to the Cuckoo
and the Impending
Ivan R. Dee: 266 pp., $26.95
"What would it mean to us if the spring-bringers stopped arriving?" Would it be like losing rainbows? Michael McCarthy wonders, or roses or hope or music? It's a new tactic -- asking us to imagine our world without the species, sounds and smells we take for granted. And it works. A sense of wonder is replaced with a strange hollow feeling -- one part guilt, one part regret and one part denial.
McCarthy set out to "locate the deeper meanings birds may have . . . to the human imagination, a field of study which is just beginning to emerge and has been tentatively labeled bioculture." He begins in Africa, with the migration each year of 16 million birds to Britain. He describes the various routes, the "fantastic traffic" and the particularly stunning tenacity of some species. He sees the sense of wonder in his son's eyes when he hears the song of the nightingale for the first time. He describes the journeys, songs and preferred habitats of sedge warblers, turtle doves and many others. He wanders among hawthorn hedges in mid-May, describes the two-note call of the cuckoo that heralds spring and weaves through the works of philosophers, composers and artists before landing in a place barren of possibility: the future.
"On every continent," he quotes a report from BirdLife International, "species which have always been familiar and taken for granted are steadily dropping in numbers."
You Look Fine, Really
William Morrow: 244 pp., $22.99
"I know I am a grown-up woman, even though I rarely see my particular type of grown-up woman represented in advertisements or on television shows. It's like being an atheist in America. And yet, here I am." In her funny, compassionate voice, in her Crocs and flip-flops, Christie Mellor provides an antidote to the assault on female self-esteem. Mellor lives in Southern California (ground zero), and she is not advocating frumpiness -- just a little relaxation and rationality; a little balance, somewhere between "sitting on the sofa all day and spending five hours a day at the gym."
She offers the Backyard Workout Wonderland (a 15-minute workout), her very own research on red lipstick, the virtues of the pashmina shawl and other bits of hard-earned wisdom. It's not all easy (see "Magnifying Mirrors: A Necessary Horror"), but it's not boot camp, either.
You don't have to rearrange your face or hide in your house after turning 40. You do have to take "a cold, hard look at what the heck you have been doing for the last forty or fifty years. Have you been learning new stuff? Have you become friends with some good people? Do your friends love you and do you love them? Do you laugh on a regular basis? Are you excited about what's coming next? Then you're a very, very successful person."
City Lights Books: 132 pp., $11.95 paper
Atlantic islands, Northeastern U.S. fishing towns, the last years of the Vietnam War: Ammiel Alcalay flies over this time and these places. His character, a young man, sees kitchen tables, spigots, shoe polish, an old blue car in a field with grass growing through the running boards. From these details, memories emerge, and from the memories, stories. The placement of details on the pages is stunningly simple, an ikebana of words, "a vast catalog of references." "The boy walked around with a ball of string. He showed the string to the two men who were working on an engine. The man looked at the string and the boy and told him to take it to the back of the garage and wrap up some boxes. The boy walked along the long driveway stepping over puddles and truck tires. There was a green truck. . . ." It's a line-drawing of a novel; deeply evocative and written by someone who has studied the craft in its simplicity.
Salter Reynolds is a writer in Los Angeles.