Discoveries

Leo Tolstoy circa 1880. (Library of Congress / March 6, 2011)

Cricket Radio

Tuning In the Night-Singing Insects

John Himmelman

Belknap/Harvard University Press: 260 pp., $22.95

"The game is to listen," Rachel Carson wrote in 1956 of the night-singing insects. "Not so much to the full orchestra, as to the separate instruments, and to try to locate the players." In this ear-opening book, John Himmelman shows us not only how to identify the songs these insects have sung for 250 million years but what those songs mean and how they are made.

He writes about the effect of these songs on human dreams; about the Ensifera (the night-singers: crickets, katydids and the like) and how the sounds they make stimulate the human brain. Himmelman is also the author of a 2009 field guide to the night-singers, but this book, he writes, is more about the why than the how: "Why should we care?" and "Why are they calling in the first place?" These insects are not singing for our pleasure, Himmelman reminds the reader. They are singing for survival, for propagation of their species. "It is trilling because it has to," he writes of a lone Carolina ground cricket, "and it is giving it everything it's got. It is the violinist playing as the Titanic is going down." Areas rich in singing insects suggest a healthy habitat and a source of beauty. We humans have shut down our listening skills to survive in a confusingly noisy world. Learning to listen to these songs is nothing less than soul-stirring.

Sometimes I Feel Like a Nut

Essays & Observations

Jill Kargman

William Morrow: 176 pp., $19.99

Please welcome the new David Sedaris, not that the old one is broken or anything. It's just that Jill Kargman, in her first book of essays, provides the same gut-splitting reading pleasure. Woody Allen (St. Woody of Allen) is one of her heroes as is her dad, a "proto-Don Draper" adman: "Guys, shhhh, please, the commercials are on." Kargman admits that nuttiness is a "coping mechanism" for a world that will be familiar to her readers.

Many of the essays are in list form, like her glossary, which includes, for example, "food baby: "When you eat such a huge meal you look pregnant — but instead of the tenant being a fetus, it's eggplant Parm."

Her list of "Things That Haunt Me" includes vans (" 'Silence of the Lambs' mobiles"), mimes and clowns. Her stories of working in Manhattan's magazine world in her 20s include the time an editor threw a tape dispenser at her head. Having babies threw Kargman into the world of Momzillas — always fertile ground for comedy and tragedy. There's a bit of saucy language flying around in these essays, but it's well worth the ride.

The Gospel in Brief

The Life of Jesus

Leo Tolstoy, translated from the Russian by Dustin Condren

Harper Perennial: 180 pp., $12.99 paper

Leo Tolstoy began studying the Bible in 1879, when he was 51. He was fascinated by the pure teachings of Jesus: "I sought the answer to the question of life, not to theological or historical questions." It took him three years to collapse all four Gospels into one 12-chapter life of Jesus, purged of doctrine and Scripture. Of course, the Russian Orthodox Church did not approve: Tolstoy was excommunicated, and the book was not published in Russia until after the 1905 revolution. This is the first English translation in more than a century; Condren worked from Tolstoy's original version and restored material deleted in previous translations. The result is not unlike Hermann Hesse's "Siddhartha" — the story of a life that illustrates a path. "[T]he earthbound world is a delusion," writes Tolstoy. "…[W]ithin man, there resides the intelligence capable of comprehending all that truly exists."

Salter Reynolds is a writer in Los Angeles.