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Book Reviews

Updated January 23, 2016

I heartily recommend three non-fiction and one incredible book of fiction -- all very timely in various ways. The non-fiction books are on animal emotions -- don't dismiss this as stupidly sappy, and the fiction is on modern terrorism -- so well developed and interesting I devoured the book, as Mary is doing right now. Last, I'd also recommend a book on lions, see below.

You'll also find direct 'Buy Now' Links to Amazon. In addition to the book I reviewed, I've also included links to books by the same author that I've read and that I would strongly recommend. And, directly below, my reading list of books I've read and enjoyed but that I did not write a review.

The books are:

I am Pilgrim, by Terry Hayes

The book jacket says 'the only thriller you need to read this year' and I'd heartily agree. The book might take some a year to read -- 888 pages -- but worth every page. A first person narrative, the narrator was a retired spy or operative, called back into service to track down a Islamic terrorist with a WMD. Unlike other spy books, with canny, almost super heroe characters, Pilgrim seems like an every day guy, a totally believable and well-developed character. You start this book and you won't stop, and you'll learn a lot and not just be entertained. Terrific.

Beyond Words, What Animals Think and Feel, by Carl Safina

I've always liked Safina's books, but this one and the next two really changed the way I look at animals. This and the next book deal with animal thoughts and emotions, striking at the no-no sin of antropomorphism (ascribing human thoughts or feelings to animals) with incredible stories. Safina's book deals with three main subjects -- wolves, elephants, and dolphins. Having watched the 'wolf watchers' in Yellowstone every year and having read a fair number of books on the Yellowstone wolves, I can say that I didn't have much of an understanding of them. Safina's book tells the wolf story, and their interactions (and justification for the hours of wolf watching done by many) better than anything I've ever seen -- could almost make me a wolf watcher! The section on dolphins is magical.

Between this book and the next, I can honestly say that I enjoyed our safaris in Kenya more than I ever had before. Watching interactions and behaviors I felt that I could competently and honestly interpret, or make assumptions, as to what we were seeing and what the animals were doing. This made the trips so much more enjoyable and worthwhile -- I feel the books have changed my life.

Animal Wise, The Thoughts and Emotions of our Fellow Creatures
by Virginia Morell

Despite the almost touchy-feely subtitle, this book, written by a writer for Science and National Geographic, is a science book -- filled with stories and anecdotes and facts. I'm glad I read it first -- it gave me a foundation for Safina's book, and sometimes both authors treated the same subject or animal in some way. Prior to reading this book I read 'When Elephants Weep,' an older book on animal emotion and written by a psychiatrist -- and although there was some OK stuff in it, there were a lot of dumb assumptions and conclusions, and incorrect natural history, too. I would not recommend that book. Morell's, however, is another great one.

Touching the Wild, Living with the Mule Deer of Deadman Gulch, by Joe Hutto

A good friend sent me two books written by Hutto, books I probably would not have picked up or read otherwise, not knowing what was inside. Hutto's other book was on Wild Turkeys, which was good, but this one, on Mule Deer, actually started my reading on animal emotion. You will learn more than you'll ever need to know about Mule Deer, but the beauty of this book is how Hutto becomes a part of the winter deer herds, and how he develops insight on the interrelationships the deer have with one another. Who would believe a deer, mother or off-spring, would mourn a death, and visit the carcass repeatedly over days? One of the interesting aspects of Hutto's interaction is how a wild deer, previously unknown to him, would after a few days or weeks seem to suddenly turn a switch and accept him, walking in close, sometimes to have its ears scratched or neck rubbed -- and we're talking about buck deer! For anyone living in deer country out west -- read this. For easterners -- it is a good start for the two books listed above.

Lions in the Balance, Man-eaters, Manes, and Men with Guns, by Craig Packer

With Cecil the Lion making headlines, this book is timely. The book deals mainly with the controversy, the problems, and the potential solutions for Lion hunting in Africa. The book has more info on the 'players' than I cared to know, but the book is all about the politics and problems involved in trying to manage lion hunting so the info is relevant. There were some nice tidbits on lion natural history and behavior, but I really wished that with his background the author would have written a book on that. Packer was in charge of the Serengeti lion project for decades, but was eventually banned from Tanzania because of his findings.

Lions are now listed as Endangered or Threatened (depending on the area) and after reading this book one can hope that lion hunting will be stopped -- the politics and corruption is just sickening.

Past Reads....

Pacific Northwest Wildlife, by Aaron Baggenstos

Aaron's work covers the Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia, extending into Yellowstone, and southeastern Alaska. Chapters cover the habitats of Forest, Mountain, Fresh Water, Grassland, and Island and Ocean.

Aaron's work covers a broad range of styles, from wonderful animals in habitat, like the Hoary Marmot in the mountains, to intimate family shots -- like the shots of Coots and Grebes and Mergansers with their chicks. A super portfolio, one that should motivate you to visit the Northwest! And if you're interested in photographing owls, Aaron is THE guy in the northwest.

Everglades, America's Wetland by Mac Stone

One of the first major trips I made as a young man at the end of my freshmen year of college, was a short trip to southern Florida and the Everglades. I merely scratched the surface of this fascinating location on that trip, and returned many, many times afterwards. However, I'm just totally humbled by the depth and scope of Mac's book on the Everglades, it is simply spectacular.

The book has several short essays written by Mac and other writers that gives further insight into this region, but it is Mac's photos that are so riveting. From wide-angle shots, of landscapes or of bird nests or of alligators mired in mud, to slow shutter speed pans of birds in flight, the shots are brilliant.

I'm so impressed because I've shot this same area, and I've used a lot of the techniques that Mac has employed so incredibly well in illustrating this book. If you love the Everglades, if you're interested in the Everglades, or if you just want to be inspired by a diversity of images in a refreshing layout -- get this book! Outstanding.

Shooting in the Wild,
An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom
by Chris Palmer

If you've enjoyed, and seen, as many wildlife films as I have, you'll enjoy this book. Chris Palmer's account could be used as a primer for anyone considering doing a wildlife film, providing insider's information on the quest for funds, the development of an idea and scouting of a location, the pitch to get both money and air time, and the dilemnas this may cause. This, to me, was interesting and, had I been thinking of doing a film, a bit intimidating and discouraging.

But the attraction of the book lies in Chapters 5 through 9, where Palmer gives a fair and balanced account of what really goes on in making films. I've heard stories from other film-makers about some of the incidents Palmer describes, so it was interesting to read a fact-based, researched account rather than just hear-say and rumor.

Palmer honestly addresses the cult personalities that are now driving programs on Animal Planet and Discovery where confrontation and animal aggression is too often the theme. Regarding that, I felt Palmer went too easy on some of these, but I was pleased to see that he addressed the issue.

Some of these stories, or characters, are people you've probably heard of, like Marty Stouffer from Wild America, and Timothy Treadwell, the bear enthusiast from Katmai. Stouffer was condemned and lost his support from public television after he was accused of staging scenes, and Treadwell, the 'grizzly man,' was eventually killed by the bears he worked with. I won't editorialize here, but Palmer's treatment was very fair, and the conclusion of each of these stories ends with providing an alternate ending, giving both individuals some benefits of doubt. Readers can draw their own conclusions, but it was refreshing to not see only one side of the issue addressed.

As a photographer myself, some of the points Palmer made would be interesting to debate, and I felt at times he had certain heroes and villains, but I felt his treament was very fair and even-handed for a subject that's often been overlooked and/or treated with kid gloves. At the very least, the book will give you tremendous insight into the world of film-making, and I'm sure many of the films Palmer cites are ones you've seen. Whether or not you'll have the same feelings about those films after reading Palmer's book I can't say, but you will enjoy this read!

Where the Wild Things Were
William Stolzenburg

If you've ever complained about the absence of elk in Yellowstone because of the wolves, as I have done, this book will be very illuminating and, I'll predict, opinion-changing! The premise of the book is that the top predators control the food chain, and when they are eliminated, as wolves had been until the reintroduction 13 years ago, the ecosystem suffers. It did in Yellowstone, where elk denuded the land of replacement cottonwoods and aspens, and in so doing, played a role in weeding the ecoystem of many native species. As the wolves returned and elk numbers thinned, the habitat, and the species diversity, has improved.

That's just one lesson in many about the role predators play, in a very readable and extremely informative book that I'd recommend highly!

The Lizard King
Bryan Christy

I almost didn't pick up this book, thinking the concept -- revealed in the subtitle 'The True Crimes and Passions of the World's Greatest Reptile Smugglers' was a bit too esoteric. It wasn't, and I loved it. As a reptile lover, I could relate to a lot of the book, as I've known or visited people or places mentioned. Very readable, and if you want any insight into the world of wildlife exploitation and smuggling, this will deliver in spades. Very readable, and a super story line for a non fiction book.

Song of the Dodo, Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction
David Quammen

I hated that this book ended. While the title sounds weighty, the book is wide-ranging in its coverage and descriptions, a mix of science reporting tied in with personal anecdotes. Island habitats are vulnerable, and in today's world ecosystems like Yellowstone, the Serengetti, and the Amazon rainforest are indeed 'islands' as they are now isolated and not part of a contiguous wild system. You'll learn a lot from this book! This book has been one of my all-time favorites, a view I share with many nature lovers and biologists. A must read!

The Ancestor's Tale
Richard Dawkins

This book traces the history of evolution from modern man to our molecular start, and along the way ties in a huge amount of natural history about both plant and animal life. Did you know the duck-billed platypus uses electrical impulses to find prey? I didn't, nor did I know much about jellyfish reproduction, or sea squirts, or the various theories on why modern man is hairless and bipedal.

The Afghan Campaign
Steven Pressfield

As a kid I loved reading about Ancient Greece, and this book rekindled that interest. This is a historical novel about Alexander the Great's Afganisthan campaign, told in the first person by a soldier. Most interesting to me was the commentary on the Afghan mindset of that age, and how that compares with the present day, especially in light of our own involvement and conflict in Afghanistan.


Eye of the Albatross
Carl Safina

This book follows the life story of one species albatross, but ties in not only most of the albatross species but a variety of sea life as well. The story line is really a vehicle for discussing conservation and natural history issue, and while my description may seem 'dry' the book is extremely well written, informative, and a joy to read. Presently I'm reading his next book, on Leatherback sea turtles, which I ordered after enjoying his first book so much.


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