Nov 16, 2018

Changespell

by Doranna Durgin

Sequel to Dun Lady's Jess. Wanted to read this one enough I finally just bought a secondhand copy online. Pretty enjoyable. The writing is smoother- only a few times did I have to stop and re-read a conversation or phrase again because it wasn't quite clear what was going on. This story is set in the alternate, magical world. Jess can change between being Lady the horse and being human, but as Lady she can't change herself back voluntarily. A few of her friends from the human world are here. Jess thinks she will just settle into another of the courier holds, learning more about how to navigate life as a human, and sorting out her feelings for Carey (who used to be her owner and rider when she was only a horse). But things get dicey when they realize some unknown wizards are working dangerously powerful magic, and at the same time some confused, strangely-behaving people show up here and there- animals turned human against their will. Mule, large wild cat, cairndog... None of them have had the training and close human guidance Jess received when she suddenly changed the first time, so it doesn't go well for them.

Jess and her companions have to figure out fast who is causing trouble and why- they suspect it is their old enemy, who wants revenge. Turns out to be more complicated than that. I was expecting the story to have a lot of animals-turned-people in it, but although the ethics of that is explored, the turned people themselves are in brief scenes. Mostly it's about the intricacies of how magic works in this world, the laws and strictures around it, the confusion of figuring out who is wielding it wrongly. They almost don't put the pieces together in time. There was a huge component of substance abuse which I didn't expect to be part of the story, it was a surprise that fit in well to the narrative. How it affected magic, the dangers which none in this world could anticipate, really. In the end they go after the bad wizards and there is a bitter showdown of sorts.

It's also a romance. Not a heavy one- but the tension of feeling between Jess and Carey runs a thread through the whole story, plus the interest another courier has in her, and one of her friend's interest in him. Some of them don't really realize what's going on at first, so it's not really a triangle- kind of an undercurrent. There's also the long struggle Jess has to gain control of her changes- she wants to be in control of when she is horse or human, of course. Most interesting were still the parts where Jess as human struggles against her equine nature- or acts out what she feels naturally, on purpose (pretty funny when she goes kicking guys she doesn't like). The way unfamiliar people treated her was interesting- you'd think in a world of magic an animal-turned-human wouldn't be unusual, but it is, and people don't know whether to treat her as an intelligent being deserving respect, or someone they can walk all over because she was an animal. I hope some of these ideas get worked out more in the final book of the series.

Rating: 3/5          352 pages, 1997

Nov 12, 2018

Listening to Cougar

edited by Marc Bekoff and Cara Blessley Lowe

This is a collection of short stories and essays about cougars (aka puma or mountain lion). Some of them are firsthand accounts- brief sightings, face-to-face encounters on trails, one guy watched a cougar cross a tennis court and then dart through a street, another once found a young puma hiding under his cabin. Other chapters in the book are by biologists or conservationists: reports of studies on cougar population dynmaics, detailed description of the habitat cougars like to use- a variety of these: dessert, mountainsides, rocky canyon. One quite different essay describes a drying-up riverbed, a boy who rescues a fish stranded in a pool, and at the very end evokes the presence of cougar. There are nineteen authors total, plus Jane Goodall wrote the foreword. I have to admit a few of these - especially the scientific ones- were a bit dry for my taste, and I skimmed a lot- thus the rating below. Others went the other direction: writing about cougars and spirituality. In one case this was an explanation of some Navajo beliefs, which I found interesting. In another, it was a woman gushing about what a glimpse of the big cat meant for her soul- the connection and inspiration she got from it- a bit much, for me. Even further out there, but curious in its own way, was an author who wrote about several dreams he had with cougars present in them- then deconstructed what the dreams meant. Very intriguing. Barry Lopez and Ted Kerasote are among the writers featured here. My favorite essay was one of a personal encounter: "Lion Story" by Rick Bass- about running into a cougar on a walk with his dog. Vivid. Overall the impression is of the secretive, powerful cat itself: elusive, silent, with its gliding motion and long, floating tail. The few people who report having seen a wild one up close were mesmerized, no doubt. Magnificent animal. End of the book has a listing of people reported killed by cougars over the last century (very few, compared to deaths caused by dog attacks, and minuscule compared to the number of casualties caused by car accidents!) and then some notes on how to live safely in cougar country, and what to do if you encounter one. There are references for further reading, as well.

This book perhaps doesn't deserve the number I gave it. I'm tired, there are other reasons I lacked focus, having nothing to do with the authors' various styles or the angle of their writings. Borrowed this one from the public library.

Rating: 2/5            200 pages, 2007

Nov 10, 2018

The White Puma

by R.D. Lawrence

I've read this book before, but it was so long ago the prior review was written from memory. Had the chance to enjoy it again, as I bought a copy recently from Powell's. The nature writing is just as good as I remember, but funny how the dramatic hunting scenes from the final sixty pages made the strongest impression on me before- in reality, most of the book is a slow buildup, showing the life of the mountain lion. It starts with his mother. The female puma has a negative encounter with a pair of wildlife poachers, one of whom accidentally gets his arm damaged in a trap he'd set for her- and afterwards the puma is touted as a "man-eater" who "almost ripped his arm off". The bad experience instills her with a deep fear of mankind that she teaches to her cubs later in the story. A lot of the book is just about how the family of cougars lives- the mother puma and her three young. How they navigate the landscape, find and ambush prey, show affection for each other, learn skills, hold their territory, avoid danger (encounters with wolves, bears and man). Eventually only the main puma of the story- a very rare creature with an albino coat- is left alive of the family. His fear of man boils into a hatred, and when the poachers come after him specifically, he starts stalking them in turn. I had forgotten most of the story about the hunters and their operation, which has just as much page time as the puma's daily life. In the end, a trio of conservationists comes to try and protect the rare cougar from being killed- whose existence is accidentally revealed to the public by one of the hunters when he gets drunk and starts bragging of the future trophy. Reading it this time around, I found the parts about the animals' behavior and survival methods satisfying, the parts about the people a bit stiff- perhaps it's just the writing style or the age of the book. Near the end, I thought the tactics of the woman who camped out in the forest alone to foil the hunters, a bit laughable. Times were different when this book was written, that's for sure. The ending gave me a nice surprise- I had completely forgotten the turn of heart one of the hunters takes. Nice that it was the one I found a bit more sympathetic during the entire storyline.

Rating: 3/5              329 pages, 1990

Nov 7, 2018

Snail in the Woods

by Joanne Ryder

I picked up this book for my seven-year-old. She's never quite as keen on animal stories as I was at her age (still am). I also found for her a book about a bear cub, and a more fanciful one about a crow family (which I might review here later). Tried to read Snail in the Woods as a bedtime story, but my kid was grossed out by hearing about slime and snails eating fungus and how they can retract their eyeballs back into their heads through their feelers; she refused to finish it. So I read the book myself. It's very simple text, decent monochromatic pictures, about the life of a land snail. Hatches from an egg, eats its own eggshell, crawls around seeking shelter and food. Estivating when there is no moisture. Avoiding getting eaten by shrews (more drawings of shrews in this one book than I've ever seen before!), mice, birds, millipedes and other predators purely by luck. (My kid thought the millipede looked like a monster. It surely is to a tiny snail). Biggest event in the story is a flood, which some snails escape by crawling higher on trees and shrubs, and our snail gets carried downstream on a log. Finds a new home, finds a mate, crawls around more, lays eggs which will hatch in spring. Nice little book, if your kid wants to learn about how snails live.

Rating: 3/5               62 pages, 1979

Nov 5, 2018

Frontiers of Life

Animals of Mountains and Poles

It's cold weather, so I liked reading a book about cold places. Found this at a thrift shop, it's two books published in one volume. The foreword by David Attenborough features his picture- let me tell you, it's quite something to see a photo of him as a younger man.

Polar Life
by Joseph Lucas and Susan Hayes

The first half of the book was pretty interesting to me. It describes in detail the opposite regions of the poles, and I learned a lot about how life hangs on in such cold, arid climates. While the northern Arctic is rich in wildlife and plant species, the Antarctic is all the more remarkable that anything lives and thrives there. Not just penguins- fishes, whales, a few lichens, seabirds. The book describes the habitat in detail, the oceanic currents, how the weather affects everything, where living things are distributed, and a bit of how they survive such rigorous habitat. I didn't realize before (perhaps silly of me) that icebergs are shaped very differently on either end of the earth- flat thick sheets of ice or chunks- and why. Particularities about the land formation kept coming up - how the Arctic is frozen ocean surrounded by land masses, while the Antarctic is one land mass surrounded by oceans- separating it widely from any species that would try to colonize it. Would I had read this book before Rockbound- it's got a brief description of 'Mother Carey's chickens' or the storm petrel- complete with a photograph. Sadly, I couldn't help thinking through much of this, how drastically the Arctic and Antarctic regions are changing today- descriptions of polar ice sheets and impervious nature of permafrost- no longer so. It also really dates itself by mentioning here and there how much was unknown at the time of printing: what certain animals ate, how exactly whales and seals evolved from land mammals, etc. Even so, it was a more engaging read than the second half:

Mountain Life
by Bernard Stonehouse

This part of the book is, of course, about mountain ranges across the planet, how they are formed and what lives on them. I was expecting some interesting facts about how wildlife (and plants) are adapted to life in cold, high-altitude regions, but the details were rather lacking. There is a lot about rock formations and how the land masses collided during the past to form the various mountains. Maps show the features discussed in the book- where the ranges cross continents. Comparisons between the places, especially showing how animals in some ranges are related to those in others, proving their divergence from what used to be one land mass. I feel like it was the writing style that made me feel disengaged, here- it seemed more to be a listing of plant and animal species for each area and habitat range, without much description on how they live. I did find some details interesting: all those stunted, twisted-looking trees you see bent under winds are not small and weak but surprisingly long-lived and strong, very tenacious.

Overall, the reading started out interesting and I ended up skimming a lot just to finish. Noted a lot of species names to look up online- animals and plants I'd never heard of before. The photographs are fairly grainy and often poor in focus. Kinda worth skipping.

Rating: 2/5               288 pages, 1976

Nov 2, 2018

She's Come Undone

by Wally Lamb

Sorry ahead of time if some of this is spoilers. It wasn't what I expected. Never read any Wally Lamb before, although I've heard of his titles. Wow, this guy can tell a story. I couldn't put it down. It's one of those narratives of a train-wreck life, but you can't look away (I'm thinking of The Book of Ruth). This girl goes through everything. Mentally ill mother, father who disappears from her life, Catholic schooling, raped by the upstairs tenant at thirteen, struggles with her weight, hates her life, serious rebellion, floundering attempt at college life, running away from it all, stay in a mental hospital, some strange but life-affirming therapy, ditching that before her psychiatrist thinks she's ready, finding a man but that's a mess too, writing them off altogether. In the end circling back to where she began (reluctantly), and finally coming to peace with her life, with the mistakes her parents, her grandmother, her ex had made. Epiphanal moment with a stranded whale in Cape Cod. Abortion. Suicide attempts. Friends stricken with AIDS. Chaos of the seventies and eighties. Some parts were a bit crude for me, but I found myself rooting for this narrator, in spite of her caustic commentary and consistently bad choices. I did think a few of the events in the story were implausible- like how she tracked down her college roommate's former boyfriend- but I bought it while I was reading the story. Or the drastic changes her body went through- it seemed rather unrealistic, too easy? But again, I blasted past that while I was in the narrative. I was dreading what the ending would lead to, relieved the author didn't turn it into a disaster or a perfect ending, but something that felt satisfyingly real. Of anything, the complex relationships between people are so vivid in this story. The little networks of lies, the gradations of trust. Especially the unhealthy relationship she had with her mother, which it took her whole life to come to terms with (the book spans about forty years).

PS: I was horrified at how fish were treated in this book. So rarely do I come across my hobby depicted in fiction, I had some anticipation when an acquaintance invited the narrator to see her aquariums. It was appalling what she did to them in a fit of revenge. Much later in the story she kept her own fish, in atrocious conditions, and of course they died. Bah.

Rating: 4/5               405 pages, 1992

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Oct 30, 2018

The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly

A Physician's First Year
by Matt McCarthy

Narrative of a doctor's training year working in a New York City hospital as intern, this one caught my eye browsing library shelves. Probably because I had Farmer's work on my mind, which not surprisingly the author references once himself. Compared to an older book I've read about internship, this one is very modern (so modern that I got a little tired of the author referencing popular TV shows and describing his co-workers by what famous actor their looks or manners reminded him of). (Also tedious is his frequent use of swear words in tense situations- particularly the F one). But mostly it was a good read, one I constantly found interesting and hard to put down. Even when some scenes were distressing. McCarthy did a small stint in surgery- realized it wasn't for him- and then worked in the critical care unit, then intensive care, also doing some time in general practice. The book is really about how his skills as a doctor were built up- from nervous and fumbling to confident and leading teams himself. He describes the structure of the hospital; the different teaching styles various supervising residents gave him, panicky moments when he made a wrong diagnosis, the checks that saved his butt from serious error, the difficulties in figuring out what was wrong with unconscious (or just uncooperative) patients, the long hours and incredible stress of it all.

A lot of it is not only about his learning curve in practicing medicine- how to actually do procedures, use the equipment, etc.- but about how he gradually develops a better bedside manner, starts to connect with his patients, finds the balance between keeping himself dispassionate (so he can think critically about a case) and showing the patient that someone cares. Some of the doctor-patient interactions he describes are very touching, others actually nerve-wracking. He describes his euphoria at being part of a team that literally brings a person back from death- and the depression when it goes the other way. The second half of the book also has a lot of internal quandry and fear, as he accidentally gets a needle stick from a patient with a serious, highly infectious disease- then has to take a severe regimen of medication proactively, while waiting for his own diagnosis. It really gave him some perspective on how patients might feel about their treatment.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5              323 pages, 2015

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Oct 28, 2018

Mountains Beyond Mountains

the Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World
by Tracy Kidder

I admit I'd never heard of Paul Farmer before, although I recoginzed this title. He was a brilliant doctor and anthropologist who as a medical student had already traveled to third world countries, and appalled by the lack of medical care for poor people, started doing something about it. In particular he focused his efforts on a community in Haiti that lived above a lake caused by a dam which had flooded their farmland. Most of them never moved anywhere else, just up the hillside, and suffered from starvation because they could no longer grow enough food. Widespread tuberculosis and other diseases were exacerbated by poor nutrition and squalor. Farmer set up facilities and procedures to treat and cure tuberculosis among hundreds of impoverished families, but he did so much more than that. He learned about their native culture especially voodoo beliefs and how it affected their view of illness. He traveled personally (sometimes hiking an entire day to read isolated huts) to visit the sick in their homes, especially entire families affected by tuberculosis. He made efforts to provide the poor with clean water, concrete floors and tin roofs for their modest homes (replacing dirt and leaking thatch), and dietary supplements. He conducted studies to find out exactly what types of treatment would have the best results, and worked tirelessly to bring the plight of thousands to the attention of the global medical community, raised money, started programs in other countries. Peru and Russia are featured large in the book although Haiti was always his base. It amazed me that he was so dedicated to his patients- insisted on treating people even when medication for tuberculosis was expensive, unavailable to the poor- and of course they couldn't pay- and proper treatment took years. Missed or late doses caused drug-resistant strains of TB to arise (it's a bit more complicated than that) so Farmer would often personally go find the patients to find out why they had missed their appointments- sometimes tracking them down to prison and extracting them in order to give them medical care (his phraseology). I learned so much more about tuberculosis than I ever wanted to know.

I am in awe at the work this man did, the far-reaching influence he extended, even when others didn't believe in his methods at first. For example, when he found out how horribly expensive medication to treat drug-resistant strains of TB were, he personally did things to drive the price down. And it had a cascading effect. He also worked with AIDS patients in parts of the world and among impoverished communities that no one else wanted to touch, saying it wasn't worth the effort. This book is kind of a jumble- it leaps around some, tells of the author's connection with Farmer, but not much explanation about how he managed to earn the role- travelling around with Farmer to learn what he was doing in order to write this book- reminiscent to me of In Africa with Schweitzer by Dr. Edgar Berman- also his habit of questioning Farmer about his views and then noting them down in the text. Several chapters tell of Farmer's childhood and how he got to where he was when Kidder met him. The rest is a complex, eye-opening account of his life's work, ranging from squatting in mud-floored huts to take the blood pressure of his patients to flying around the globe for various meetings and conferences in his quest to do whatever it takes. Wow. (Another similar read: Witness to War by Charles Clements, inasmuch as they both deal with bringing medical care to marginalized people who desperately needed it). Did I mention? Farmer founded Partners In Health, and was a renowned infectious disease expert (among other things). There are a lot of other people in this book, who worked alongside Farmer or donated or otherwise helped with his cause, but I can't possibly name them all. You have to read the book!

Rating: 4/5           322 pages, 2003

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Oct 22, 2018

The Blue Sweater

Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World
by Jacqueline Novogratz

This book is, ultimately, about helping people to help themselves. The author started out as a Wall Street banker but soon left her job to follow her dream instead: travel the world and find ways to solve problems of poverty. Initially she worked with companies that provide microloans to the poor, consulting and helping them evaluate if their systems actually worked or not. She saw firsthand in many different areas (mainly India, Pakistan and parts of Africa) that traditional charity often does not provide a lasting solution. She wanted to put power in the hands of the people, to listen to their needs and give them what would be most beneficial in the long run. Her vision changed as her experiences grew, in the end she developed (if I understand the final chapters right) a new type of enterprise to help the poor which was based on capitalism but seems to make sense...

The message is strong, and the examples clear, so this book doesn't really deserve the rating I gave it except that: I had to make myself finish reading it. I got a lot more out of reading the anecdotal accounts of the author's personal experiences with impoverished people she aimed to serve and teach, than I did reading about her theories, her management strategies, her meetings with people and travels to and fro all over. The names start to blur. What stood out to me were stories like the one of the women's bakery in a slum, or how she worked to get malaria-preventing mosquito nets distributed to the poor, or of her visits to Rwanda shortly after the genocide to find people she had known and hear their stories. I really admire that she was honest in writing about her mistakes, in admitting that at first many local people resented her assignment, as an outsider, to help them run their fledgling enterprises. Some places she was never really accepted and did not return. Other places she made lasting friendships and revisited years later.

But honestly, a lot of the book was difficult for me to stay interested in. Probably someone going into the business of humanitarianism would find this a lot more engaging.

Rating: 2/5                262 pages, 2009

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