Birds Art Life Death, by Kyo Maclear

Sometimes we falter not because the ground beneath our feet is unstable but because it’s exhausting to keep moving, to keep trying, to keep performing the same actions again and again. Strong one moment, vulnerable the next, we falter because we are alive, and with any luck we recover.

Rating: 4/5
Author: Kyo Maclear
Genre: non-fiction
Publisher: Harper Collins

Birds Art Life DeathBirds Art Life Death collects Kyo Maclear’s inner musings on the art of observation and how we can learn to appreciate the small things in life for what they are, without expecting anything in return. Maclear feels at a loss when her father, whom she has a close relationship with, falls gravely ill. From that point on, Maclear delves into what she calls a state of “anticipatory grief”; after all, her father had taught her that there is some protection that comes from expecting the worst, whereas relying on empty hopes makes you unbearably vulnerable. Faced with this situation, the author seeks to cling on to something – or someone – that propels her forward. She finds the answer in a documentary called “15 Reasons To Live”, more specifically, in a musician and bird photographer, whose work reflects images of animals that stand out in the urban environment; those imperfect, dirty and pedestrian places we call home. In a way, the photographs feature an unusual glimpse of beauty over the vulgar and flawed.

© Jack Breakfast

The book is made up of 12 chapters, following the 12 months during which the author decides to follow the photographer in his various walks through the city of Toronto. Maclear talks about regret, loneliness, lulls, waiting, and other topics that relate to art and creativity. Her observations, devoid of useless turns or pretentious wordiness, speak about the need to slow down and pay attention to our surroundings. Interestingly, the author finds it difficult to justify the most apparently meaningless creative outlets and wonders whether giving ourselves to them suggest some form of privilege.

Why did she turn to bird during this crisis? They symbolize that constant clash between beautiful and ugly, urban and nature, freedom and reclusion. Humans pride themselves on the free will that derives from their ability to make decisions. At the same time, it’s those decisions that lead us to stillness, whether this means a person or a place. The circumstances that we tend to value the most give us a false sense of comfort: I have a stable income, a family, and I feel comfortable in my environment, what else could I ask for? On the contrary, we can also decide to lock ourselves up out for fear of the unknown. Following this train of thought, is it possible to live locked up and not be aware of it? If you have only experienced captivity, would you recognize freedom and know what to do with it?

Throughout her journey, Maclear discards the idea of becoming stranded dreaming of abundance; instead, she learns to focus on the abundance we can create with limited resources, as well as how she uses these obstacles to flourish her artistic output. Any creative person will surely find something to ponder about after reading Maclear’s ideas.

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The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Missing a train is only painful if you run after it! Likewise, not matching the idea of success others expect from you is only painful if that’s what you are seeking.

Rating: 4/5
Author: Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Genre: non-fiction
Publisher: Penguin

The Black SwanThis book is definitely out of my comfort zone and not something I would naturally pick up, but I am glad I read it. Some of NNT’s ideas will persist over time; however, from my amateur standpoint, that may mean that I will only be able to measure their impact in hindsight.

NNT’s style may not be to everyone’s liking, but beyond that, the influence of being exposed to a theory to which we are all inevitably subject to due to our human nature is increasingly difficult to ignore. A Black Swan is an event that meets the following criteria: it is an outlier, it carries an extreme impact, and it becomes predictable or explainable only in retrospect (think 9/11, Google or cultural phenomena, such as Harry Potter).
Our mind is incapable of formulating events that will dramatically change our lives, though we will have no issue citing a list of explanations afterward, including all the apparent facts that led us up to that point. We rely on the past because it is the only thing we are sure of, as it successfully provides the narrative that we desperately cling to rationalize the present and predict the future. Consequently, we believe we know more than we do, which lead us to make decisions and take risks based on a series of strict rules, wherein extreme deviations from the norm and its subsequent impact are not conceived.

The goal of this book is not to offer solutions to aid us in the decision-making process. The very essence of the Black Swan theory hints the futility of predicting a Black Swan, conceding that such events will not be perceived equally by everyone. Following the analogy offered by the author, we can only do our best to identify areas of vulnerability and be more resilient to avoid becoming a turkey.

Soviet Space Dogs, by Olesya Turkina

We were born to make fairy tales come true.

Rating: 3/5
Author: Olesya Turkina
Genre: non-fiction
Publisher: Fuel

Soviet Space Dogs

I found this book by chance in the Russian bookshop at Waterstones Piccadilly. They say we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but Soviet Space Dogs immediately stood out to me. Despite being a bit on the pricey side, it is such a quaint little book. Author Olesya Turkina is a Senior Research Fellow at the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg, and her knowledge shines through this volume. Much like a museum exhibit, this reads like an informative piece packed with facts and pictures all pieced together by a stunning design.

The subject matter was somewhat hard to swallow. The name ‘Laika’ (which, coincidentally, was not her only name) resonates strongly in popular culture; however, most details remained unknown until 2002. These stray dogs roamed the streets of Moscow and were deemed as worthy candidates for the space program as long as they met certain criteria (weight, size, sex, being photogenic, etc.). On the other hand, their lack of background gave Soviet ideology enough room to make up the rest of their stories as they saw fit. Ultimately, these four-legged cosmonauts served their purpose as symbols of Soviet ideology, heroes willing to sacrifice themselves to fulfill our life-long dream of space exploration and endless thirst for knowledge. Unlike their human counterparts, none of them volunteered or gave their consent to the inhumane tests they were forced to endure. Truthfully, even though Soviet Propaganda had successfully turned Laika’s story into a fairy tale, her death neither was justified nor deterred scientists from conducting further experiments.

Other dogs mentioned in this book include Belka and Strelka, which achieved fame during their lifetime and cast a new light to space exploration. While Soviet ideology celebrated their acts of heroism, others raised their concerns for the well-being of these animals. Fortunately, with the fall of the USSR, higher mammals were no longer being sent into orbit.

Despite its occasional lack of narrative structure, I think this book is a fair and well-deserved rendition of the sad lives led by these dogs. I was also surprised to find out that the details of Laika’s tragic demise had not been revealed until relatively recently.

The Soul of an Octopus, by Sy Montgomery

I have known no natural state more like a dream than this. I feel elation cresting into ecstasy and experience bizarre sensations: my own breath resonates in my skull, faraway sounds thump in my chest, objets appear closer and larger than they really are. Like in a dream, the impossible unfolds before me, and yet I accept it unquestioningly. Beneath the water, I find myself in an altered state of consciousness, where the focus, range, and clarity of perception are dramatically changed. Is this what Kali and Octavia feel like all the time?

Rating: 4/5
Author: Sy Montgomery
Genre: non-fiction, nature writing
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

The Soul of an Octopus“What is it like to be an octopus?” In The Soul of an Octopus, naturalist Sy Montgomery looks for answers while delving into the mysteries that encompass these odd ocean-dwellers. This book is not only a study of octopuses’ physical attributes and behaviors but also a chronicle of the emotional impact that the author went through while learning about them along the workers and volunteers at the New England Aquarium.

At first glance, the strangeness of these molluscs is distinctly apparent— yet, we both share the same world. Unlike humans, octopuses are comprised of body, head, and limbs, in that order. Their circular suckers not only account for their capacity to manipulate objects but also act as extraordinary sensory receptors. Imagine being able to taste food with your arms before taking it to your mouth, oddly located between them (what we would regard as ‘armpits’). Following this unusual anatomy, the head holds two eyes, one brain, and three hearts.

In her quest for knowledge, Montgomery becomes an observer of these species at the New England Aquarium. Her experiences with these octopuses tell of very different and remarkable personalities: tame, assertive, bossy, curious, bold, cheerful. As such, these specimens ought to be considered unique individuals; however, interpreting these behaviors through our limited human prism poses a significant problem. Given such disparity, how can we even begin to grasp the enigma that these creatures entail? Should we reject the concept of a single consciousness when talking about an octopus with a nervous system and sense reception so different than our own?

Montgomery decides to take her investigation a step further and expand her experiences beyond the aquarium in hopes of reaching a better understanding of their lives and natural environment. Despite her initial struggles, she ends up getting the required certification to practice scuba diving. From that point on, Montgomery’s delightful depictions of her underwater adventures make her enthusiasm almost contagious. Again, one cannot help but wonder about our lack of awareness about the vast ocean, which makes up 71% of the surface of the Earth.

Although Montgomery’s story leaves many issues about octopuses unresolved, she successfully manages to portray these species for what they are, rejecting all forms of previous prejudice and perhaps fading part of their ill-reputation as “monsters.” Differences draw forth rejection, while similarities -however fleeting- inevitably appeal to us (i.e., Octavia is no longer considered “disgusting” after being regarded as a creature with maternal instincts). Through unexpected encounters with these alien species, Montgomery not only satisfies our curiosity but also reveals surprising sensibility in a story that emphasizes the importance of community and human relationships.

Corvus: A Life With Birds, by Esther Woolfson

Of all of them, it has been the corvids, the rook, magpie and crow, who have altered for ever my relationship to the rest of the world, altered my view of a hierarchy of form, intellect, ability; my concept of time. The world we share is broad, the boundaries and differences between us negligible, illusory.

Corvus: A Life With Birds

Rating: 4/5
Author: Esther Woolfson
Genre: non-fiction, nature writing
Publisher: Granta Books

Esther Woolfson offers a fascinating insight into the lives of birds -mainly corvids- in this book, part nature writing and part memoir.

Woolfson has particular trouble defining herself as a bird expert, bird-owner or bird-keeper, favoring a definition that leans toward that of a housemate instead. Her relationship with birds begins rather abruptly when given a chance to look after some doves. Until then, she admits not giving much thought to them. What follows after is how this unplanned encounter became a turning point that shifted her perception dramatically, giving way to sharing a life with rooks, magpies, cockatiels, and parrots under the same roof. Drawing parallels between the experiences of caring for pets and wild birds would not be entirely reasonable. Cats and dogs were bred for centuries to live alongside humans, while most birds remain outside the human scope, despite their proximity to us. Indeed, Woolfson emphasizes the wild nature of birds, their freedom to come and go wherever they please, often reflecting on the decisions that she has made regarding their upkeep. However, the birds that usually land on Woolfson’s footstep are those that she found impossible to reintroduce to the wild or whose prospects, considering the circumstances, weren’t especially promising.

Consequently, Woolfson inadvertently became the go-to person whenever a bird was misplaced, unwanted or damaged in her community. There is room for both joy and sorrow in these stories. In particular, her experience adopting parrots is heartbreaking, to say the least. As it is often the case with adopted pets, past experiences can also imprint the character of an older bird. In other words, a mistreated bird may show reluctance to contact with humans, be permanently afraid of certain things, or even emit sounds that would give away the time that they have spent in unsuitable places. Most of the time, owners give up these birds due to lack of knowledge, especially concerning their display of high-pitched voices.

Soon after the doves, they found Chicken (short for Madame Chickeboumskaya), a fledgling rook. Through Woolfson’s experiences with this young rook, we learn about the extraordinary characters of corvids, capable of showing affection, humor, anger, and playfulness. Beyond Chicken’s unique character traits, her study also covers other remarkable aspects of these species, such as their unusual sight, their intense drive to cache and its implications with memory and brain, how they experience seasons, the learning process behind bird-singing, etc.

If there’s anything to be taken away from this book, is how little we actually know about other living beings that surround us. Corvids, rats, doves, and squirrels are a common sight in urban emplacements, but how much do we know about them? Where do doves and corvids’ reputation as ‘flying vermin’ stem from? Can we tell a rook, a crow, a jackdaw and a raven apart? Woolfson argues that fear -both physical and psychological- may have a played a significant role in our perception of corvids. In response to our combined lack of awareness and apprehension, superstition and popular culture often fill in the blanks, either attributing human-like qualities to them or regarding them as intrinsically dumb or loathsome.

Woolfson’s prose is intimate and lyrical, mirroring her passion and admiration towards birds, which she manages to convey flawlessly. Corvus invites us to open our eyes and take a closer look at our surroundings, including those living beings that have miraculously managed to coexist with us. We may be surprised to learn that they have more to offer than what meets the eye.

As a side note, Helen Macdonald’s fans will be glad to know that she is in charge of the beautiful illustrations found in Corvus.