Friday, July 31, 2015

52 Weeks of Reading - July

And so ends another month!  And so begins a monthly recap of reading!  I managed to finish a solid eleven 200+ page books this month.
July 1 - 4

July 5 - 11
*The Saffron Kitchen by Yasmin Crowther
*Pig by Andrew Cowan
*Fat Cat by Robin Brande
*Stuff White People Life: The Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions by Christian Lander

July 12 - 18
*El Deafo by Cece Bell
*Alex and Me:  How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence--and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process by Irene Pepperberg

July 19 - 25
*The Postage Stamp Vegetable Garden, completely revised edition, by Karen Newcomb
*American Furies: Crime, Punishments, and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment by Sasha Abramsky

July 26 - 31
*Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
*Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams
*Drawings by Kurt Vonnegut
Gosh, I read a lot of good books this month.  I guess I'd have to say my favorite was Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg.  This book blew my mind about how smart non-human animals are.  And that is saying something since as I certainly thought they were smart before.  This parrot though!  Seriously!  I was unprepared for such avian cleverness.  There is a scene where the scientist, Irene, is trying to run some tests (identifying different colors and shapes) on Alex.  Alex doesn't want to do the tests anymore and so keeps giving false answers.  Frustrated, Irene puts him in his room for the night and, like a little kid, Alex immediately rescinds his bad behavior with an "I'm sorry," followed by the correct answer and a plea to "come back!"  It was so amazing and heart-warming.  Even if you don't read the book you should watch this video.  How remarkable!  I think so many people think animals are dumb.  Not me.  I think they have a totally different kind of intelligence.  This intelligence is especially notable in animals that are encouraged in it.  Its interesting how parrots can help up bridge this gap in understanding because they can be trained to speak and understand our human languages!  This also lead me to the realization that parrots speak any language they are taught!  I'd only heard them speak English before, but a quick youtube search brings up videos of birds speaking GermanRussian, JapaneseFrench, and more.  Birds are so cool.

The collection, Drawings, by the late, great Kurt Vonnegut was great.  I love that guy.  He was so quirky, creative, and intelligent.  There were two introductions--one artsy and one personal.  The former was a bit over my head.  The latter was written by Kurt's daughter, Nanette, and was tremendous.  Kurt's doodles are sometimes simple and other times wildly complex.  Of course, there was a section devoted to self-portraits.  I love his self-portraits, his abstract and geometrical renderings, his appreciation of humanity.

I also enjoyed Stuff White People like a great deal.  It made me laugh out loud while it made fun of me.  Turns out, I like a lot of the stuff white people like!  Ha!  Of course, its all generalities, but as I was reading there were only a couple of entries that I thought were way off.  Even if I don't like Oscar Parties, say, I have friends and family that do!  Its sarcastic and caustic at points making it, in my opinion, a fun, satirical read.

There weren't really any bad books this month, though I hit a slew of coming of age novels that were not stellar.  All were fine books, don't get me wrong, but they didn't wow me as some of the others this month did.  More two or three stars instead of four or five.  The Saffron Kitchen and Pig were both sort of coming of age novels involving race and place.  The Saffron Kitchen is set in Iran and Pig in Scotland.  The Saffron Kitchen made me ever so grateful for the family and culture I was born into--what a blessing!  Fat Cat was the story of a girl who tries to go paleo (in diet, transportation, cosmetics, etc.) for a science project with the latent purpose of sticking it to a boy who broke her heart.  The love story was pretty cliche, but I liked how the female lead was really into science and scholarship.  She also becomes a vegetarian by the end and saves a vegetarian restaurant for closing.  Ha!  Veg fiction!  I didn't know that when I picked up the book.  It was just a coincidence.

El Deafo was probably my favorite of the coming of age stories  This time it was about a young girl who is rendered deaf following an illness told in the form of a graphic novel .  Another book to make me count my blessings, including the ability to hear clearly.    It also made me think of my step-father who grew up deaf.  He was quite adept at getting by in the hearing world.  I suppose one has to be!  Since it was a graphic novel it was a very quick read.  I really like graphic novels.  I was glad to see my library had gotten a new one.

American Furies was horrifying and thought provoking.  What is the aim of a prison?  To rehabilitate or to punish?  I spent a lot of time thinking about that.  It seems to change with the political and social winds.  I don't have the answer, but I do not think that three strikes laws and juveniles being sent to adult prisons is going to solve our crime problems.  I know its not so simple, but if we spent the money we do on the prison complex on social reform maybe we would need so dang many of them.  There were some staggering statistics in there.   It was a fascinating historical glimpse into the justice system and a chilling cautionary warning, too.  It made me reflect on a book I read earlier this year called Shakespeare Saved My Life which centered around educational efforts in solitary confinement.

Speaking of horror and staggering statistics, the book, Hitler Youth, was also quite filled with them.  I mean, I think it would be hard to write a book on the topic without that being the case.  This book was a Newbery Honor Award winner and quite compellingly told the story of the rise of Hitler, the propaganda campaign among its citizens, especially the young, and the role they played in the ensuing war and holocaust.  It is amazing how fast it all happened and how openly.  In the book the author reports that at one point more that 80% of German young people were in the Hitler Youth.  Its incredible to me to imagine that sort of group uniformity and solidarity.  If only it had been used to do something good.

Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History was quite good.  Just the sort of narrative non-fiction that I enjoy.  I learned quite a bit about the miraculous breast and all it can do.  Its the only human organ that does most of its growing after we're born, for example.  Or that while chimpanzees chests will swell while they're breast feeding their young due to swelling milk glands, humans are the only primates that have breasts all the time.  The book was also rather horrifying, in its way, when the author started delving into the connections between environmental pollutants and breast health.  That part made me want to get rid of everything plastic and covered with flame retardant...

I already gave a review of The Postage Stamp Vegetable Garden.  As such the only thing I will add is that I read every single word in the book.  I don't count a book on my list unless I do.  I think Matt thought I was a little crazy.  He said that reference, how-to type books don't necessarily need to be read in order, cover to cover.  In general, I agree, but not when I was reviewing the book.  I could see what he meant though.  When I need help sewing I just look things up in the index of my sewing book--I don't read the whole thing!  It made me think that perhaps I should keep a list of the books I utilize for reference as well as those I actually read cover to cover.  Maybe.
Weeks passed: 28
Books read: 48*
*With 48 books read I am already at 92% of my goal and there are still 153 more days left in the year.  I am well on track.

Recaps for the previous months of the challenge can be found by following these links:  January, February, March, April, May, June.

Sunday, July 26, 2015


I saw my first Black-necked Stilt in June.  Matt saw his first in July.  These are some incredible looking birds.
Their long, slim body is adorned in black and white plumage which is quite striking and fancy--like a little bird tuxedo.  They stroll around on these absurdly long, skinny, bright red legs.  Legs so long the birds got called stilts.  Its fitting, really.  When they fly their red legs stick straight out behind them.  It is hilarious and awesome to watch.
When we crossed paths with them in July they had little fluff-balls of chicks with them, too.  The littlest chick appeared to be walking on the surface of the water--though I am sure it was really so light it was balancing on bits of plant material floating on the surface.  It was so tiny!  Its remarkable how babies grow and change.  I mean, its hard to fathom that this little unobtrusive ball of feathers will someday transform into the sleek, leggy, beautiful adult wading nearby.  Of course, the same would be set of our small, red-faced, wrinkly human babies, too, I suppose!  Cute, exciting, and remarkable either way.
They're very cool birds, these stilts.

Saturday, July 25, 2015


We got some great birding in last weekend.  We stopped at the Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge near Malta, MT on our way to see a play at the historic Fort Peck Theater.  The birding around Fort Peck was also excellent.  We logged several new-to-us birds.
We saw:
Baltimore Oriole
We saw this pretty fella while eating a sandwich in a city park in Malta.  It was such a delightful surprise for our lunch hour.
Cedar Waxwing
 Franklin's Gull
 American White Pelican
 Black-necked Stilt--a first for Matt!
 American Avocet
 Western Kingbird
 Chestnut-collared Longspur--a first for both of us!
You'd have to click to enlarge the photo to start getting an impression of the cool coloration on this bird.   This rather diminutive bird was possibly our biggest source of excitement on the birding trip.  They're just cool looking--and always seem to be hiding in the grass.
 Eastern Kingbird
This is a cool shot in that its actually of a Western Kingbird (left) sharing a fence line with an Eastern Kingbird (right).  This is in a part of the country where their ranges overlap.
Yellow Warbler
Do you see him?  Yellow Warblers are so tiny!
 Brown Thrasher-a first for both of us!
 Downy Woodpecker
 American Goldfinch
This male American Goldfinch (left) seemed to be feeding his mate (right).  This is a common bird habit which demonstrate the ability to provide for her and a brood of babies.  Its sweet and fun to watch.
We also saw:
Turkey Vulture
American Robin
Western Meadowlark
Ring-billed Gull
Tree Swallow
Double-crested Cormorant
Red-tailed Hawk
Common Yellowthroat--a first for us both!
Gray Catbird
Bank Swallow--a first for Matt!
Common Raven
American Crow
Red-winged Blackbird
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Eared Grebe
Western Grebe
Yellow-billed Magpie
Mourning Dove
Northern Flicker
House Wren
Common Merganser
Long-billed Curlew
Wilson's Phalarope
Common Nighthawk
American Coot
White-faced Ibis
Ruddy Duck
We took my niece and nephew along for a few of our birding walks.  Eli had me help him write out a list of the birds he'd seen--I had to spell them if they were tricky, like Double-crested Cormorant.  Keleigh asked me, "How do you know what they all are?!"  I told her, "practice, practice, practice...."  They were cute looking through their binoculars and we were pleased to share our birdlove with them.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Prepare for Take Off, Cormorant-Style

Our natural world is, as a whole, amazing, but birds hold a special amazement for me.  As such, it was a treat to watch this Double-crested Cormorant on one of the small pond near the Downstream Campground at Fort Peck, Montana.  All the better when I looked down at my camera and saw I'd captured it all quite well in the camera.  Such power and grace....

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Review: The Postage Stamp Vegetable Garden: Completely Revised Edition

I am trying something out here.  A friend turned me on to an organization called Blogging for Books.  Basically through relationships with publishers bloggers can obtain free copies of a wide range of newly released books.  The only stipulation is that the blogger must write an "original and thoughtful" review of the book, at least three paragraphs in length.  It doesn't have to be a gushing, positive review--that isn't the point at all, as far as I can tell.  The point is to generate an assortment of honest reviews about each book on the web across the spectrum of bloggers.  It strikes me as book publicity, but in a sort of grassroots kind of way.  Since I blog and I read a lot already it seemed a natural fit when Kjell brought it to my attention.  With that, below is my first Blogging for Books review.
The Postage Stamp Vegetable Garden: Grow Tons of Organic Vegetables in Tiny Spaces and Containers--Completely Revised Edition--by Karen Newcomb

In general, I think this book is great for a new gardener.  However, that is not to say it wasn't helpful to a gardener with a handful of years experience either.
I really appreciated that the emphasis was on small spaces.  A lot of people I know live in rentals and cannot just tear up the yard as Matt and I have done at our place.  This book encourages gardening on even the smallest of scale--from a few pots on windowsills to raised backyard beds.  I appreciated that.

I liked how there was a good overview at the start covering some (mostly organic) garden basics--different methods of growing vertically, interplanting, succession planting, soil composition, warm vs. cool weather crops, composting, etc.  It covered a lot of bases.
The postage stamp style garden seems akin to the square foot garden in that things aren't planted in conventional rows.  This is how Matt and I garden, too, though both approaches (PSG and SFG) can get too insistent on doing this just if it wouldn't work otherwise.  We have never made up the special soil mixtures, say, that each book recommends.  Our garden does fine--but it does make me want to try a little experiment and see.  Maybe it would do even better.  I might try it next year, but probably we'll continue to amend the existing soil rather than create a special, new soil mix.

The book is speckled with helpful boxes which highlight the most useful information in the chapter.  There are boxes colored so they jump out from the text.  I like that.  It makes finding the information on how far apart to space things when planting, or how many plants to grow per person, a snap.
There were sketches of some different garden layouts, but I only found those marginally helpful.  I suppose they might be good jumping off points for someone just starting their garden, though they'd still have to be customized to food tastes, climate, space limitations, etc.  The book did encourage using whatever resources were available and encouraged people to think about re-purposing things, which I liked.  Of course, my garden beds are edged with bricks and pieces of lumber acquired here and there for free, so of course I would like that advice.  If I had an old ladder I would totally use it as a trellis...  How charming!
There was a chapter where each common vegetable and herb was given a good overview--care, selection, harvest, space requirements, common problems, popular varieties and where to obtain the seeds for them.  That would be especially helpful to someone just starting out, I think, though I certainly learned a thing or two from my reading.  I had no idea there were so many hybrids designed for container gardens, for example, even short "midget" corn!  Though, in general, we don't use a lot of hybrids ourselves, so I guess its not all that surprising that it was new to me.  I'd like to try a few of the suggested varieties of Asian eggplant.  I will also look into obtaining some seed for New Zealand or Mountain Spinach which are not really spinach, but similar plants which can better take the summer heat without bolting.  I'd love to extend our fresh green eating even into the 90+ degree days.  The Swiss chard withstands the heat better, but variety really is the spice of life!   I liked that there was an emphasis on the countless varieties of produce--white eggplants, black tomatoes, purple carrots-- to choose from, depending on personal preferences.   That is one of my favorite parts about gardening.  The grocery store is so limited in color palate.
There were a few bits of advice in there that made me puzzle a little bit, as it seemed like more work than my own strategy, but I think that just happens with garden books--or talking to other gardeners, for that matter.  Gardening is one of those activities that can be carried out in a myriad of ways--all of them valid for that person, place, or time.  People have a tendency, Matt and I included, to think that our way is the best way.  That may be true for us, but it is rarely the only way.  Still, I've never heard anyone suggest that anaerobic composting is a good idea.  I mean, it will work, but is slow and so stinky I cannot imagine why it was listed first in the methods of composting.  That said, there is a whole chapter of different methods of composting and why its so beneficial.  None of the methods described are quite what we do, but they all would work.
I had to chuckle at the part that said, "There are few, if any, problems growing spinach."  Sure....unless you've got leafminers!  If we don't use row covers they are a constant problem in our spinach growing!  Still, like I've said, each garden is different.  I should also add that I admired the general attitude towards insects in this book.  The author stresses ecology and working with nature--not just spraying chemical pesticides at the sight of any ol' bug.  She offers some non-chemically intensive alternatives like hand removal, soap-and-water sprays, waxes and oils, beer traps for slugs, and rolled newspaper traps for earwigs.  I like the simpler approach and we've found it works well for us--though I wish I'd heard about that earwig trap last year when they were so problematic for us.
There was a "fact" or two included in the book that I think are actually inaccurate--carrots being a source of vitamin B12 being one of them.  As far as I've been able to determine that is just false information.  Carrots are packed with a lot of goodness, but B12 isn't part of it.  I don't like running across stuff like that in books as it makes me question the veracity of other claims made within the pages.  Still, we're all just humans and mistakes happen--even in books, with all their proof-reading and editing before publication. 
There certainly was a lot more good advice than bad though--and I learned quite a few new things, as well as reinforcing things I've read and experienced elsewhere.  The book taught me that onions need a lot of water while they're making that delicious bulb, which makes sense when I stopped to think about it.  The book advised that if the onions do not have enough water they will not die in the garden necessarily, but will not have as much to put into making large bulbs.  We've taken extra care to keep our onions well watered and you know what, they're looking the best we've ever grown.  Cross my fingers--no more egg sized onions this year!  The author says that carrots and other vegetables that are thinned make great additions to soup.  I'd never thought of eating those before.  I just always composted them.  It makes sense though--so many "baby" vegetables are most delicious and tender and we already thin and eat our greens, so why not do the same with other baby veg?!  I also am going to try pre-sprouting pea seed indoors early next spring because the author says it allows your to plant peas even earlier, when the ground would otherwise still be too cold.  I'll give it a whirl next year.
Overall, it is a book I am glad to have in our gardening library.  I think it will a helpful resource for troubleshooting common problems and for planning crop rotations to make best use of companion planting.  I also would like to try some of the suggested vegetable varieties that I'd not previously heard about and check out that Asian vegetable seed company listed in the back.  I would recommend it to a friend, particularly one just starting out in gardening or just beginning to alter their methods to a more square foot gardening style.

As an added bonus the book was printed in the USA.  A cherry on top.
Full Disclosure:  I received a free copy of this book from the Blogging for Books Program in exchange for this review.