. I wasn’t counting down the days until the book’s release. I was…afraid. I was afraid that Rowling was going to ruin my beloved series and the characters that I cared so much about. I didn’t want to read about how Harry had become another cog in the Ministry’s wheel. I didn’t want any more secrets that made me question the world of Harry Potter that I knew and loved. Does that make me a coward? Probably. Do I care? Not really. As of this writing, I’m still not sure I want to read it. I haven’t heard good reviews about it, but I’ve also been trying to avoid learning too much about it. I don’t want spoilers to ruin it before I decide to read it.

So, I guess I am asking what you think? Have you read it? Do you recommend it or wish you hadn’t picked it up? I’m curious what other fans think. Tell me in the comments. Maybe you can persuade me to read it.

 

Kinsella is all out of fresh ideas

What happened to Sophie Kinsella? My first Kinsella experience was reading Can You Keep a Secret? and absolutely loving it. Even now, it is one of my favorites and a book I generally re-read once a year. I’ve cast and re-cast the movie version of it in my head. It was just a funny and endearing story that I enjoyed. I tried Undomestic Goddess next and found that enjoyable as well even though Samantha wasn’t quite as much fun as Emma. Then I discovered the Shopaholic series. In books one and two, I thought Becky was entertaining if a bit financially irresponsible. I mean, who hasn’t done a little tight-budget splurging? Who hasn’t bought that fabulous pair of shoes that were just a teeny tiny bit expensive? Though far from a shopaholic myself, I could relate to her. Then the Manhattan book came along where Becky is engaged and ends up planning two weddings all because she can’t pluck up the nerve to tell her mother and mother-in-law that the other has each offered to host a wedding for her and Luke. What started off as humorous quickly deteriorated into a fiasco of Becky’s own making. It became irritating by the time the book finally wrapped up, and I had trouble believing that smart, successful Luke was too stupid to realize what was really happening. And this was the last time I would give a decent rating to a Shopaholic book.

Shopaholic and Sister completely derailed the series, which ran off the track to “Decent Read” and crashed into “Awful Mess.” First of all, the sister out of nowhere created a plot out of nowhere, and Jess was just as unlikable as Becky was becoming, albeit for entirely different reasons. By the end, with Becky becoming lost on a mountain and then rescued by a rich friend in a helicopter, it was all just too ridiculous to accept. But I am nothing if not stubborn so I somehow persevered through books five and six, and that was it for me. I couldn’t take another Shopaholic repeat.

So what I had learned or concluded by the end of book 6?

  1. Becky will always be a liar, but will no longer be endearing at the same time.
  2. Becky is a terrible mother incapable of disciplining a child and will probably raise a spoiled brat.
  3. There is no way Luke loves a person who is so self-absorbed and financially irresponsible.
  4. Kinsella should have quit while she was ahead; she has run out of ideas, and this series has become wash, rinse, repeat.
  5. This series will never improve, and Kinsella has ruined her own character.
  6. I am probably still willing to read non-Shopaholic Kinsella books.

And I was and I did. Remember Me was okay. It was no Secret or Goddess, but I didn’t want to throw it across the room mid-read. Twenties Girl was interesting and certainly a different plotline for a Kinsella read. I think I even gave it a 3-star review, then came I’ve Got Your Number, and I was done. What a half-assed attempt at churning out the same old shit. I predicted the ending just by reading the blurb on the back. The characters were dull and lacked any chemistry. The whole book felt like a cog in a money making machine, and I was just so done with Kinsella and her repetitive plots and ditzy characters. Get a fresh idea already!

That was four years ago, and a new Kinsella book hadn’t touched my hands since…until last Saturday when I went to a book sale at a local church. It was “Fill a Bag for $5 Day,” and my bag wasn’t full, and there was a hardback copy of Wedding Night just sitting there, and there was space in my bag. I mean, what kind of book lover could walk out of a book sale with a partially-empty bag??? Not this one. In the bag it went. I had just finished an intense biography and thought a fluff piece would be a quick, no-fuss read. And the eternally optimistic (read: stupid) part of my brain was all, Hey, maybe Kinsella has improved in the last four years.

Hahahahahahaha!

Nope. She may have actually gotten worse! Lottie is the stupidest character Kinsella has ever written. If you combined the airheadedness of every previous Kinsella character, they still wouldn’t be a match for the idiocy of Lottie. She makes Becky look like a Type A CEO or the Prime Minister or someone who actually uses her brain. And Fliss isn’t much better except instead of being stupid, she’s the queen of temporarily suppressed rage, and she flies off the handle so often, one wonders how she hasn’t had a stress-induced heart attack yet.  I am about a third of the way through the book, and I can’t decide whether to persevere or give up. No matter what I decide to do about this one, I think I have already decided that this will be my last Kinsella attempt. I think I’ll stick to re-reading Can You Keep a Secret every year and stop hoping for something fresh from a former favorite author of mine.

In the Company of Heroes by Michael Durant and Steven Hartov

Before I begin this review, I feel that I need to clarify something about the events in Somalia and the Battle of Mogadishu. Though the media and the Clinton administration portrayed the military action in Somalia as a loss, make no mistake, the U.S. forces who fought in that battle were successful. The mission objective was to capture high ranking members of Aidid’s militia, and they did. Yes, there were many casualties and Americans died, but do not dishonor the men who fought and especially those who died that day by suggesting that they failed. Despite being outnumbered by a heavily armed and hostile enemy, the U.S. military achieved their goal and completed their mission. To suggest otherwise is an insult to their actions and to the memories of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. As Michael Durant, the only American taken alive that day by the Somalians, states in his book, In the Company of Heroes:

It is difficult enough to bury a fallen comrade, but even harder to look into the eyes of his family, knowing that the objective for which he died has been deemed unobtainable by the very men who sent him to his death

Michael Durant teams with Steven Hartov to describe the events of October 2003 and the RPG shot which downed Durant’s Blackhawk and lead to him being captured and held prisoner by members of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s militia. With a broken back, femur, and cheekbone along with other injuries, Durant endured days of endless pain and uncertainty as he waited to see if he would be rescued by his brothers in the 160th or killed at the hands of angry Somalians. Durant and Hartov do an excellent job of switching between Somalia and Durant’s past and the story of how he became a helicopter pilot in one of the military’s most secret and elite airborne units. In the Company of Heroes is an excellent account of the selfless, heroic actions our servicemen display under extreme duress in combat and its aftermath.