this is not a review: ‘the triumphant tale of the house sparrow’, by jan thornhill

 

I was surprised and delighted by the adulty appeal of Jan Thornhilll’s The Triumphant Tale of the House Sparrow … technically a picture book (with wonderful illustrations) but the kind that bears reading by all ages for a sort of Coles Notes (do they still exist?) version of a subject that can then be pursued in longer form if you need/want more info. Though, honestly, there’s plenty here, enough that after reading it will surely be  impossible to look at this bird quite the same way.

Given the title, and the opening sentence…

“Behold the most despised bird in human history.”

… we can (rightly) assume there will be some adventurous backstory to follow, i.e. how did it get from Most Despised to Triumphant?

Also, and not that I think about sparrows a lot, but I didn’t know they were so universally (and for thousands of years) disliked. I assumed some people just didn’t like them in the way some people don’t like clowns. (Which is completely understandable.)

But no. It’s much bigger than that and, most interesting of all, their dislikeability has a lot to do with us, with our lifestyle. Because what we know for sure is they love to hang around us, like those friends who think we’re all having such a good time that they forget to go home.

This wasn’t always the case.

What happened was, we invented agriculture.

We began growing fields of grain and the sparrow, a bird that used to migrate in search of food, suddenly didn’t need to leave town so it stayed and ate that nicely planted all you can eat buffet. It came into cities and towns too, because we had horses that were fed buckets of grain. And it hung around our houses because of crumbs from tablecloths shaken out the back door, and several other surprising sources. Long story short, it became a house sparrow.

And we got cranky.

In Egypt the sparrow surplus was handled by using them as pet food. (Often found in the mummified stomachs of beloved animals.)

In Germany there was a sparrow bounty, a required number of heads had to be handed in or fines were imposed.

In China people were encouraged to bang pots twenty four hours a day in grain fields to stop the birds from landing, which worked exceptionally well… so well in fact that zillions of birds fell from the sky, exhausted and dead, and the crops died from an infestation of bugs that would have normally been eaten by the sparrows.

In cities they were noisy and just plain bothersome. In one incident, a single sparrow found its way into a large hall where a Guiness-records-sized domino display had been set up with millions of dominos… the sparrow landed and over 20,000 toppled over before they could stop the domino effect. But the bird was still in the building and naturally they worried about the other ten trillion dominos so they hired a professional hunter to come and shoot the bird, which is now stuffed in a museum. (The bird not the hunter.)

In a way, the sparrow’s biggest crime is its adaptability and how its population tends to increase along with our own. (Though we seem not to complain the same way about people numbers.)

However, mysteriously, and for some very many years now, sparrow numbers have been in decline. The Netherlands, for one, has declared them a protected species and, as Jan Thornhill points out, this might well beg some attention:

“Because the House Sparrow normally lives its whole life in a very small area, it can be a living indicator of pollutants in that place. To scientists, it is just like a canary in a coal mine — except that coal mine is our urban environment. Since the House Sparrow lives where we live, wouldn’t it be smart to figure out why it’s disappearing? What if the culprit is something that is as unhealthy for humans as it is for the House Sparrow?”

I think this book, generally, deserves all kinds of attention, not only as it relates to house sparrows, but what it represents in how we so often look at nature, what’s taken for granted, the problems we ourselves have created and now blame on the natural world, much of which is merely doing its best to tolerate us.

The picture book format works well because the amount of text is just right for that Coles Notes gleaning. Any less wouldn’t do the subject justice. But it’s also too much for a picture-book age child to absorb on their own, so it becomes ideal as a read-aloud-and-discuss. Followed, of course, by a sparrow finding expedition, photographs, drawings, and chirping!

So much to love here.

Also, would be brilliant in schools. (Do they still do nature as a subject?)

 

 

Purchased at Books Galore, in Port Perry.

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this is not a review, this is a list…

 

I read Karen Hofmann’s What is Going to Happen Next  while in Ottawa, where, when I wasn’t reading or eating I was at the National Gallery….. stickers from which I stuck onto the back of the book so the two are forever connected now.

I loved this book about a family that falls apart and the siblings who find each other, whole or in fragments, many years later. Hofmann’s writing is gorgeous, her characters are so real, so well-developed, the story so engaging that I would rush back from the gallery each day just to see what they were up to.

“There are a few dozen seconds, maybe a couple of minutes, Cleo thinks, when one meets someone one hasn’t seen for a long time, when they appear as strangers, and their faces must be read objectively. And then there is a switch thrown in the mind, and the physiognomy suddenly becomes familiar again, recognized, seen now subjectively as a whole, rather than the sum of its parts. And more significantly, this new face is superimposed in the visual memory over the old, so that it disappears, and only the new now exists in that catalogue or whatever it is of known facts.”

~~~

Next Year for Sure , by Zoey Leigh Peterson, came to me from the library initially because it was there and it was easy and because this is often my way, to test run a book and then buy it only if I fall in love. (fyi, not only do I now have my own copy, I’ve given the book as a gift or recommended it to so many people.)

More than a great story, it’s a way of thinking about our relationships, intimate ones especially… how are these things defined and by whom and must it be the same for everyone?

The conversations, the honesty of feelings that span all kinds of spectrums, the wide open qualities that characters possess, lifestyle possibility, curiosity, generally, as well as ever shifting perspectives… all of if making every minute of reading such a joy (have read it twice now)… ‘joy’ as in hanging out with these people just to see what ideas we’d be tossing around today. Such excellent company. A rare thing to find this level of emotional authenticity.

In a nutshell… a wonderfully imagined, beautifully written story of how friendship endures, though relationships may change, all of it wrapped in the insecurity we feel despite what we know to be true.

“And he remembers wondering what it would be like to kiss someone who used the word indefatigable.”

~~~

I bought A Pillow Book  on someone’s recommendation and then let it sit on my TBR shelf for a couple of years. I liked the cover, and the slim size appealed to me and I was often tempted to open it but for some reason (even though I’d read reviews) I had the idea it was about pillows in a way that I couldn’t muster up enthusiasm for. And then one day I just opened it and began reading about pillow history and pillow trivia, which immediately felt less like history and trivia and more like the memoir it actually is, propelled by tiny truths that are simply triggered by pillows in some form or other.

“Without dreams, we die quicker. No one quite knows the reason for this. We know less about what happens on our pillows at night than we know about the dark side of the moon.”

Sprinkled throughout are really quite wonderful lists of unusual things, the sort of lists you might recite in your head on a sleepless night (if you were extremely creative). From one called ‘Altered Proverbs’… When in Rome, stay at the Ritz, or To forgive is human, to forget divine.

Another nice touch are references to the original Pillow Book which was written in the year 1002, as observations in poetic, prose and other forms, by Sei Shōnagon. It’s this book, and its intentions in a way, that Buffam pays tribute to in her style and structure.

“There are times when the world so exasperates me, recalls Shonagon, that I feel I cannot go on living in it for another moment and I want to disappear for good. But then, if I happen to obtain some nice white paper, Michinouku paper, or white decorated paper, I decide that I can put up with things as they are a little longer.”

Long story short— LOVED it. Can’t bear to re-shelve it just yet so it sits on my coffee table to be dipped into whenever the whim strikes. And now that I know what it’s about, it strikes often.

“Pillows, I say, when people ask what I’m writing about… It’s a book about someone who can’t sleep… who’s writing a book about pillows. The more pillows I write, however, the more strongly I suspect that what I’m writing about pillows is as much about pillows as last night’s dream about getting lost in an underground parking lot at the mall was about getting lost in an underground parking lot at the mall.”