the thing I learned this week

November 21, 2018

I’m neck deep in researching 19th century ornithologists. Long story.

So lots of bird species are named after people. Wilson’s warbler. Swainson’s Hawk. That kind of thing. Wilson in particular — he’s got a lot of birds named after him. Like, a lot. I flip through field guides and it’s like, geez, who the heck is this Wilson guy and why does he have, like, all the birds named after him? I thought it was kind of cheeky because I assumed he was naming them after himself.

It turns out, the convention is that if you’re the first scientist to discover/describe a new species, you get to name it, but not after yourself. Because, as I mentioned, that’s considered kind of gauche. Scientists tend to name newly-discovered species after people they admire. It’s why cartoonist Gary Larson has a species of louse named after him, and various authors and public figures and so forth have species named after them.

Lots of naturalists in the 19th century really admired Alexander Wilson, and that’s why he has a ton of bird species named for him.  He was a contemporary of Audubon. In fact, he probably gave Audubon the idea of going around and painting all the American bird species — because he did it first.  Spencer Fullerton Baird, first curator of the Smithsonian, also has a bunch of birds (Baird’s sparrow, Baird’s sandpiper, etc.) named after him and was also massively respected by his contemporaries.

The book I just finished, Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding by Scott Weidensaul, has lots of info on a bunch of these guys that birds are named after. It’s making me really happy to finally have stories behind those bird names.

 

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more reading

November 9, 2018

I’m on a manic research jag. I have eight library books on my front table. I’m reading three of them concurrently. Current topic:  the history of ornithology. Long story.

One of these is a biography of this 17th century British guy who did what a lot of rich British guys at the dawn of the Enlightenment did which was attempt to catalog, like everything, and describe and dissect and make his own miniature museum and basically invent modern science from the ground up. Francis Willughby sounds interesting and I’m happy reading about him. But the author of this particular biography is driving me up the wall by basically constantly inserting himself into the narrative.  One section, paraphrased:  “And here they were, in this very room, dissecting a bittern according to the journal, and I thought to myself, how wonderful, I would very much also like to dissect a bittern so I can get closer to Willughby and imagine how he felt and what he was thinking, but alas bitterns are endangered. So I called around to wildlife refuges asking if anyone happened to have a dead bittern that I could dissect — ”

AT WHICH POINT I REACH THROUGH THE BOOK AND THROTTLE THE AUTHOR.

A-hem.

 

Yeah, I’ve been reading a lot. I’m still on my quest to read a bunch of romance so I can figure out what makes the genre tick, and I keep stumbling on this trope that I’m coming to really hate.

The first quarter of this book I read last week, I absolutely loved it. The characters were great, I really liked them, the situation was intriguing. And then they did That Thing.

Every romance has an obstacle. The couple discovers each other, falls in love, then something keeps them apart for a big chunk of the book and we keep reading to see how they get back together.

In too many cases, the obstacle is the characters being stubborn and obtuse.

After a steamy fling, each character decides that the other character doesn’t really love them after all. They harden themselves in response. Thereby further convincing the other that they don’t really love them after all.  This is a natural mistake, a thing that happens. But then every single bit of dialog between them following this is constructed to ensure that neither of them gives any indication that they actually really do love each other. It becomes contrived, repetitive, and torturous.  Like, if they would just actually talk to each other like normal people and have an adult conversation they could figure it out. But they never do. At least, until they do for the purpose of the plot.

In this case, this contrived, repetitive situation between unpleasantly stubborn characters went on for 100 pages. What had started delightful became excruciating. I almost didn’t finish.

When I get around to writing my romance, the obstacle will be external. Something will land in their lives that makes it difficult for them to stay together. Travel, duty, other obligations, other conflicts. Something. I don’t know. I just can’t imagine writing a hundred of pages of dialog where two characters withhold information for no other reason than that the plot demands it.

 

Birding Without Borders

November 1, 2018

On my trip last weekend I read Birding Without Borders by Noah Strycker, about his epic 2015 trip to spot half the world’s bird species in one year. A Big Year with no national limits. He spotted 6,042 of around 10,000+ bird species.  He worked really, really hard for this. And the record was broken the following year, believe it or not.

(For comparison, my own life list is edging toward 300. Total. I think.)

The book is a fun, fast, kind of jaw-dropping read when you consider how Strycker managed it, basically never stopping, always on the move, and reaching out to local birders at every single stop to help him to his goal.

It was inspiring not in the sense that I now want to go out and do some kind of epic Big Year of my own. On the contrary, I think I would rather find one really nice spot, sit there with a spotting scope, and sip a glass of wine while waiting to see what comes along. But, you know, I should try for a different nice spot every few months or so. I would like to bird in Costa Rica or Ecuador at some point. Strycker spent a lot of time in the tropics, which have the greatest concentration of biodiversity and bird species. Entire families of birds I’ve never encountered. Antpittas? Flowerpeckers? Yeah, I’d need some prep work to get ready for that birding trip.

The book was inspiring in giving me some ideas of how to up my own birding game on a smaller scale. Like, you know, prepping by learning the area’s birds before I get there. Also, using eBird.org not just to report sightings, but to plan trips. I’m already using eBird to report, but I hadn’t really thought about using it to plan until reading about how the site was essential for Strycker.

I’ve already started on this. I’ve got a couple of trips coming up, and I’m going to bring my travel binoculars and scout out some of the nearby hotspots listed on eBird, which will also give me a good idea of what I’ll find when I get there.

This is cool. I’m excited. I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

book review

October 5, 2018

I just finished Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou.  Read it in two days. Couldn’t leave my gravity well sofa. It was great, and horrifying. Like, I knew there was a certain amount of cargo cult thinking in Silicon Valley but this. . .

The short version:  this is the story of Theranos, a company that insisted it had developed a technology that would run hundreds of blood tests on small, finger prick samples of blood. Spoiler:  it had not successfully developed such a technology. But at one point enough people believed it that it was valued at 9 billion dollars. That’s billion with a B.

It is now worth nothing. The company was dissolved last month, the assets sold to pay debts. The CEO and COO are up on multiple Federal fraud charges.

And after reading the book, it’s hard not to believe the company’s founder and CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, is an outright psychopath.  As a character study, it’s riveting. Near as I can figure she never had an actual real job with a paycheck that someone else signed before dropping out of Stanford to start Theranos. (Because that’s what you do in Silicon Valley apparently — drop out of Stanford and then make millions of dollars with your company.) And yet people gave her hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of a decade to run this business. That’s amazing to me.  (I’m told that this is normal in Silicon Valley, which is its own pocket universe that has very little connection with reality.)

(Note to self, I don’t think I’ve read enough non fiction this year. Fix that!)

So I might have mentioned that I’m a fan of Daniel Abraham’s writing. Full disclosure: he’s also one of my oldest friends in the writing/publishing world. His fantasy series, The Dagger and the Coin, has an amazing villain, Geder.  Geder is paranoid. Geder will do anything he needs to to win. Geder absolutely believes he’s in the right and everyone who opposes him is wrong and evil and out to get him on a personal level. Geder burns cities to the ground when he gets angry enough and spends a lot of time talking about how it was the right thing to do.

I kept thinking about Geder while reading this book. People like that are real. They exist. I’m not sure I really understood that before.

 

Dorothy Sayers binge read

September 6, 2018

When two of my favorite writers (Connie Willis and Lois McMaster Bujold) cite the same influence, it’s high time I go read that influence. Which is daunting, because Dorothy Sayers wrote a lot of books. I asked some advice, and got a bit of a reading list for specifically the Lord Peter Wimsey books, and here are my thoughts:

The Nine Tailors: I have to admit, I didn’t like this one so much. The pace dragged — every conversation with every person is given in excruciating detail. Part of the mystery is exactly how the victim actually died, and I knew it 30 pages before everyone else figured it out, which was frustrating.

Strong Poison: But I kept going because I wanted to meet Harriet Vane, and this is the book she’s introduced in. I liked it a lot better. Moved at a better clip, some interesting side characters, and Peter is much more conniving and active and competent in this. And in this one I could really see how Sayers’ writing influences Bujold’s handling of relationships and so on.

Murder Must Advertise: Not quite finished with this one yet, but…it’s great. Should have started with this. It’s kind of nuts, Peter is hella competent and conniving, and this is the one where I can basically see a bunch of Connie’s writing style and where she gets it — the banter, the absurdism, etc.

It’s also been interesting reading these after watching 8 seasons of Midsomer Murders, how deep the roots of British cozy mystery really go and how established these tropes are. Like, it’s as much about dissecting various incarnations of British psyche as it is about the mystery.

But my final takeaway from this binge-read is that I’d really like a movie version with Tom Hiddleston playing Lord Peter Wimsey.

 

checking in

July 9, 2018

I spent the weekend in the cool, cool mountains, birdwatching and reading a book by a rushing creek.  A note for people who despair of their To Be Read piles — the book I brought on the trip was an ARC I got when I worked in the bookstore twenty years ago and have been hauling around ever since. Yes, I know ARC’s are supposed to be read before the book is released. But I had oh-so-many of them back in the day. Well, I’m reading it now. And a quick glance at Amazon tells me this author is still out there and has released books set in this world as recently as last month, which makes me happy. (I haven’t finished this one yet, and don’t want to talk about it until I have.)

THE WILD DEAD is out next week.

And a reminder:  Kindle Worlds is shutting down next week, so if you want to grab my two GI Joe stories, “Luck Be a Lady” and “That Famous Silent Issue,” better do it now.