Aug 25, 2016

Julie of the Wolves

by Jean Craighead George

The pains of growing up and culture clash meld into a story of animal communication and survival skills with some beautiful nature writing. No wonder this book is a classic. It is told in three parts, and the first one is about Julie's interactions with a wolf pack, which hooked me from the beginning. In the opening scene Julie, a thirteen-year-old Inuit (or Eskimo as they are called in the book) is lost on the Arctic tundra. She had run away from home, trying to reach the coast where a ship would take her to San Francisco. She ran out of food and in spite of finding ways to hunt and forage, is slowing starving. She comes across a small wolf pack and decides that her only hope is to gain their trust and share their food. Incredible patience and close attention to the subtle ways the wolves communicate allows her to do this. I really loved reading about how Julie integrated herself into the wolf pack, and how she lived alongside the animals. It felt quite plausible.

The second part of the book is a flashback to Julie's childhood, which tells how she got into her present predicament. Her father, a great hunter who taught her many traditional skills, disappears one day on a trip and is presumed dead. She is forced to move away and live with an aunt who only seems to want Julie in her household as a source of free labor. Julie escapes this situation via an arranged marriage to an Inuit boy, but this new home is also insufferable. Having run away, got lost in the wilderness and found ways to survive, Julie (whose Eskimo name is Miyax) gradually discovers that she loves living close to the land, that she has a deep appreciation for nature and finds satisfaction in using her skills (not without some major challenges, though). When she finally reaches populated areas again, she's no longer sure if she wants to live among men. Her value system is different now. She directly sees the threat modern man poses to her wolves (who follow along towards the village). And when she makes contact with people, she discovers that far more has changed than her own perceptions. I really felt like the ending was too quick, and I had forgotten what sad notes it contained.

But it does make me more eager to pick up the second book and see where the story goes. Julie of the Wolves was a re-read for me. I'm not sure if I read the sequel before. I have a dim memory of abandoning it, but will see how much is familiar.

Rating: 4/5        170 pages, 1972

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Aug 22, 2016

Because of Winn-Dixie

by Kate DiCamillo

This is a really gentle, sweet story about a girl who lives in a trailer park in southern Florida. She's recently moved there with her father, the local preacher, and struggles to make friends. Until she spontaneously adopts a large, ugly dog that's causing trouble in the grocery store. She promptly names him Winn-Dixie and takes him home. The homely, friendly mutt makes his way into everyone's heart, his unassuming nature opening things up for our young protagonist. With Winn-Dixie at her side she starts meeting new people, from all walks of life. She lands a job in the pet shop. She gets her father to tell her more about her mother, who left them when she was only three. She discovers that Winn-Dixie also has his flaws, he needs her understanding and patience too. By the end of the story she's made friends among other children in the town, two older women and a man who usually keeps to himself (rumors say he's a criminal and local kids call him retarded, but neither is true). The voices of the children sound authentic- sassy, confused or insightful as the occasion calls for it. The bits about the library are nice, and the stories the elderly women share. It shows something of how everyone has pain in their lives, but together those moments can be overcome. I liked this story. It's heartwarming and kind.

Rating: 3/5         185 pages, 2000

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Aug 21, 2016

A Dog on His Own

by Mary Jane Auch

I was looking for some light reads, gathering up a handful of J fiction titles that have been on my TBR list for some time. Saw this one just sitting on the library shelf. It's aimed at a young audience- eight to ten-year-olds- but was a nice surprise. I found it a quick, enjoyable read and a pretty good story.

K-10 the dog has had a string of different owners and been in and out of animal shelters several times. He thinks he knows the ropes and is done with humans. He wants to make it on his own and enjoy the freedom of street life. After escaping from his latest encounter with animal control people, he is on the run with a few canine pals. But finds out that his street smarts don't quite cut it, and moreover he needs to learn how to choose his friends. After a series of adventures and mishaps, K-10 figures out who his true friends are, that it's okay to admit you need others, and humans might not be so bad after all. It's a well-told story with believable characters- the animal voices work in this case. It has funny parts, some touching and sad moments, and a lot of good lessons on friendship, loyalty and reserving judgement until you actually know someone. There was only one moment where I frowned at a too-convenient plot device, otherwise pretty darn good.

Rating: 3/5          153 pages, 2008

Aug 19, 2016

Aug 14, 2016

Yosemite

An American Treasure
by Kenneth Brower

Of all the National Geographic books I have, this one was the best. The writing is great. It's not as much about wildlife, but what there is of course I loved. Intriguing little snippets that throw exquisite details at me in a few sentences and make me want to go read more right away- for example about how gophers' winter snow leave soil deposits behind that in the spring look like giant worm castings- or so the author imagined as a child. He grew up in the park, his family having been closely tied to it for several generations. His great-grandfather was a contemporary of John Muir and in fact actively opposed Muir on many things, which gives lots of interesting insights into park management here.

There are details on all kinds of things. The history of geological formations- including early mistaken concepts about how they came to be. Controversies and different theologies on how wildlife should be managed in the park. Concerns over human use and the impacts of things like roads, campgrounds and the like. Issues from early decades, including sheepherding. How trails are designed and cut into the rock- the artistry (or lack) of them. Moutainclimbing, of course. Tree blazing, why it was done and what it indicates. Studies of fauna and flora- lichens, wildflowers, giant sequoias. I didn't realize there were so many various microclimates in Yosemite, that's part of what makes this place amazing. It's also about people. John Muir- lots about him. He was such a key figure in the early park's development. There's a close portrait of a Native American woman who learned the art of basketweaving, which plant fibers she gathers in the park, the reasons for their particular uses. Ansel Adams!! I loved that there was a whole chapter about artists who have visited the park, and what they created.

I think it's rather sad I could not find a single other review of this book online. Not on LibraryThing, or even Amzn. It's a book well worth reading. The pictures are stunning.

Rating: 4/5      200 pages, 1990

Aug 10, 2016

Yellowstone Country

the Enduring Wonder
by Seymour L. Fishbien

This is a National Geographic publication. It's about the lands encompassing the greater Yellowstone ecosystem- including Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park and the surrounding forests and ranchlands. It's about the wildlife and park visitors, land use management and research programs. Several studies are mentioned- of bison and elk herds, of the timing of individual geysers, of the aftermath of wildfire. Some of the info here was really familiar, as I had already come across it in the book on wildlife refuges and in Summer of Fire. There's lots about the fantastic geothermal features that make Yellowstone famous (quotes from early explorers and visitors make it clear they found it a frightening and "hellish" place). And about debates over certain park features- where campgrounds should be located, how much development should be allowed, how to manage problematic bears and congested traffic, etc. It's clear that the nearby wedge of Grand Teton Nat'l Park has more commercial aspects- but it also has majestic peaks and there's a nice segment in there about mountain climbing, from the author's personal experience in the Tetons. Overall it's a good read describing a wide range of features, and issues faced by park management. And highlighting the awesome beauties of nature found there. Lots of photographs and they are very nice. Many of the landscapes are just stunning.

Rating: 3/5     200 pages, 1989

Aug 9, 2016

Majestic Island Worlds

by Leslie Allen, et al

The other authors of this book are Ron Fisher, Thomas O'Neill, Cynthia Ramsay, Tom Melham and Christine Eckstrom Lee. So it's a travel kind of book describing islands. Japan, the Galapagos, Bali, Ireland, New Zealand and the Seychelles. The writing is a bit uneven- I liked the voice of several of the authors, others were dull. My favorite chapter was the one about the Galapagos, it mentions lots of animal encounters. Did you know a few of the Galapagos Islands are inhabited? I didn't. Each chapter kind of has a different focus: the one about Bali tells a lot about religion, ceremony and culture. The one about New Zealand is mostly about its geography and how much the people there love the outdoors. The chapter on Ireland has a touching story about the author finding some long-lost relatives.  The photographs are lovely throughout.  But near the end of the book my attention was seriously waning.  I just don't know if I'll ever read it again.

Rating: 3/5       200 pages, 1987

Aug 8, 2016

America's Wild Woodlands

edited by Donald J. Crump, et al.

I'm going through my National Geographic books. This one has numerous authors. It is, just as the title describes, a description of the various types of forests that cover North America. The chapters are about visits to different national parks and refuges, each encompassing a particular type of habitat. While the refuge book told me a lot about animals, this one is mostly focused on plants. Names of plants abound, their different communities and what makes them thrive and how people are managing woodlands to keep certain species from disappearing. There's frequent mention of harvesting methods, selective logging and thinning of trees, concerns about how to manage fires (which can be rejuvenating) and over other negative influences on forestland: insect infestations, tree diseases, acid rain. It reminds me a lot of Thoreau's Faith in a Seed, but this book is actually drier reading. Thankfully the text is brief, makes its point, and the pictures are numerous. Photographs are very nice and the illustrations by Alan Singer are exquisite in their tidy detail.
Disappointingly, only the cover illustration (hidden by the jacket) includes a bird, all the others show identifying tree foliage.

Rating: 2/5      200 pages, 1985

Aug 7, 2016

The Other Wind

by Ursula K. LeGuin

I loved LeGuin's books of Earthsea as a teen. I was ecstatic when years after reading the original trilogy I came across her collection of short stories set in the same world, and much later, the fourth book Tehanu. A number of years back when I heard The Other Wind was published, I was so eager to read it, but  somehow never got around to it until now.

Now Ged is an old man. He used to be Archmage but those powers have left him and he lives on his mountaintop on Gont, keeping goats and tending a garden. A young sorcerer comes to him, a man whose skill is mending things- broken pots and fences, the like. His beloved wife had died and he is harrowed by dreams where he stands at a low wall, his wife reaching to him across it from the dry land. The dreams become more distressing, with other dead figures troubling him until he can no longer sleep and frightens those around him- shouting in the dark at nightmares. He comes to Ged for help but the old man points him to Roke- he senses that these dreams show a significant change coming to their world, something gone wrong in the basic order of things. The young man's journey takes him to the center of their world, where me meets Tehanu the burnt girl, a foreign princess offered in political marraige, and the young king himself. I had forgotten how much I liked Lebannen's character, even though when I first met him in an earlier book I thought he was something of a brat! There are delicate relationships between the characters, strangers and friends, foriegners and those familiar to us. I had forgotten than in this world, some people exist who are really dragons, and some dragons can take human form. The depth LeGuin goes to exploring the foundations of her island world explains why that is so. It's very satisfying in that regard, and I liked that her final version of the distinction between life and death wasn't the expected one, that it took into consideration the ancient tales and superstitions of her foreign, 'barbaric' characters as well. It's very good at looking at how opposing cultures view each other. Most of all, this is a story about the relationship between life and death.

It was a good read, but somehow did not touch me vividly as the earlier books have done. LeGuin is a master of understatement- when I was a kid this let my imagination free to fill in the gaps, to invent all the details. Now I find it just a little bit flat. I was more interested in the ideas presented, than the characters themselves. I admit I had a sudden throb of nostalgia when I first opened the book and saw the map. How I remember poring over that map as a younger reader, following the characters on their journeys between the islands, imagining the different peoples and customs on each. A lot of it came back, reading this final novel. I have a borrowed library copy in hand, but will have to get another to add to my own collection, just to have this series complete.

Rating: 3/5      273 pages, 2001

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