Friday, May 18, 2018

Book Report: Bad Stories

7. Steve Almond, Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country (2018) (5/18/18)

It took me a little while to read this not-very-long book, not so much because I wanted to savor every word, but because every chapter made me (a) angry and (b) really, really sad. I don't want to be in despair over what's going on in this country—and it's hard for me not to . . . but thankfully, smart, critical, unabashedly progressive and hopeful (if not necessarily optimistic) writers like journalist and social commentator Steve Almond (he's perhaps best known for co-hosting the podcast Dear Sugars with Cheryl Strayed) help keep me from slipping over the brink.

Bad Stories is an examination of our 45th president as a symptom of the recent election and our current state of seeming impasse (if not destruction). In these sixteen-plus-one chapters, Almond struggles "to see Trumpism . . . as an opportunity to reckon with the bad stories at the heart of our great democratic experiment, and to recognize that often, embedded within these bad stories, are beautiful ideals and even correctives that might help us to contain the rage that has clouded our thoughts."

Almond begins by invoking the notion expressed by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind that humanity's dominance on this planet "stems from our unique cognitive ability to believe in the imagined, to tell stories that extend our bonds beyond clan loyalties. Our larger systems of cooperation, whether spiritual, political, legal, or financial, require faith in a beautiful fiction known as the common good, the sort of mutual trust expressed in any trade agreement or currency." But what, Almond asks, if the stories we tell ourselves are bad—perhaps merely frivolous, or worse, fraudulent, whether by negligence or design, "intended to sow discord, to blunt our moral imaginations, to warp our fears into loathing and our mercy into vengeance?"

Almond takes on various American myths/exaggerations/falsehoods in somewhat rambling discourses, supported by "statistical data, personal anecdote, cultural criticism, literary analysis, and when called for, outright intellectual theft." For example, Bad Story #1, "Watergate Was about a Corrupt President," wasn't just about that: it was even more so about our nation's shared idealism—which today seems increasingly fragile, even evanescent. To explore this idea, Almond cites Moby Dick and mad captain Ahab; conversations Almond has had with his own young children; Kurt Vonnegut and W. E. B. Du Bois; and slavery.

Other "bad stories" explore journalism and the Fairness Doctrine, feminism, sports culture, the Internet, television comedians, talk radio, immigration, Putin, and more. The central chapters refer to Neil Postman's influential 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business—no less relevant, and perhaps more so, today than thirty years ago—and Melville's Moby Dick remains a thread throughout the chapters, and the idea that "the great peril of our age is not that we have turned into a nation of Ahabs, but of Ishmaels, passive observers too willing to embrace feuds that nourish our rancor and starve our common sense."

It's an interesting, wide-ranging read—though of course I'm in sympathy with Almond's progressive political views. Not all are. On FB, Steve posted links to a couple of places online where the opposing view is presented: first, in a caller's response to an otherwise solidly sympathetic interview with KQED's Michael Krasny ("Wow," Steve comments on FB. "Here's what happens when a Trump voter calls in to a radio show to complain that he feels 'condescended to.' Listen as I struggle to deal w/ Toxic White Entitlement Syndrome. [Spoiler alert: I kind of lose my shit...])" and then in a YouTube "podcast" called Left-Right Radio with conservative ("Trump Troll") host Chuck Morse (which for some reason starts in the middle, when Steve is again losing his shit—you can easily rewind to the beginning, though, if you're interested).

The one aspect of the book that I found unfortunate is the lack of source citations. In a work like this, so reliant on statistics, quotations, and facts—and not just opinions—knowing where the ingredients come from only makes the arguments more convincing. Assuming they come from credible sources. I'm sure Steve is able to provide that information, and I suspect his publisher nixed the idea. It's too bad. In a work like this, all the authority the author can muster is for the better, in my view.

The back cover of the book quotes Trump from his book How to Get Rich: "I don't mind bad stories, I can handle a bad story better than anybody, as long as it's true." Ayup. Nuff said.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Important Albums

There's a challenge going around Facebook right now, asking people to post their most influential albums, without commentary. I was tagged, twice, and so . . .

But because I cannot follow directions, and because I find the stories behind influence interesting, I've blabbed on about my choices. I'll archive them here, for posterity. They are posted in no real order. These are just albums that, for one reason or another, continue to resonate and are mostly from my first half of existence (i.e., before about 1990).

1. The Beatles, Help

Here's the first album I ever received as a present, from my mother's best friend, Libby Robinson. It wasn't because I liked the movie (I'm not sure I'd seen it—my access to popular culture was limited when I was a kid), but because she went to a record store and asked what an 11-year-old would like. It worked! I did! It helped make me feel like I belonged, somehow. I distinctly remember the first time I ever heard the Beatles, in my friend Mary Ann Pobog's garage on Georgina in Santa Monica, on the radio. The song may have been "Love Me Do." I was not exposed to the Rolling Stones until much later, so yeah, I was a Beatles kid. Today, I like both bands. They're different. 

2. Randy Newman, 12 Songs

This album introduced me to Randy Newman, thanks to a review I read somewhere, maybe the LA Times or Rolling Stone, which commented that other artists I liked at the time (Joni Mitchell, Chrissie Hynde, Paul McCartney, that sort of folk—this would have been about 1970) were really impressed with this album, though it never gained popular currency. Sail Away is probably my *favorite* album of Randy's, but it all started here. We have heard him perform live several times, just him and his piano. It was always a treat.

3. Steeleye Span, Below the Salt / Jethro Tull, Aqualung

Steeleye Span was the opening act for the first big-arena concert I went to: Jethro Tull's Aqualung tour in 1972. I loved the spin they did on English folk tunes, and their song "Gaudete" delights me to this day. I still have the vinyl album Below the Salt. And, of course, Aqualung. So I'll just post both of them for #3: they are wrapped around each other in my mind. 

4. The Music Man (movie soundtrack)

When I was a kid, my mom took me to the theater, starting with musicals, and at that time, too, musicals were on the screen. I have a very short window from the 1960s with a few favorite musicals: West Side Story, Camelot, Man of La Mancha, Fiddler on the Roof, Paint Your Wagon, My Fair Lady, Oliver! The last two I saw overseas in the cinema: MFL in March 1965 in Tokyo, twice within a week—I was homesick for English, even if it was Cockney; and O! in a tiny theater in Munich, 1969. I also saw a stage production of Fiddler in Germany (after having seen Zero Mostel in Los Angeles), and one of Jesus Christ Superstar in Bologna, Italy. I will always love The Music Man best, though, and yes, I know every word of the soundtrack. Plus, Meredith Willson, the author, went to our church (not significant; I just find it interesting for its randomness).

And that's as far as I got. I might pick up the project again at some point, though for now I've lost interest. If I do, I'll post a Part II.

Book Report: The Word Is Murder

6. Anthony Horowitz, The Word Is Murder (2017) (5/14/18)

I've been slogging through a book on the current dysfunction of this country. It's interesting and illuminating, but it's also depressing. Yesterday my friend Kim asked, via a photo on WhatsApp, if I've read Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz. I responded with a photo of a different Horowitz book that arrived in my mailbox just the day before. I saw it mentioned in the "What Are You Reading?" column of the Christian Science Monitor, and the fact that we've been binge-watching Foyle's War, a Horowitz creation, caused my ears to perk up. So I ordered it and stuck it on my stack.

But the coincidence caused me to consider: I don't need to slog through just one book. I could pick up another.

Done—and done. This morning I finished The Word Is Murder, a delightful romp through greater London, full of undertakers, actors and producers, lawyers, grieving parents, nannies and house cleaners, one mysterious former police detective, and Horowitz himself. Even Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson make a brief appearance (Horowitz was involved in the Tintin project). There are also, of course, a couple of murders—the first occurring mere hours after a woman arranges her own funeral. And not a few red herrings.

The best part, though, is the fact that Horowitz himself is the narrator, as he partners with the brilliant yet opaque Hawthorne. They had met several years before when Horowitz was working on a police procedural TV series and Hawthorne was brought in as an expert consultant. Now, Hawthorne approaches Horowitz and proposes a book: a real-life one about an ongoing murder investigation. Horowitz is reluctant. He is a fiction writer, after all; plus, he doesn't much like Hawthorne. But he is between projects, and then a chance question at a book fair—"I don't mean to be rude, but I wonder why you're not more interested in the real world. . . . Aren't you worried that your books might be considered irrelevant?"—convinces him to take it on. The metanarrative device, which is in play right through the acknowledgments, tickles; Horowitz throws in enough real-world detail that we're never entirely sure what's true and what isn't. It also allows us nice insights into Horowitz's own career and working method.

The ultimate solution is satisfying, and one rather hopes that the partnership will endure (which seems to be Horowitz's plan).

Here Horowitz talks about the "scene of the murder," from a writer's perspective:
Normally, when I visit a crime scene, it's one that I have myself manufactured. I don't need to describe it: the director, the locations manager, the designer and the props department will have done most of the work for me, choosing everything from the furniture to the colour of the walls. I always look for the most important details—the cracked mirror, the bloody fingerprint on the windowsill, anything that's important to the story—but they may not be there yet. It depends which way the camera is pointing. I often worry that the room will seem far too big for the victim who supposedly lived there—but then ten or twenty people have to be able to fit inside during filming and the viewers never notice. In fact, the room will be so jammed with actors, technicians, lights, cables, tracks, dollies and all the rest of it that it's quite difficult to work out how it will look on the screen.
 Being the writer on a set is a strange experience. It's hard to describe the sense of excitement, walking into something that owes its existence entirely to what happened inside my head. It's true that I'm completely useless and that no matter where I stand I'm almost certain to be in the way but the crew is unfailingly polite and pleasant to me even if the truth is that we have nothing to say. My work finished weeks ago; theirs is just beginning. So I'll sit down in a folding chair which never has my name on the back. I'll watch form the side. I'll chat to the actors. Maybe a runner will bring me a cup of tea in a styrofoam cup. And as I sit there, I'll take comfort in the knowledge that this is all mine. I am part of it and it is part of me.
 Mrs Cowper's living room couldn't have been more different. As I stepped onto the thick-pile carpet with its floral pattern etched in pink and grey and took in the crystal chandelier, the comfortable, faux-antique furniture, the Country Life and Vanity Fair magazines spread out on the coffee table, the books (modern fiction, hardback, nothing by me) on the built-in shelves, I felt like an intruder. I was on my own, wandering through what might as well have been a museum exhibit as a place where someone had recently lived.
And here you get a taste of Hawthorne, as he interviews the funeral director:
"I have already spoken to the police," Cornwallis began.
 "Yes, sir." It was interesting that Hawthorne called him "sir." I saw at once that he was quite different when he was dealing with witnesses or suspects or anyone who might help him with his investigation. He came across as ordinary, even obsequious. The more I got to know him, the more I saw that he did this quite deliberately. People lowered their guard when they were talking to him. They had no idea what sort of man he was, that he was only waiting for the right moment to dissect them. For him, politeness was a surgical mask, something he slipped on before he took out his scalpel. "Because of the unusual nature of the crime, I've been asked to provide independent support to the investigation. I'm very sorry to take up your time . . ." He gave the funeral director a crocodile smile. "Do you mind if I smoke?"
And now, I guess I'll get back to American dysfunction.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Book Report: The House of Broken Angels

5. Luis Alberto Urrea, The House of Broken Angels (2018) (5/1/18)

I had the great pleasure of listening to Luis Alberto Urrea "read" one of his short stories at a writers' conference a few years back (it was actually a by-heart dancing performance—absolutely riveting), and I have been enamored of him ever since. I then read one of his novels, Into the Beautiful North, and thoroughly enjoyed it, and David read his nonfiction The Devil's Highway, about people crossing the border from Mexico into the U.S., and ditto. So I was excited when his newest book came out two months ago. (Because I am trying to actually read the books I buy in hardback, when the question came up of what to tackle next, it was an easy choice.)

The House of Broken Angels is a family saga—the family Mexican-American, living in San Diego as the novel gets going, most of them here legally, but some not. The story plays out over the course of a week bookended by a funeral—the matriarch's—and a birthday party—that of the matriarch's 70-year-old son, Big Angel, who also happens to be dying of cancer. But it also plays out over the decades of these people's individual stories, as memories are visited, dreams re-explored, tragedies put once again to rest. Time is a character in this book as well.

Occasions like these bring in everyone, and the family tree is large and complicated. Figuring out who's who (everyone has at least one nickname) and who's related to whom how is part of the fun of this book. It's like being a guest yourself at a large family gathering where you only know one person (in this case, Luis himself—a professor at the University of Illinois, his father Mexican, his mother American, who in the novel "is" Little Angel, Big Angel's half-brother by an American mother, and a professor in Seattle). Little Angel is somewhat estranged from the clan, so we get to watch through his eyes as he sorts things through. It helps. Because you have to pay close attention, watch and listen carefully, to tease out the relationships, the energies, sometimes even the identities of those assembled.

It is also a story full of emotion: as the NYT reviewer, Viet Thanh Nguyen, notes, it includes all sorts of dualities—anger and sorrow, love and pain, joy and resentment, hatred and reconciliation, backstabbing and tenderness. In short, there's a whole heckuvalot of humanity in this book. And the ante is upped by it being Hispanic humanity, in this country, now.

I flagged many passages for the beauty, humor, pathos, emotion, of the writing. Here are a couple, chosen somewhat at random (one interior, one dialogue). They're long, but I want you to get a good sense of the flow. Urrea can write, yes—description, sequence—but he also has deep insight into the heart of us, and it, all. (In the following, Perla is Big Angel's wife; Lalo and Minnie are his children. The "invisible interviewer," I'm guessing, is God.)
Big Angel was turning seventy. It seemed very old to him. At the same time, it felt far too young. He had not intended to leave the party so soon. "I have tried to be good," he told his invisible interviewer.
  His mother had made it to the edge of one hundred. He had thought he'd at least make it that far. In his mind, he was still a kid, yearning for laughter and a good book, adventures and one more albóndigas soup cooked by Perla. He wished he had gone to college. He wished he had seen Paris. He wished he had taken the time for a Caribbean cruise, because he secretly wanted to snorkel, and once he got well, he would go do that. He was still planning to go see Seattle. See what kind of life his baby brother had. He suddenly realized he hadn't even gone to the north side of San Diego, to La Jolla, where all the rich gringos went to get suntans and diamonds. He wished he had walked on the beach. Why did he not have sand dollars and shells? A sand dollar suddenly seemed like a very fine thing to have. And he had forgotten to go to Disneyland. He sat back in shock: he had been too busy to even go to the zoo. He could have smacked his own forehead. He didn't care about lions, tigers. He wanted to see a rhinoceros. He resolved to ask Minnie to buy him a good rhino figure. Then wondered where he should put it. By the bed. Damned right. He was a rhino. He'd charge at death and knock the hell out of it. Lalo had tattoos—maybe he'd get one too. When he got better.
. . . . .
It was almost party time. Back in the bedroom, Perla and La Minnie were struggling with Big Angel. They had pulled the chair backward, against his will. Every inch made him more hysterical. He dragged his feet until the linoleum pulled off his slippers and then his socks.
  None of them could remember what pills he was supposed to take at what hour. They had to trust his computer of a brain to keep track of all his mega doses. And his least favorites: the chemo lozenges. Minnie was certain he was hiding these under the bed, but she could never find them.
  They muscled him into the bathroom and stripped him.
  "Ay," he said. He went limp in their hands and sagged, grunting. "No."
  They pulled off his diaper.
  "No you don't!" he said.
  Minnie carefully wrapped the diaper in a tight ball and dropped it into the trash can.
  "No, I said!" Big Angel was trying to sit on the floor. "Leave me alone."
  Every damned day, the same thing. "Come on, Daddy," Minnie urged. "Stop being a baby."
  Perla ran the water. She was careful—kept her hand in the stream until she was sure it was perfect. Too cold and he'd curse, too hot and he'd cry.
  "No bath today!" he said.
  They lifted him into the water. He kicked weakly.
  "Flaco! This is the one day you need to take a bath. Your party!"
  "I don't want a party."
  "Be good, Flaco."
  "Too hot! Ay! Too hot!"
  "Help!" he shouted. "Angel! Angel, come!" He thrashed. "Carnal! Help me!"
  "Flaco, stop it."
  Little Angel rushed into the bedroom behind them. "Angel?" he said. "You okay?"
  "Don't come in here, Tío," said Minnie, kicking the bathroom door closed.
  Big Angel sat in the water, hands over his face. His back looked like a Halloween costume of gray bones. He shivered in the warm water.
  "You wanted a party," Minnie said. "Do you want to look good or not?"
  "Good," he said softly.
  Perla leaned in with a huge soft sponge foaming with soap and reached between his legs.
  "Better, Flaco? Sí? Feels good, no?"
  "Don't watch," he told his daughter.
  "Ain't watching. I'm busy with your armpits."
  He lay back in the water and kept his eyes screwed shut.
  "Nice and clean," Perla said. "Como un buen muchachito."
  Big Angel covered his sagging breasts with his blackened hands. "Mija?" he said.
  "Do you forgive me?"
  "For what?"
  He waved his hand in the air. "I'm sorry."
  "For what, Daddy?"
  "All these things." He opened his eyes and stared at her. "I used to wash you," he said. "When you were my baby."
  She busied herself with the bottle of no-tears baby shampoo.
  "I used to be your father. Now I am your baby." He sobbed. Only once.
  She blinked fast and put shampoo in her palm. "It's okay," she said. "Everything's okay."
  He closed his eyes and let her wash his hair.
And at the very end, after the party, Little Angel promises Big Angel a trip to La Jolla the next day—and Big Angel drifts to sleep dreaming about watching "great waves traveling forever across the open copper sea." I don't think that's really giving too much away.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Book Report: Harens år

4. Arto Paasilinna, Harens år (1975) (4/24/18)

The second book in my friend Thelma's and my "Norwegian torture" series,* Harens år, or "The Year of the Hare," was published in 1975 in Finnish and tells the story of a dyspeptic journalist who adopts a wild hare—after he hits it with his car on a forest road—and then proceeds to leave life as he knows it (including his wife) behind, running through a series of little adventures, mostly in the far north of Finland. It's an episodic novel in which the hero, Vatanen, fights fires, cuts down trees, stumbles on German war booty, overturns a corpse, goes fishing, gets drunk, is arrested by the Soviet authorities, etc. He meets various people who might have somehow changed Vatanen (for the better, one keeps wishing), but in fact he doesn't change. The hare plays virtually no role except to be his constant companion (indeed, at moments you wonder if he'll survive, Vatanen does so little to watch out for him), and this is no animal lover's story, because over its course he metes out a gruesome death to two other animals.

The cover of the Norwegian translation calls the book a "whimsical fable from the Finnish forest," and apparently the author, Paasilinna, was beloved in Scandinavia back in the 70s. Perhaps I don't share those northern sensibilities.

There is something to be said for the self-discovery, self-reinvention novel, which is ostensibly what this is. And it's possible that Vatanen ended up happier after his year of carefree vagabondage. But me, I didn't like the man: he started out selfish and unhappy, and ended up merely selfish.

As for Norwegian, after a year of struggling through this book, I feel barely more competent than before. That's a little depressing too. But masochists that we are, we're currently considering what the next book will be. Doctor Proktor's Fart Powder by Jo Nesbø is in strong contention.

* The first book in our series, finished on September 29, 2016—this is a very slow process: we meet maybe once a week, for an hour, hour and a half, and there is much paging through dictionaries and scratching of heads—is reported on here.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Birding Vietnam (part VI)

Okay, it's time to finish this list!

But first I will say, I obviously did not become a birder while in Vietnam, because just yesterday we were out for a walk, and what did we see but a couple of small raptors! But could I get a closer look, in order to identify them? NO! Because I was out and about without my bins! A real birder does not go anywhere without her bins. My initial thought (for no reason whatsoever, except it didn't look like a kestrel—not colorful enough) was that it was a merlin. A quick look at the relatively few falcons in The Sibley Guide to Birds neither confirms nor denies. So I remain clueless. And . . . did I take my bins on today's walk, just in case the same raptors showed themselves? NO! See: so not a real birder . . .

Anyway, back to Vietnam. Here's a final rogues' gallery of some of the birds I got a good look at, even if only once. First, a few flycatchers and a thrush:

Siberian stonechat (Saxicola maura). Photo by John Richardson
And yes, we generally saw them perched atop reeds and grasses,
just like this.
Plumbeous Water Redstart (Phoenicurus fuliginosus).
Photo by Phillip Edwards
Hainan Blue Flycatcher (Cyornis hainanis). Photo by cookdj
Japanese Thrush (Turdus cardis). Photo by Neil Fifer
Looking very much (except in coloration and spottage)
like our good friend Turdus migratorius, the American robin.

And then there were a few starlings, which I am in the habit of not liking much because the European starling is such a pest hereabouts, but Asian Sturnidae (a family that includes mynas) have softened me a bit.

Chestnut-tailed Starling (Sturnia malabarica).
Photo by Nayan Khanolkar
Black-collared Starling (Sturnus nigricollis). Photo by Dave Irving
This is another bird that the Vietnamese like to keep caged, for their song.
Golden-crested Myna (Ampeliceps coronatus). Photo by Harold Stiver

And finally, let's finish this thing off with gaudiness—the sunbirds! And finally finally, a repeat appearance by the ten-foot-long green peacock, which I will never forget seeing.

Crimson Sunbird (Aethopyga siparaja). Photo by wokoti
Olive-backed Sunbird (Nectarinia jugularis).
Photo by Paul van Giersbergen
Mrs. Gould's Sunbird (Aethopyga gouldiae). Photo by Gary Kinard
Green Peafowl (Pavo muticus). Photo by James Keith

I thoroughly enjoyed my three weeks of "walking meditation," especially being surrounded by so many experienced and generous birders. Whenever someone spotted something, every effort was made to make sure that everyone saw the bird: a green laser pointer helped in the dark jungle, and we all got pretty good at describing particular features in otherwise dense and chaotic forests. Birding can be a competitive sport, but our little group was by and large more interested in a quality experience for all than in personal bests.

So in addition to the 222 bird species I saw (most of which I will not remember, except for their fabulous names: fulvettas! yuhinas! prinias! pittas!), I'd like to acknowledge our valiant leader, Susan Myer, and her co-leader Luke, for the first half; the Brits Mary and Michael, Jules and Ange, David, and Gill; and Dixie from New Hampshire, Sally from Tucson, Doug from Richmond, Virginia, and (for the second half) Matt from the office (i.e., the head honcho at WINGS Birding Tours)—as well as our local assistants/fixers/translators Luan and Nhan.

And now, I need to turn my attention to all the photos I took in Vietnam—not a one of them of birds. Because it's way too hard. I admire Susan and Michael for their efforts on that front. I hope that they met with success, even if it's just one shot that they're proud of. That would be plenty.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Birding Vietnam (part V)

Better finish this accounting while these birds are still somewhat fresh in my mind. Other amazing specimens we saw include a couple of woodpeckers:

Speckled Piculet (Picumnus innominatus). Photo by hydroscwan
Black-and-buff Woodpecker (Meiglyptes jugularis).
Photo by Mark van Beirs

And then we got into some colorful birds, including broadbills, minivets (in the cuckoo-shrike family), shrike-babblers (aka Vireo allies), orioles, and monarch flycatchers—beautiful all:

Black-and-red Broadbill (Cimbirhynchus mnacrorhynchos).
Photo by Phil Liew
Long-tailed Broadbill (Psarisomus dalhousiae).
Photo from
Male Scarlet Minivet (Pericrocotus flammeus) (the female is
bright yellow and gray, also very pretty). Photo by James Eaton
Blyth's Shrike-babbler (Pteruthius aeralatus). Photo by uzair ar
Maroon Oriole (Oriolus traillii). Photo by Craig Brelsford
Asian Paradise Flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi).
Photo from

One of the more spectacular sights of the trip involved a greater racket-tailed drongo (Dicrurus paradiseus) hectoring a great hornbill (Buceros bicornis) over the jungle of Cat Tien National Park. Imagine our surprise when, later that day, a couple of our party, leader Susan and Matt, stopped in at a park lodge simply to check out the accommodations and spied the very same scene in a painting on a room wall! This event must happen frequently. I was so glad Matt shared the picture with me—good ol' AirDrop.

Here's a greater racket-tailed drongo more lifelike; seeing one always made me happy:

Photo by Nitin Srinivasamurthy

I'll leave you with two more birds for now (there will be a part VI, it seems, when we will venture into the land of fulvettas, yuhinas, and sunbirds, oh my!).

Sultan Tit (Melanochlora sultanea).
Yellow-billed Nuthatch (Sitta solangiae). Photo by Craig Brelsford

There's nothing like a nuthatch to fill me with cheer—I could say, the more colorful the better, but even our drab West Coast white-breasted nuthatches are delightful as they scamper up and down trees, searching for insect prey. They're determined little clowns, defying gravity all the way.