Great Books Make Great Gifts

By Victoria Parsons

If you’ve always wanted to be one of those people who finish their holiday shopping before Thanksgiving, consider these books for the people on your list. I know I’d be delighted to see any of them under my tree!

The Bird-Watcher’s Bible

When National Geographic offered to send me a copy of their new “Bird Watcher’s Bible,” I jumped at the chance to see what I thought would be the latest high-tech bird guide. It’s both more and less than I expected. You won’t want to take this book on a birding expedition, but the subtitle explains it well: “A Treasury of Beauty, Lore, Science and Know-How.

Beautifully illustrated with ancient drawings as well as cutting-edge photography, the Bird Watcher’s Bible covers everything from the history of bird-watching to tips on becoming a better birder and attracting birds to your backyard.

Scientists will love the detailed but easily understood sections on anatomy and migration; historians will revel in a separate chapter on birds through the ages. Even economists may learn something new about birds from China’s “Four Pests Campaign.” In the 1950s people were encouraged to kill the Eurasian tree sparrow blamed for widespread seed loss. They were so successful in killing sparrows that locusts swarmed and devastated crops, contributing to the Great Chinese Famine.

Edited by Jonathan Alderfer, who also led the team that created National Geographic’s best-selling Field Guide to the Birds of North America, this book would be a great gift for a bird lover who wants to learn more about the world of ornithology.

Florida’s Living Beaches

To paraphrase an old advertising campaign — anyone who loves Florida’s beaches won’t want to leave home without this new book from Pineapple Press.

Florida’s Living Beaches: A Guide for the Curious Beachcomber” is a rich resource while walking a wrack line (where seaweed and other debris collect on the beach, see page 8) but it’s so entertaining that you may discover yourself sharing tidbits about the creatures you’ve seen in a comfortable conversation. It’s beautifully arranged with most topics covered in a full page highlighted by a map color-coded to show winter and summer distribution.

Along with descriptions of the living creatures found on a beach, the book describes everything from sand ripples and beach dunes to “verte-bits,” the pieces of bony skeletons that evoke curiosity in kids of all ages. Beach plants are covered too, as are the fascinating “seabeans” that drift ashore.

Most sections include a “Did you know?” commentary that brings the science alive. For instance, did you know that red mangrove propagules — what we called sea pencils as kids — can survive for a year before they float to a beach where they can root? And fire coral isn’t really coral, it’s a hydroid more closely related to jellyfish than the living reef it so closely resembles.

And the scaredy cats out there will be pleased to know that broken seashells cause more lacerations than sharks — and you’re more likely to be killed by a falling coconut than eaten by a shark.

But while this is a fun book to take to the beach, it’s serious science too. It was written by Blair Witherington, a researcher with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, and illustrated by his wife Dawn. Their other books, also available from Pineapple Press, include Florida’s Seashells, Living Beaches of Georgia and the Carolinas and Seashells of Georgia and the Carolinas.

Great Women Exploring Nature

Most Floridians recognize the names of women whose love of nature helped preserve our state’s natural resources, like Rachel Carson, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. “Great Women Exploring Nature: How Wild Florida Influenced their Lives” is a series of short biographies on those leading ladies as well as lesser-known but influential players.

The easy-to-read chapters are both interesting and inspiring. Few women of those times were encouraged to become activists, particularly on topics like conservation and ecology. Authors like Nora Hurston and Harriet Beecher Stowe are most often recognized for accomplishments beyond conservation but both were deeply connected to natural Florida. I was particularly fascinated to read about women I’d never heard of, even though I’ve lived here all my life:

  • Jackie Cochran became one of the greatest aviators ever. When she died in 1980, she held more speed, altitude and distance records than any other pilot – male or female.
  • Mina Miller Edison, Thomas Edison’s second wife, was a pioneer of environmental protection in Florida.
  • Myrtle Scharrer Betz, born in 1895 on what is now known as Caladesi Island, was a visionary who sold the island she inherited with the restriction that it remain a wildlife refuge.

Written by Dunedin businesswoman Linda Taylor, Great Women Exploring Nature also encourages its readers to learn more about these amazing women with recommended readings and places to explore.

A Land Remembered

Bay Soundings usually reviews new books that our readers probably haven’t had a chance to peruse, but we chose to include Patrick D. Smith’s “A Land Remembered” when Florida Monthly magazine readers named it their favorite book for the 10th year in a row. I loved it when it was first published in 1984, and it was even more enjoyable re-reading it wearing a “reviewer’s hat.”

Starting in 1858 when the MacIvey family arrived in a state with wide-open prairies and virgin forests, the book tracks the clan through 1968 as the third generation recognizes that growth for growth’s sake has not been a good choice.

My favorite sections are marked with a series of Post-Its – but there were too many to really highlight in this short space. Suffice it to say that there were sections where I laughed out loud, held my breath until the heroes survived yet another near-catastrophe, and delighted in descriptions of birds, plants and animals that no longer roam the wide-open spaces Smith describes so well. (I cringed at the vivid portrayal of swarming mosquitoes though.)

And if you still haven’t decided you need to read (or re-read) A Land Remembered, check out Jeff Klinkenberg’s column in the St. Petersburg Times earlier this year about the book’s amazing author.

Originally published Fall 2012

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