Jul 20, 2017

Unlikely Loves

by Jennifer S. Holland

Sometimes when life is so busy you need a light, comforting read that's easy to dip in and out of. This book was perfect for that, cute and heartwarming. It's a collection of brief accounts featuring various animals that formed a bond with another species. A goat and a dog, great dane and a fawn, rhino and warthog, donkey and sheep, horse and dog, mother dog adopts kittens and so on. There are orphaned animals tucked into another litter- a piglet among rottweilers, for example. And others more unusual: a turtle who like to hang out with puppies. A miniature pony who befriended a capybara. A dog who liked his owner's snake. Some of the ones I found really endearing were the dalmatian who was attached to a spotted lamb, a hen who took it upon herself to babysit puppies, an otter who was rehabilitated among badger cubs, a disabled macaque who was given a rabbit and guinea pig for companions. But a few of the stories include humans- a boy who visited a field of marmots and they were friendly to him, a guy who flew a lightweight aircraft with his golden eagle, a young woman who helped nurse a moose calf, which never forgot her. And there's one about two lionesses- doesn't really fit with the theme. Overall, nice little stories. Most of which you can find online if you look- I'd seen the one of the cat and the owl before, and I looked up the one about a disfigured dolphin that appeared to be living with sperm whales.

The title is rather familiar- I think once before I picked up the precursor Unlikely Friendships but didn't find it interesting enough to really read. And I was a bit surprised to find another title in this now-apparent series with a focus on dogs, that had a tiny trademark-circled R after the title. Really? I don't know why but that irritates me.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5       224 pages, 2013

Jul 12, 2017

The Narrow Edge

A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab and an Epic Journey
by Deborah Cramer

It's about a small shorebird, the red knot. Mostly this bird feeds on small clams, but during its migration it makes a stopover on one particular beach in Delaware Bay to feed on the eggs of spawning horseshoe crabs. The author saw the birds and horseshoe crabs on a beach near her home and became intrigued by this close interaction of two species. The knots are dependent on the crab eggs to make it to their summer home and breed. Cramer undertook a project to follow the knots on their entire annual migration. She started in southern Chile and made stops all along two continents to observe the birds on their journey, all the way up into the Arctic. Met a wide variety of people who work with conservation efforts to save the red knots and other shorebirds, and found a vast difference in environmental conditions in each location. Like many other birds, knots are facing population decline, mostly caused by people of course. Lots of varying factors for this, most of which the general public seems unaware. After all the birds are small, and seldom seen in large, impressive numbers anymore.

Well, I really wanted to like this book. It has a lot of information, the kind I usually particularly enjoy. But something about the constant introduction of new names, places, details, scientific terms- I kept loosing attention. I think it's just me, this time. I want to come back to this one someday when I have better focus.

Borrowed from the public library.

Abandoned          293 pages, 2015

Jul 2, 2017

Harvest

An Adventure into the Heart of America's Family Farms
by Richard Horan

This guy travelled around the country visiting small family farms to help with the harvesting of crops, and then wrote a book about it. I really liked the concept, and I appreciated learning a little about what goes into the production of certain crops, but overall the book left me feeling dissatisfied and a little irritated, and I skimmed some sections, especially getting near the end. The author worked with these crops in the following states: turkey red wheat in Kansas; green beans, potatoes and squash in Michigan; blueberries in New York, tomatoes and sundry in Massachusetts, raspberries and Brussels sprouts in Ohio, wild rice in Michigan, cranberries at a bog in Massachusetts, potatoes in Maine, walnuts in California. He also visited a winery in California, but didn't actually pick grapes. In each chapter, for each locale, he describes his experience, the people he met, how the operations are run, and a bit about the philosophy or history of the farm (however much the owner and/or their family would share).

I liked reading about the farms and the food they grow, but the author shares a bit too much about his personal politics and even though for the most part I agree with his stance, I didn't like it. He kept quoting books and authors and mentioning stuff in little footnotes but the way they were included here felt awkward. The chapter about visiting San Francisco was entirely unnecessary and felt uncomfortable. The way he talks about people sometimes confused me- if I was that person, I might be embarrassed let's say. There's just too much stuff on an unnecessarily personal level, or him poking fun at things and making jokes I don't find amusing at all, it just makes me want to skip the page. Disappointingly, the one chapter I was most curious to read, about harvesting wild rice, was the most unintelligible. Most of it was in an entirely different voice, as if imitating the style of a Native American storyteller, with so many Chippewa words interspersed it kept jarring me out of the narrative entirely. I didn't get it. On the whole it all felt a little bit off.

Rating: 2/5         300 pages, 2012

Jul 1, 2017

Bunny Drop

Volume 1
by Yumi Unita

I admit I picked this one up to make sure my twelve-year-old wasn't reading anything too objectionable, as I've noticed that manga can sometimes have very mature or explicit content, let's say. And flipping through this one I saw one illustration showing a young girl in the bath with a grown man, so I wondered and sat down to read it myself.

Turns out it was innocent, and the story is an interesting and sensitive look at the kind of unusual family structure that can easily lead to misunderstandings or judgement from others. The man in that scene is Daikichi, a thirty-year-old bachelor who works hard, enjoys his beer and considers children and women to be "the enemy" - avoid interaction at all costs kind of thing. The six-year-old girl Rin is his aunt. Daikichi finds out when he attends his grandfather's funeral that the old man had a secret love affair with a younger woman, and Rin is his child. The family is all shocked and no-one wants to take in the illegitimate child. They're going to put her in an institution but Daikichi finds himself angered at how casually and judgemental the relatives talk about her and in a fit of compassion he decides to give her a home himself.

This is a huge adjustment. Obviously Daikichi has no idea how to be a parent- what kids will eat, what she needs in everything from comfort to clothing; finding a daycare provider is such a difficult issue he even realizes he may have to reconsider his career path. He comes up with all kinds of questions and goes through internet searches, then starts to make new acquaintances just on behalf of the child. They have to deal with bedwetting and Rin's silent little deceits (he's shocked to find out she lies to him in the simple manner of avoidance all kids use I bet). Daikichi notices that Rin isn't dimwitted or shy as most adults assume when they meet her, but struggling with emotions she can't express. He realizes that no one ever helped her cope with or comprehend what happened when her father (whom she called 'grandpa') died and he has no idea what her past was like. He determines to find out more about her mother, a completely absent figure whom no one in the family has ever met.

The author hooked me pretty effectively with this unlikely pair. And now I want to read more, to see where this story is going and what happens with this child. Happily the manga series has at least ten volumes. Borrowed from the public library. There was one thing that took some getting used to- following the original style of printing in Japanese, the book reads not only back-to-front but right-to-left, which was confusing at first. You get used to it fairly quickly, though.

Rating 3/5                      208 pages, 2006

One Trick Pony

by Nathan Hale

Graphic novels are fun. The more of them I read, the more I like them. This one I picked up on a whim, browsing shelves. It's a post-apocalyptic tale, neatly told in a steady reveal through the interactions of the characters. So fair warning: there may be spoilers, especially if you want to understand the story gradually as I did, on the first read.

The world is gone to ruin, any kind of technology snatched away by dangerous aliens that have invaded and turned most of Earth into a wasteland. The survivors live in small bands, reverted to a stone-age lifestyle. Except for one group that lives in a traveling caravan, attempting to find any remnants of technology (computers, robots, films, even small things like watches) before the aliens do and saving it in a vast hoarde of precious knowledge. Which is highly risky of course, as the tech stuff attracts the aliens. Out on a scavenging trip, a group of teens finds a robot pony- something none of them have ever seen before. The girl Strata is so intrigued by the pony, she's determined to take it back with them. Which of course attracts the aliens, and lands them in a fast-paced adventure that leads to a greater understanding of what the aliens actually are and why they are there.

It was great. The worldbuilding (very well done in such a brief book), the banter between the characters, the pony especially and how its limited specialized functions (as a robot) led so very neatly to its final role in the story. I liked the artwork, although there were a few illustrations where the legs look weird (upper leg above the elbow too long).

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5                   128 pages, 2017

Jun 30, 2017

Silence of the Songbirds

by Bridget Stutchbury

The author is an avid bird watcher and researcher. Becoming concerned about the gradual decline in songbird numbers across North America, she took a closer look at possible causes, including traveling herself to South American countries where many of our songbirds spend the winter. Her findings present a bleak picture. Most people don't notice if there are fewer birds from year to year, but when the numbers are counted up and compared across a decade or more, the loss is real, and very alarming.

Birds face dangers in their wintering grounds from widespread pesticide use in many countries which have loose regulations or none at all. We're talking hundreds of dead hawks and songbirds found in or near fields of crops right after spraying was done to kill pests like locusts, for example. (And guess what, the birds were there to feed on the insects and they do a pretty good job of control, for no cost at all). Habitat loss is another big one. Here in North America where the birds come to breed, they face difficulties also caused by habitat loss or fragmentation, disorientation during nighttime migration caused by city light pollution, collision with towers or power lines, predation by housecats and the parasitism of cowbirds.

While examining all these issues in depth, the author describes lots of interesting details about things like how exactly birds use different habitats (why small, fragmented pieces of forest are not favorable), how their diet changes when they live in different areas, interactions with other bird species in mixed flocks, mating behaviors, what happens to them on the migration route, what makes cowbirds more or less likely to affect a population and more and more. Just the kind of book I really enjoy, even if the end message is rather dismal. Hopeful though, as it points out why buying organic or local produce and shade-grown or sustainable coffee can make a huge difference for the little songbirds. Also their importance in the overall ecosystem- although they are not as well-know for pollination as bees, they do a surprising lot of it, also spreading seed of certain kinds of plants, and vast amounts of insect control. Not to mention they are beautiful.

The chapter headings are illustrated by none other than Julie Zickefoose. Borrowed this one from the public library.

Rating: 4/5           255 pages, 2007

Jun 25, 2017

The Thing with Feathers

the Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human
by Noah Strycker

Another book about bird behavior, and this one was both fascinating and engaging. A field researcher with a focus on birds, Strycker's musings and hypothesis are based both on his personal observations and the work of other scientists (notes in the appendix are pretty thorough, adding to my list of want-to-reads). He delves into the lives of many species, including starlings, wrens, mockingbirds, penguins, hummingbirds, snowy owls, parrots, bower birds, albatrosses, pigeons, chickens and turkey vultures. The subjects covered in detail include birds' abilities with spatial memory, long-distance navigation, flocking behavior, social orders, habitat dispersion, courtship displays, self-recognition, musical acuity, aggression, pair-bonding and altruism.

I learned a surprising amount of new stuff. Lots of detail about why hummingbirds are so vicious to each other, and how huge flocks of starlings stay cohesive. I had never heard of the Boids program before, and viewing some demos of that was really cool. I didn't know that turkey vultures have a highly developed sense of smell- I though no birds did- but apparently the erroneous notion that they don't was originally based on another vulture species that lacks that sense. I didn't know that penguins fear the dark. Or that bower birds create optical illusions with their structures- while keeping in mind the viewpoint of the female who will judge them! Really intriguing stuff, with a lot of side notes and looks at relevant human behavior as well. Definitely going to look for more books by this author.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5          288 pages, 2014

Jun 24, 2017

Welcome to Subirdia

by John M. Marzluff

This book is about how bird populations change when forestland is converted into suburbs. Cities proper tend to have five ubiquitous bird species living in them, no matter where you are in the world: European starlings, Canada geese, house sparrows, rock pigeons and mallard ducks. But to the author's surprise, suburbs tend to have a much larger variety of bird species living in them than the original forest ever did. He conducted a lot of detailed studies to find out exactly which species were present where, how their territories shifted as developments were built, and what contributed to their success. The results show that a surprising number of birds can adapt to and tolerate living in man-made environments, others outright exploiting the human resources. Many more, with a little consideration from people, will do just fine.

You'd think I would really like this book. I found the premise of it really interesting, but for some reason it was dull reading. I couldn't pinpoint just why the writing style came across as stiff and dry to me, but after three times trying to get through a chapter and instead feeling bored, I gave up. It's going back to the library.

Abandoned               303 pages, 2014

Jun 23, 2017

Arctic Fox

Life at the Top of the World
by Garry Hamilton

This oversized, beautiful book is all about arctic foxes. Their evolution, distribution, history of encounters with mankind and most of all, how they manage to survive in one of the most hostile environments on earth. They are amazingly adaptable, switching modes from hunter to forager to scavenger depending on the opportunities for food. Well-known for shadowing polar bears for scraps, but some even even hunt seal pups on their own. They can thrive near human settlement- taking shelter in idle construction equipment and feeding at dumps - or in the farthest off-shore reaches of the polar ice, where there appears to be no other life around. Some stay in a closely-defined territory, others roam vast distances. They even have flexible family groups- any combination you can imagine, from a single pair with pups to communal living or even, in one case, a pair that split up (litters can be large in boom times), the male raising half the pups at one den and the female the rest of the young at another. I had no idea that arctic foxes use the same dens year after year, gradually expanding them. Some have over a hundred entrances, extend over more area than a football field, and are judged to be centuries old (reminds me of European badges in that sense). The book relates a lot about other wildlife the foxes interact with or depend on- geese and seabirds, seals, bears, caribou, hares and of course the lemmings. Also much about the landscape and how it changes.

You might think, like me, that the foxes are endearingly cute, but what I came away with most from this book is that they are incredibly tough. Appear to be completely impervious to the cold. The results of a study done by some scientists to test mammals' ability to endure cold still boggles my mind when I read the details. As a base for comparison, they tested a number of animals to see at what point they would begin to shiver, using extra energy to maintain body temperature. One of the hardiest tropical mammals, the coati, shivers at 68 degrees. Among arctic animals, lemmings reach this point at 53 degrees and polar bear cubs at 32 degrees. The arctic fox? It didn't shiver until the temperature was dropped to -94 degrees and even then only after a full hour of exposure! I am not kidding, that's what the book says. At an incredible low of -112 degrees the fox continued to endure, shivering continually, but still maintained its body temperature for a full hour. I think the scientists decided not to push it further. Amazing animals.

Great book. And the photographs by Norbert Rosing are fantastic. Borrowed this one from the public library

Rating: 4/5          231 pages, 2008

Jun 21, 2017

The Bluebird Effect

Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds
by Julie Zickefoose

A lifelong bird-watcher and rehabilitator, Zickefoose shares some of her intimate experiences with various feathered species. There are backyard birds she feeds and sees up close, and quite a few injured or orphaned songbirds she cared for: chickadees, starlings, Carolina wrens, scarlet tanagers, hummingbirds, titmice, phoebes, sparrows, cardinals, and of course bluebirds. There are heartwarming stories of healed, released birds- some of which seemed to revisit her yard and recognize her much later. There are stories that end sadly, as well. Two sobering tales of wild birds who were unreleasable yet seemed to bear captivity well, so she kept and cared for them into old age- a savannah sparrow for fourteen years, an orchard oriole for seventeen. There are observations of large, wilder birds- an injured turkey vulture found roadside, an osprey nest studied through a season, a ruffed grouse that would follow her on walks in the woods, wild hawks that prey on the very songbirds she feeds; least terns and piping plovers whose nesting sites she worked to protect. There are her eloquent longings for the hope of (anyone) ever sighting an ivory-billed woodpecker,  and her look at the conflicting views over hunting lisences issued for mourning doves and sandhill cranes. She also discusses how feeding birds in the winter months affects their populations. And last of all the most intimate is a chapter about her lifelong commitment to a pet chestnut-fronted macaw.

Through all the varied essays, the close and thoughtful observations come through with both skillful writings and a beautiful artist's touch. I love looking at her detailed sketches and paintings of birds just as much as reading her words. She knows birds so well, and is always seemingly ready to learn more, and share it with those of us who, like me, absorb from the sidelines.

Written before her compilation of the studies on infant bird development, this book contains some of the same material - I instantly recognized the paintings and a few passages - but with broader focus and more circumstantial details, about the people who brought her orphans, for example. It didn't feel like repeated material, but added richness.

Rating: 4/5       355 pages, 2012