This Week's Reads

John Hodgman, and John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell.

The Areas of My Expertise

By John Hodgman (Dutton, $22) In which the McSweeney's contributor attempts a droll spoof of Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack, a collection of questionable meteorology and quirky sayings that pretty much spoofs itself. (Sample nugget: "A countryman between 2 Lawyers, is like a fish between two cats.") Like the Almanack, this "compendium of complete world knowledge" has no narrative thread, moves abruptly between topics, and employs a kind of verbal tomfoolery that's as much for the author's amusement as for the reader's edification. But whereas Franklin—who, John Hodgman impishly notes, "did use a pseudonym, so it is difficult to trust him"—drew his wit and wisdom from the Bible and popular proverbs, this writer wholly fabricates his Expertise. The result is a whimsical book that often verges on preciousness. It's a jumble of fake factoids, explanatory tables, and illustrations seemingly captioned by Monty Python (in a section on the lobster, a picture of an otter is labeled "Figure 11: The Lobster"). The "Tipping Guide to the Great Hotels" sends up Emily Post–style etiquette, instructing you how much to give a hotel phrenologist ("$5 per skull-fondling"). A guide to selling short fiction takes aim at the ridiculous niches carved out by specialized literary journals: "Where to Market Your Charles Bukowski/Raymond Carver Slash Fiction: What We Talk About When We Talk About Raymond Carver Having Sex With Charles Bukowski Monthly." Though it's little more than deadpan, hyper-educated farce, Hodgman's opus makes a strange sort of 21st-century sense. After all, what is the Internet—that endless blizzard of often unverifiable information that alternately guides and bewilders us—but the biggest almanac ever compiled? Like the vast majority of what's on the Web, most of Expertise is high-spirited nonsense. And though I wouldn't try to live by Hodgman's invented truisms, the infinite number of monkeys typing furiously in his head certainly don't lack for imagination. NEAL SCHINDLER John Hodgman will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Thurs., Nov. 17. In the Company of Crows and Ravens

By John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell (Yale, $30) You damn crows get out of my yard! I'm serious—give me back the TV remote, and stop reprogramming it to HBO and pay-per-view. I promise to refill the bird feeder when you return my ATM card. And quit using it to order pizzas! Help me find the car keys, please, and I swear I'll go back to plastic garbage bags. I won't even use twist ties. I'm begging you—five minutes more sleep in the morning before you start cawing, and I'll put the dog's bowl on the back porch from now on. All the Alpo you want. You like those earthworms? Fine, I'll call a contractor today to rip up the patio—nothing but nice, green lawns from now on. Just tell me what you want, and I'll do it. Crows are winning. For anyone who's grown up in the Northwest, like the co- authors of this scholarly but not too dauntingly scientific volume, it's obvious that we've engineered our environment perfectly to the liking of those black-winged opportunists who rule the suburbs and swarm to communal roosts each night in clamorous congregation. In tests, offered two bags of French fries, they have recognized the one with the Golden Arches; these birds are savvy consumers. But let's start with some basics—what's the difference between a raven and a crow? The larger raven is a carnivore, uncommon in cities and suburbs, though it once thrived during the precolonial buffalo economy of North America, scavenging on kills and following hunter-gatherers (which is why it shows up so prominently in native art and folklore). Crows are smaller omnivores, and their population exploded with corn, agriculture, and urban/suburban life (it helps that they don't mind living close together and close to us, unlike ravens). UW professor John M. Marzluff and local illustrator Tony Angell compile a lot of crow-raven data and history (including literary citations from Shakespeare, Chaucer, Twain, and Dickens), but any title that contains the index "Children's Books That Involve Crows and Ravens" is a welcome addition to the shelves of the general reader. They're obviously fascinated with their subjects in a way that goes beyond scientific curiosity. Both have raised crows as pets, and Angell's simple, abundant black-and-white illustrations don't drape the bird in Audubon-like grace. They're rendered in their natural environment—be it dropping and cracking mollusks at the beach, or pulling cheese-encrusted hamburger wrappers out of the trash can at Dick's. Their big idea is what they call "cultural coevolution," meaning how crows (in particular) have thrived and adapted to our own cultural changes. What's more, Marzluff and Angell argue that crows (especially) have a parallel culture and means of communication, that they have become partners in our own society—and not just as parasites. The truth is that while they can be annoying and aggressive, they also eat bugs, garbage, roadkill, and pretty much anything else human society discards. They thrive as we thrive, which is slightly alarming when one learns that they can carry West Nile virus, too. The authors conclude, "Mentally, crows and ravens are more like flying monkeys than they are like other birds." Conversely, crows might conclude that we're the monkeys, and they're the ones turning the crank. BRIAN MILLER John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Tues., Nov. 22.

 
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