Jan 20, 2017

Roughing It

by Mark Twain

In 1861 Samuel Clemens accompanied his brother west on a stagecoach, apparently because he had nothing better to do. His brother had a new appointment as Secretary of Nevada Territory, and the author tried his hand at lots of odd jobs- including mining, labor in a silver mill and editor of a small newspaper. He kept going west- stopping a two days in Salt Lake City, spending time in California and finally taking a ship to Hawai'i (then known as the Sandwich Islands). He wasn't quite yet a writer by trade, and the stories are kind of rough. Lots of tall tales and anecdotes told many times over by other folk. Tons of exaggeration, which can be laugh-out-loud amusing or just plain tedious. I was intrigued to read his description of traveling by stagecoach and of the early Pony Express, of frontier life, of the craze for silver mining prospects in Nevada, of his visit to Utah where he reports that he met Brigham Young- his description is not very flattering but then he makes fun of most of the people he meets in this book. He writes about the lawless situation in the territories, and there are many episodes showing how people tried to enforce law or impose order on desperadoes, outlaws and swindlers galore. The accounts of trials and hangings got to be long-winded and boring. The detailed descriptions of mining assessments and operations were interesting only to a point, then I didn't want to read about that anymore (I was astounded that they would handle 'quicksilver' or mercury- in their hands while using it to extract silver from other base metals in the crushed rock- it ate the ring off his hands). The native americans are portrayed as being weak and depraved, but the vistas of wilderness are full of grandeur. The description of a visit to Lake Mono and a claim on Lake Tahoe (where they started a fire that burned up the camp) was particularly interesting.

Most of the stories are funny, if you can wade through all the flowery prose and rough vernacular to get to the punch line.

Even though I read the last few chapters to the end, in all honesty I have to mark this book as 'abandoned' because I skipped well half the middle of it. In fact, if I hadn't seen a few other readers' remarks about how interesting the section on his travels to Hawai'i were, I might well have ditched the book sooner. Glad I didn't though, it was a pretty interesting account! A mix of introduced 'civilized' culture and 'pagan' native ways, many of the Hawaiians were still not used to things like wearing clothing. Twain tells some curious stories about how they abandoned their traditional gods for christianity, accepted european ideas of government, and how they loved ceremony- yet so many traditional ideas and superstitions obviously still believed in regardless of how much they appeared to have adapted to 'white man's ways'.

Abandoned        421 pages, 1872

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Jan 18, 2017

Aquarium Plants

Mini Encyclopedia
by Peter Hiscock

I bought this book over a year ago when I started keeping a planted tank, and then never read it! So a lot of the info I've learned by now, it was review- conditions that plants require, planting and propagation methods, pruning techniques, maintenance, etc. There are several nice spreads showing what plant selections would go nicely together according to needs (water hardness) or a biotope display. Second half of the book is plant profiles. Nice clear pictures although sometimes the little informational snippets in the margins didn't actually correlate to the part of the picture indicated, which I found kind of amusing.

I did encounter some new plants here that I've never heard of, and learned why a few of mine haven't done well- hydrocotyle species seem to prefer softer water so probably that's why mine is failing (it wasn't a plant I got on purpose, but a freebie piece that came mixed with some others). I added a few to the list of plants I want to try. There are over a hundred and fifty species profiled in this book, but it seems to be an abbreviated version. The author has published another, much more extensive aquatic plant encyclopedia and that's the one I really want to have on my shelf.

Rating: 3/5    208 pages, 2005

Jan 17, 2017

The Biography of a Grizzly

by Ernest Thompson Seton

Note: there are SPOILERS in this post.

The story of a grizzly bear, different from Monarch the Big Bear of Tallac. The opening scene shows the bear cub gamboling charmingly with his siblings, the mother bear nearby. In the next chapter the mother bear is shot by a man, and only one cub- later named Wahb- survives. He is just old enough to make it on his own, but missing some crucial instructions he would have received from his mother, goes through a lot of struggles in his first year. Which ends up making him a sullen loner. Several run-ins with mankind leave him with a permanent limp and a deep fear and hatred of humans. The story shows how the bear holds his territory and drives out other, smaller bears. He even manages to drive men from his range- terrorizing them at homestead claims until his name becomes known and folks simply avoid the area. The bear is pretty smart- when first caught in a trap he accidentally treads on the spring that releases it; remembering this is later able to free himself from other traps. Further on in the story he finds a hot spring and discovers that soaking in the pool relieves the pain of his old injuries and he visits the pool many times for this purpose. In another part of the book the bear makes Yellowstone (then a very new park) part of his summer haunts, and there is even brief mention of the sick cub that fed on trash outside a lodge there (told in greater detail here).

For once, the main animal character in the story meets a peaceful end. The final chapters of the book was actually my favorite part. It describes how a younger bear seeking its own territory comes onto Wahb's land. This bear can tell that Wahb would be a formidable enemy, so it sneaks around for quite some time. Then it discovers a means to trick Wahb into thinking it is actually a larger bear. When the resident grizzly finds these marks, the apprehension of meeting the younger bear worries and wears on him. It was a really interesting description of the psychological conflict the two rival bears could have, one gradually pushing the other out even though they never had a direct encounter. In the end, Wahb goes into a gully where noxious gas seeping out of the ground makes him fall asleep, never to wake again. This is an actual place and I bet the description of dead bears found there gave Seton material for his story- he based most of his writings on observations or accounts of real wildlife.

My book is a 1914 edition, the story was first published in 1900. It seems to have been reprinted with several different titles- the image I show here is a newer edition which includes reference materials and historical information about the area Wahb lived in. I've also seen an older edition titled King of the Grizzlies which I think is the same story.

Rating: 4/5     167 pages, 1900

Jan 16, 2017

Beach Music

by Pat Conroy

This is rich storytelling, and heavy reading. The novel is narrated by Jack McCall, one of five brothers who is living as an ex-pat in Rome with his daughter, and has vowed to never see his family again, or let them be part of his daughter's life. He is convinced to return by one thing: his mother is dying of cancer. Going back home- to South Carolina- is facing a rocky past. And not just his own past, but that of his parents, and their parents, and his wife's parents, and his childhood friends and so on. It covers so much pain, and so many dysfunctional relationships. Jack has one brother who is mentally ill (his heated parts of conversations stood out to me- the other brothers really blended together I forgot who was who constantly), a drunken father, and a mother who coldly manipulates everyone- or so they all said, frequently proclaiming their hatred for her. I never really got that part, though. Events that happened among friends when they were all students- yeah. Fear and loathing of his father who bullied them- yeah. The bad character of his mother- where were the stories about that?

There's so much going on in here it's hard to keep reading. Family secrets and betrayals. Pogroms in the Ukraine and the horrors of the Holocaust. Student riots during the Vietnam War. An old friend hiding from the law in Rome, in the guise of a priest. Rich cooking- Conroy does like to talk about food, doesn't he? Dirt poor living conditions in an Appalachian valley- I'd never read descriptions of people who worship by handling live poisonous snakes before. Oh, and sea turtles being rescued. By the protagonist's mother. That part really felt unrelated to anything else- was it just to show a sympathetic side to that character... ? Ramblings in the low country, a near-disastrous fishing trip where they encountered a giant manta ray- that part felt really far-fetched. But I have to say, Pat Conroy is a darn good storyteller. For most of the book I rolled with the ebb and flow of shifting storylines, curious to see how each character's past had made them what they were, how it affected and influenced all the others in turn- until I suddenly didn't care anymore, because well, it was just so much to take in and I didn't particularly like any of them.

I almost didn't finish. All this buildup to tell the pivotal, ruinous event that had occurred when the friends were at college, and when I had a hundred pages to go I just didn't want to read more. The political turmoil of the Vietnam War era wore on me. The mock trial staged in a theater where all the characters involved were brought together to air their grievances and explain themselves- felt so overly convenient. In the end, the big reveal didn't seem like a huge deal compared to all the rest of the brutality that happened in the book. I must temper that by saying there is plenty of love in these pages, too- and moments of bravery, unlooked-for compassion, people standing up for what's right, even humor. But I skimmed the last few chapters just because I couldn't bear to call a 700-plus page book abandoned if I lost interest near page 672.

Rating: 3/5            773 pages, 2009

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Jan 11, 2017

Golden Hamster Saga

by Dietlof Reiche

A while ago I read this cute book about a hamster- I, Freddy. My daughter has the first four books in the series, so looking for another fun read I tried the second and third.

I just couldn't get into it. The established premise is that Freddy can now read and write with ease- he is in fact writing (his life story and some fiction) on his owner's computer, and also using the computer to communicate with the man who seems to find it normal to talk to a hamster now, but keeps it a secret from everyone else. Freddy in Peril pitches immediately into a mystery of sorts- someone is trying to break into the apartment and Freddy suspects it is to steal him. This would-be-thief has learned of Freddy's communication skills and wants to use the hamster in some scientific experiment. Of course Freddy and his companions- a cat and two guinea pigs- have to thwart the plan and save Freddy.

It was just implausible from the very beginning. I enjoyed the first book which only stretched a little bit from the normalcy of a hamster becoming used to a new environment and getting along with the other pets. This one goes a lot further- talking hamster solves a mystery and saves the day! I can see how kids would really like it, but it's obviously aimed at them and not me.

I opened the third book Freddy to the Rescue just to see, as this one had a premise that interested me a bit more. Freddy learns that a nearby construction site threatens the lives of a field hamster population, and he intends to save them. But it was really tedious to find that so many things were reiterated in the first chapter as in the other books: the guinea pigs fall over whenever Freddy surprises them with his snarl. The cat is full of himself but Freddy knows better. The humans are clueless as to what is really going on and Freddy will figure out how to fix it all- despite his small size. The incessant jokes and rhymes coming from the guinea pigs were tiresome. The writing style did nothing for me. Oh well.

Now I'm diving into something thick instead.

Abandoned         208 pages, 2006

Jan 10, 2017

Razzle Dazzle Unicorn

by Dana Simpson

It's nice to have a slew of fun, easy reads sometimes. I'm still enjoying these unicorn comics. More adventures of Phoebe and her best-friend unicorn Marigold Heavenly Nostrils. Quirky, amusing combination of reality and fantasy, poking gentle fun at stereotypical ideas regarding girls who love unicorns. Phoebe is definitely a nerd and into things like role-playing games, but she also likes girly stuff on occasion too. She's not a flat character at all. (A nice touch is the variety of hairstyles and clothing she sports in the comics, there's even a "breaking the fourth wall" moment in one of the strips where she makes a comment about how most comic book characters always look the same- as if they never change their clothes. Haha.) She goes through all kinds of usual kid trials- facing tests at school, popular kids teasing her, misunderstandings with her friends (but never with the unicorn- they question each others' ideas and poke fun at human/unicorn characteristics, but never yet have I seen them have an argument!), generation gap moments with her parents, summer camp. But also things like meeting the monster in the lake again, and another new unicorn (this one is pronounced plain though he doesn't really look it). Helping out her frenemy with a goblin problem. I think my favorite bits were the part where she had to read a book for school, and the very brief joke about origami (my twelve-year-old is into that).

Borrowed from the public library. I think there's only four volumes published so far, so now I will have to wait for another compilation, or start following the daily strip online. Have an idea to go back and read some old Calvin and Hobbes collections I have, just for the fun of it. And the comparison, of course.

Rating: 3/5       184 pages, 2016

Jan 9, 2017

Winter's Tales

by Isak Dinesen

A book I've had to read in pieces, it's kinda slow going. These short stories are thoughtful, romantic in the old sense of the word, and very introspective. I had to read them slowly because the style is very different from modern narrative prose- a lot about each character's inner thoughts and perceptions of the world and their past relationships to other people and their half-formed dreams of the future and so on- there is very little conversation and nothing much seems to happen until you get to the end when there is a often a sudden inexplicable connection to something else, which makes you sit up and take notice. The endings can be very odd, and often leave the reader with more questions- I frequently had a wait, what? type of response.

There is a story about an adopted child who naturally assumes himself to be from a grand family, even though he was raised in squalor, and the gracious airs he puts on affects everyone around him. There is a story about a pastor's daughter who helps her orphaned cousin (adopted into the household) fulfill his wish to run away to sea- meeting their disaster together. A young sailor rescues a falcon that tangled itself in the rigging, and later his compassionate act is repaid in a strange manner, when he runs afoul of some drunken men while trying to court a young girl in a town their ship stops at. A king muses on his past actions and friendships, rides down to the sea to speak to a hermit who used to be in his service, and finds something unexpected when a fish is presented to him for a meal. A young man falls in love with a beautiful lady at a resort (such establishments were called "the watering place" in these stories, which sounded quaint) only to find out all his assumptions about her position in life were wrong. And so on.

It's hard to describe these stories. They feel very old-fashioned, most are set in a time period well before Dinesen's own day, and I believe she meant to infuse them with an archaic feeling. They are often solemn. The viewpoints in them sometimes baffled me- not just the stern religious feeling and ideas about God, but also the rather stereotypical notion that poor people felt content with their lot in life and were simple, dull folk and that on the other hand folk born into high station felt an inherent nobility- even if they had not been raised in a grand household. Hm.

I'm not sure if I can say I enjoyed these stories, but they certainly made me think and the mood in them is very tangible, like a dark landscape that presses on you. Many of them have a fantastic element just a bit removed from normalcy, which is more unsettling and surprising than delightful or wondrous. I feel like I ought to read them all over again just to puzzle out the characters' separate motives and try to understand what was the point.

In case you are unaware, Isak Dinesen is the author's pen name. She is Karen Blixen, who wrote Out of Africa. Which was a much easier read and has long one of my favorites, by the way.

Rating: 3/5        313 pages, 1942

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Jan 7, 2017

Unicorn vs Goblins

by Dana Simpson

I don't know well how to write about comic books very well. There's not really a plot, although there is development- for example Phoebe's relationship with her enemy Dakota is gradually changing- they actually enjoy doing a few things together. And some things are definitely presented chronologically- I started reading Razzle Dazzle Unicorn first, because the books are not marked by vol. number and both were published in the same year so I didn't know which one came first (or if it mattered). But there's an early panel in Razzle Dazzle Unicorn where Phoebe and Marigold are in a role-playing game with Max and there's a reference to goblins that's obviously an inside joke between Phoebe and Mari, which went unexplained (baffling Max too). Of course that made me realize the other book was written first, so I ditched Razzle Dazzle and started reading here.

So what happens in this book? Phoebe goes to a music summer camp where she meets another girl just as 'weird' as she is. There's a monster in the lake at camp- very apt. Phoebe meets another unicorn- Marigold's sister, who is quite different. I like that the unicorns and other magical creatures in these comics have individual personalities and complex relationships-  makes it feel very real in spite of the magical elements. Which are just plain fun. Like an incident involving magicked hair that goes awry.

I like the dynamics of the friendships. I like Phoebe's character, and the cheerful, self-assured pleasantly conceited unicorn. And all the jokes very much placed in modern times- the girl carries her cell phone everywhere. Her frenemy Dakota has a video blog (or a youtube channel or something. Which gets hacked by goblins- and now I know the goblin reference!) Some things I am old enough to not quite get, though- in one of these strips, a kid swears by saying "frack" in place of the f-word. Is that something kids actually say, now? I find it very apropro, haha.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5       176 pages, 2016

Unicorn on a Roll

by Dana Simpson

The more I read of these Phoebe and Her Unicorn comic books, the more I like them. (On the third right now). In this set of strips, Phoebe has arguments with her 'frenemy' at school, Dakota, and becomes more friendly with a fellow nerd- a boy who participates in the spelling bee. She learns that her unicorn can roller skate, tries out for the school play and can't figure out what to do with her time when her parents spend hours binge-watching their favorite show and leave her unsupervised. (She feels like she ought to take advantage of the opportunity to do something naughty, but can't figure out what. Such a good kid. Even if she does pick her nose). I have to say, I really enjoy reading Phoebe's interactions with her parents. They're from my generation, so I can relate to things like knowing what a vcr or record-player is, and how phones used to be attached to the wall- which my kids are clueless about.

The unicorn is priceless. She is perfectly assured of her beauty and perfection, but she's not a snob about it. She is very gracious, and has a charming sense of humor. And I like that the unicorn can interact with Phoebe's parents and friends- because of this phenomenon called the Shield of Boringness that makes her seem un-spectacular to them. Reminds me of how Peter S. Beagle's unicorn would appear a mere white mare to certain people, protecting her from harm.

Oh, and Phoebe meets a few other unicorns- who don't approve of Marigold being friends with a human and try to dissuade her from the company. Those segments were great and I wished for more of them.

The more I read of these comics the more I smile, and laugh out loud. Poking around online I found some prior comics this author/artist used to create before they evolved into Phoebe and Her Unicorn- which I am curious to read now as well. I'm starting here.

Rating: 3/5       225 pages, 2015

Jan 3, 2017

Phoebe and Her Unicorn

by Dana Simpson

Phoebe is a fairly ordinary fourth-grader. She wants to impress her friends, but the popular girls think she's weird. Skipping stones one day she accidentally hits a unicorn (who is captivated by the beauty of her own reflection) and is granted a wish. She cleverly wishes for endless wishes, but that isn't allowed, so instead she wishes the unicorn will be her best friend. Marigold Heavenly Nostrils is reluctant at first, but gradually the two become close companions. They have a lot to learn about each other- Phoebe's ideas about unicorn magic are often mistaken, and Marigold finds humans baffling. The unicorn is really conceited yet honest and kind as well. They make an amusing pair.

It did remind me a lot of Calvin and Hobbes, and the occasional snarkiness cast my mind to Ariel as well. And delightfully, Peter S. Beagle himself wrote the introduction. For an easy, light read it has a lot of thoughtful moments, and made me laugh.

It's a daily comic online, but I prefer to read the printed version. Happily, my library has three more volumes of the Heavenly Nostrils Chronicles, so I have a few on hold now...

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