Jun 28, 2016

Summer of Fire

Yellowstone 1988
by Patricia Lauber

In 1988, Yellowstone National Park had not seen any huge wildfires in over 200 years. Fire was managed in the park- manmade fires were put out, while naturally occurring ones were allowed to burn unless they threatened people or buildings. This book tells about the events during the wildfires of 1988, when an entire third of the park burned. It describes the dangers and benefits of wildfire, and how the park recovered.

Because it did. I was twelve when those fires occured, I had visited Yellowstone and I remember feeling devastated at the news. Reading this book puts it all in perspective- the land actually recovers fairly quickly from wildfire. Most animal species survived, some benefitted greatly (predators ate smaller mammals on the run, insects moved in to take advantage of dying trees, etc). The lodgepole pines, in particular, start to die back until fire revives the forests by allowing younger trees to thrive. Certain seeds will not germinate unless prompted to by high temperatures caused by fire. I was surprised to learn about the unique way aspen thickets grow- they send up shoots from root systems that are often interconnected throughout the grove. Aspen seeds are troublesome to germinate, and the young trees easily shaded out. So most aspen in the park did not grow from seed but instead exist because of stands that have been growing back from the root systems for hundreds of years. I think that's amazing.

This book is a bit old- I can tell from the quality of the photographs alone, although they are very nice. It's also a juvenile nonfiction book, which I didn't realize until I started reading it. As such, it doesn't offer a lot of in-depth information and poses lots of unanswered questions, because when it was written scientists were still studying the effects of the blaze and how the Yellowstone plants and wildlife recovered from fire. (In some cases, very systematically- blocking off sections that hadn't been burned, planting them with certain seeds or not, observing later to see what grew and didn't after the fire, etc.) It would be nice to know more of the answers, so it prompts me to look more stuff up online. A nice, fairly informative read I got through in one sitting.

Rating: 3/5          64 pages, 1991

The Day the Crayons Quit

by Drew Daywalt

I was babysitting for a friend and saw this book on her shelf. Pulled it out to read (just to myself, the kids weren't interested).

A little boy finds a stack of letters from his personified crayons. They each have a complaint. Some are tired of being over-used and worn down to stubs, others feel neglected. Yellow and orange argue over who should be used to color the sun, beige is unhappy at being second-best to brown, pink is upset at being considered a "girl" color (relegated to little sister borrowing it for princesses and unicorns), black is bored with only being used to make outlines. One crayon even criticizes the boy's ineptness at staying in the lines, and another freaks out because part of its wrapper is torn off and it feels naked. They really are a whiny bunch (except for green who seems content) but I got a chuckle out of it all- and thought it a good point that the crayons' complaints were about stereotypical uses. In the end the boy makes one big picture applying the crayon colors to all kinds of different things, which makes them happy.

I thought the book was funny, made a good point against stereotypes (even if it's just for what color things should be) and showed how when the crayons made their feelings known, things changed. I think my older daughter would be amused by it. I haven't tried it on my younger one. However, if you poke around some other reviews online (there's lots on amzn) you'll find many parents and teachers don't like this book. They think it shows kids that whining gets them what they want, and comes across with a lot of negativity. I think it's all in how you present it (or maybe on the child you read it to).

Rating: 3/5       40 pages, 2013

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Jun 27, 2016

Monkey Town

the Summer of the Scopes Trial
by Ronald Kidd

Middle-grade novel about a famous trial that was staged in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. The author had a friend whose mother was the girl Frances featured in the story; he gathered details doing interviews with people who actually remembered the trial from seventy years before. (A brief afterword delineates some of what was fact/what was fiction here).

In the novel, Frances is seventeen and swooning over the young schoolteacher Johnny Scopes. Her father owns the local drugstore, and he's always looking for ways to drum up business. Tennessee law at the time forbade state-run schools from teaching evolution, but the law had never been enforced. Scopes was a basketball and football coach. At one point he substituted a biology class and assigned some reading from the state-required textbook that included a chapter on Darwin's theory of evolution. Some scheming men (including Frances' father) saw this as reason to put him on trial for teaching evolution. It was all a stunt to get publicity and revitalize their quiet town. Scopes agreed to play his part. In fact (from a bit other reading I did online) it seems he encouraged students to testify against him. This story shows it all going sour on him, though in the end he had his own share of fame. Reporters and journalists swarm the town, everyone gets involved in heated arguments about evolution vs. creationism. Frances starts to question everything, too. But her main preoccupation is this infatuation with Johnny. It doesn't go anywhere. He always treats her like a kid.

And in the end, I got bored. I skimmed the last few chapters. I had heard of the Scopes trial before, but I was disappointed to discover it was all a big set-up. Frances gets enough glimpses of the trial to make a fair description of what happened, but those details did not quite hold my interest. Her child's view of how the townspeople respond to the implications of the trial could have been refreshing; there is plenty of contrast between small-town good-at-heart folks and big-city snobs that criticize and insult them. Frances also sees flaws among her familiar neighbors- those who want to sabotage the trial or who attack others for their beliefs. She's upset at discovering a side to her own father she never recognized before- he's often just out to make a buck. But her character felt rather flat to me. She was always questioning the status quo, always mooning over Johnny Scopes, and that was about it. I wanted a bit more depth. I'm probably being too hard on the book, after all it is written for middle grade or YA readers -kind of straddles the age groups in a way. The writing style and simplicity seem more appropriate for the younger set, but the discussions about God, evolution, questioning parental integrity, even some brief showing of early feminism, are more serious subject matter.

Rating: 2/5         259 pages, 2006

Jun 25, 2016

book sale haul

I had a grand day at a giant used-book sale that helps fund public libraries in the next town over. Spent the entire morning there, happily getting a crick in my neck and shoving a box that gradually got heavier, along the floor with my foot. I haven't done this kind of thing in three years (after all, there are still over a hundred and fifty unread books in my bedroom) so it felt like quite a splurge. I always try to be really picky, but of course you can't beat the price or the cause, so...
Found these which I've been wanting to read- quite a few are on my current TBR. The top two I've just heard about somewhere- the name Pyewacket is so lodged in my memory I must have heard of it when I was a kid, I really feel like it was mentioned by a character in another book, but no idea which. Whatever You Do, Don't Run is a book I saw in a shop during travels, more than a year ago. A few gardening books I've seen on other blogs, George Adamson's book I've been wanting to read since I finished The Searching Spirit and of course I have to mention Wendell Berry! My father is a big fan of Wendell Berry and has been telling me to read his books for years now, but I never got around to it yet. This is the very title that has been recommended to me. (Now I'm going to feel obligated to read it soon since I mentioned it here!)
These books I grabbed because I know the authors. The top one is My Way Was North by Frank Dufresne (author of No Room for Bears, a book I recall from growing up- it's on my dad's shelf). I've always wanted to read more Nevil Shute, more Norah Lofts (the one you can't read the spine of is her A Wayside Tavern). I can't believe I found a book by Attenborough. I love his films, haven't read any of his writing yet.
And these books I just got because they looked interesting! Snapper is fiction featuring a guy who studies birds. A few gardening books in here (memoir type), a book on aquarium fish. Roadrunners just because I don't know much about them. What's That Pig Outdoors? is about the author's experience with blindness.
These I already own but I wanted to replace some old falling-apart mass market paperbacks. It's becoming more and more common that I spot dear favorites at the books sales. I always want to snatch them up and buy them so I can give them to someone, but I just couldn't afford to. But one I pulled out from the press of spines and left it sitting faceup across them all. Maybe someone else will notice it and take it home and find out how good it is- Dalene Matthee's Circles in A Forest. Someday I will read it again and write about here. I still remember distinctly a day in high school when I was reading this in class (sitting in a mobile classroom because the buildings were being remodeled- it was hot) and the teacher plucked up my book to comment on it in front of the class. He asked me to tell everyone what it was about but I was rather tongue-tied!

Not pictured: four books I got for my kid.

Jun 22, 2016

Navy Seal Dogs

My Tale of Training Canines for Combat
by Mike Ritland

This book is about how military working dogs are trained and used. The author served as a Navy Seal and then became instrumental in training dogs for government and military use. There is a brief history of how dogs have been used in various wars in the appendix (which put into perspective some of the things I read in Cracker!) Main part of the book describes in detail how the dogs are trained. Ritland describes how carefully the dogs are bred and chosen, and the regiment they go through to prepare them for specific kinds of work. I found all this interesting, although some aspects of the training seemed to be skipped over or not explained very thoroughly. I think I found out why later on: this book is a re-issue of an earlier one the author wrote titled Trident K9 Warriors. It has been edited for a juvenile audience. That said, I didn't  find the writing style too simplified, and it kept me mostly interested throughout.

The second part of the book describes a number of handlers and the dogs they were paired with. To me it seemed like it went into more detail about the backgrounds of the men in service than describing the work the dogs actually did. The brief stories describe some incidents with dogs and handlers in Iraq, Afghanistan and other locations in the Middle East. It's pretty amazing what these animals can do. Impressive enough that they can scent and locate hidden bombs or weapons, alerting very specifically so that soldiers can avoid or address the danger. But then I read about a dog which indicated he'd found the scent of explosives- the men uncovered nothing. Through other means they found out the dog was indicating the exact location where explosives had recently been made. Even though the items were no longer there, this information was invaluable to the team. I was also enlightened to learn that military (and police) dogs trained to apprehend people actually save their lives- whether criminals, the enemy or an innocent. In many situations a cop or soldier would shoot at a presumably dangerous person fleeing or hiding- but if there is a dog who can apprehend them instead- holding and disarming them, but not trained to kill- then using firearms can be avoided.

At first glance through the book I mistakenly assumed that the dogs in the pictures were German shepherds. In the past, labrador retrievers, dobermans, rottweilers and pit bulls have also been used by the miliatry. Turns out most of the dogs in this book are Belgian Malinois, and the author explains why this breed is the best for his purpose. At the end there is a brief chapter about his foundation that helps find appropriate homes for retired military dogs- and cares for them in his training kennels in the meantime.

I kind of wish I'd found the earlier version of this book first. I probably would have appreciated it a bit more- but reviews tell me it has nearly all the same material, so I don't know if I would get much out of reading it now.

Rating: 3/5       190 pages, 2013

Jun 18, 2016

Cracker!

the Best Dog in Vietnam
by Cynthia Kadohata

Last week I saw a book on display at the library about dogs used in combat, written by a man who trains them for the Navy Seals. It made me think of this book, which I've seen on a few blogs and had a mild interest in reading. I decided to read them together, for two perspectives on the same subject.

This one is a fictional account about a dog that goes to Vietnam. Cracker's family can't keep her after moving into a small apartment, and her boy Willie especially is in despair when he fails to find her a new home. He can't bear to take her to the animal shelter. Then he sees a notice that the US Army is looking for good dogs to use in Vietnam. Willie feels sure that Cracker will be the best dog in Vietnam. It's still very hard for him to give up his dog, and he continually writes letters to Cracker's new handler, Rick Hanski. Rick for his part, is out to prove himself but never owned or trained a dog before. Together he and Cracker learn new skills and before they know it, are shipped out. The story is told through both viewpoints, so you get an idea of the confusion the dog faces, as well as the turmoil Rick is going through. Their trials in the war zone bring them closer together. Cracker's job is a very serious one- she is to sniff out the enemy, booby traps and other dangers, to clear an area for the men following behind. She saves hundreds of lives, but this is a war story and yes there are casualties. While Cracker does suffer injuries and trauma, I'll let you know that in this book the dog doesn't die.

It was a good story, but I grudgingly gave it a 3. The writing style is simplistic and many times I found myself rather bored with it. Of course, I'm not really the target audience so this is not a flaw of the book itself. It got more interesting towards the end, when I started learning more about the Vietnam War, and in particular one section where Cracker gets separated from the Army and is on her own. (I was intrigued by the descriptions of an elaborate tunnel system the Vietcong used to hide from their enemies -us- it sounds like entire populations lived underground for many years. Does anyone know of any books written from the their perspective, describing this?) Earlier in the book I was a bit surprised at the casual manner in which the dogs seemed to be trained. The guy Rick didn't seem to know what he was doing, and considering how the Army insisted that the dogs were "specialized military equipment" I'd have thought they were trained with more precision. But I know that wasn't the focus here, so maybe the training aspect was just glossed over.

The ending made me feel sad. While Cracker herself met a good outcome, the Army at the time considered dogs "surplus equipment" at the end of the war. The vast majority of them were either euthanized or left behind with the South Vietnamese Army. It's not like that anymore, as the next book (which I've just started) makes plain- dogs are now brought home and given a chance of quality life, after having served their country.

Rating: 3/5      312 pages, 2007

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Jun 15, 2016

The Daughter of Time

by Josephine Tey

One of Scotland Yard's top detectives, Alan Grant, is recuperating in a hospital bed from an injury. He's known for his ability to "read faces" so a friend brings in a stack of portraits for him to look at. Grant is struck by the face of one particular man he assumes is a kindly judge. It's really Richard III, vilified in history books for the murder of his nephews the princes, in order to secure his own position. Grant becomes interested in digging into history to find out what really happened, because he can't imagine that a man with such a wise face would have murdered the Princes in the Tower (or ordered it done).

This book has been on my TBR list for ages- long before I started blogging. For some reason I always thought it was a sci-fi or speculative fiction novel, something to do with time-travel perhaps. Ha! was I ever wrong. I tried really hard to like it. I was particularly intrigued by Robert Barnard's introduction which told me a lot about the quality of this author's writing- she is not formulaic. It made me eager to read the book, and I did appreciate her skilled use of words. But the few main characters in the hospital room bored me, and unfortunately I don't know enough about British history to care about the mystery itself. The story itself introduces enough facts this shouldn't be a problem, but honestly it just did not hold my interest, thirty pages in my mind was seriously wandering. Too many names. I guess I just proved to myself that crime fiction is really not my thing. And this is supposed to be one of the best books of its genre!

Can anyone tell me the reason daughter is in the title? I'm curious because the man solving the mystery and the historical figure in question were both men...

Abandoned          206 pages, 1951

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Jun 14, 2016

TBR 61

Beautiful Minds by Maddalena Bearzi
Beyond Belief by Jenna Miscavige Hill- Bermudaonion
On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz
My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki - Shelf Love
Call of the Mild by Lily Raff McCaulou
Seeing Seeds by Teri Dunn Chace- Commonweeder
The Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks
Alex and Ada by Jonathan Luna- Work in Progress
The Call of the Farm by Rochelle Bilow- Shannon's Book Bag
The Goshawk by T.H. White
The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer- Reading the End
Auggie and Me by R.J. Palacio- Bermudaonion's Weblog
Greetings from Utopia Park by Claire Hoffman- Shelf Love
Gudgekin the Thistle Girl and Other Tales by John Gardner

Waterlog by Roger Deakin
Music at Long Verney by Sylvia Townsend Warner- Work in Progress
Feather Brained by Bob Tarte- Bookfoolery
Tales of the Metric System by Imran Coovadia- Reading the End
Magic Elizabeth by Norma Kassirer
Thursday 1:17 PM by Michael Landweber- Book Chase
Warchild by Karin Lowachee- Thistle-Chaser
The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina- Reading the End

I have just found a new resource- Internet Archive, thanks to this post on The Neglected Books Page. I've now acquired texts of the following books to add to my e-reader. Between this and the Gutenberg Library, I could easily spend hours browsing through titles and add tons more material to the kindle. Is this a good or a bad thing? Who knows when I'll ever find time to get to the e-books again. I've even forgotten what's on there at this point. They wait patiently for another travel day...

Stone Wall by Mary Cassals
Modeling My Life by Janet Scudder
Out on a Limb by Louise Baker

These titles were gleaned from my reading of Black Swan, White Raven:

Snow White by Donald Barthelme
Pinocchio in Venice by Robert Coover
The Nightingale by Kara Dalkey
Blue Bamboo by Osamu Dazia
The Seventh Swan by Nicholas Stuart Gray
The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy
Sleeping Beauties by Susanna Moore
Kindergarten by Peter Rushford
The Armless Maiden edited Terri Windling
Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia C. Wrede
Dark Hills, Hollow Clocks by Gary Kilworth
Five Men and a Swan by Naomi Mitchison
Hearts of Wood by William Kotzwinkle
The White Deer by James Thurber

Jun 13, 2016

Black Swan, White Raven

edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

Snow White's stepmother is a well-meaning woman trying to remove a child from harm's way- because the king is a pedophile focused on his own daughter. Hansel and Gretel are put on trial for murder of a seemingly innocent old woman, and stealing her money. Sleeping Beauty is found by a man digging a new foundation for his shed- once wakened she becomes a fashion model who dreads ageing. These re-tellings of old fairy tales are placed in modern settings, the characters wearing new faces, the stories taking new forms. There are twenty-one of them in this collection. I recognized a few of the authors- Jane Yolen, Gary Kilworth, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Bishop, Susanna Clarke. The others were new to me. The forward itself was of interest, and its explanation of the power of fairy tales reminiscent to me of that heavy tome, Women Who Run With the Wolves.

I found most of these re-tellings interesting, although there were a few I could not quite grasp or recognize any references to the original. Some were just very strange. These were my favorites:

"Rapunzel" by Anne Bishop- this story is told through several viewpoints, that of the mother who craves something from a neighbor's garden so much her husband feels compelled to steal it. That of the witch Gothel who keeps the young woman locked in a tower, and that of Rapunzel herself who in the end escapes and grows up good and strong, not at all marred by her strange upbringing.

"The Dog Rose" by Sten Westgard is a re-telling of Sleeping Beauty, but this story is about a peasant who lives in the nearby land, ravaged by drought. His grandfather's sweetheart was among the castle employees who also fell asleep with the curse, and when he hears the roses are blooming he goes to the castle to see if he can make a way open up through the thorns.

"The Reverend's Wife" by Midori Snyder is the most ribald of these stories- definitely an adult version (of a Sudanese tale). Two dissatisfied women trick each other's husbands into sleeping with them. Each man is unaware that his wife knows about the situation and moreover, they're made to think they are doing the women a favor! Well they were, but not the kind of favor they imagined. The men were pretty dumb in this story, but it was funny.

"True Thomas" by Bruce Glasco- Thomas the Rhymer visits the faerie world under the hill and stays many years. He learns to see and understand things far beyond human comprehension, and when he returns to the world (all his known family and friends long gone) uses his perception for "truth-telling" to those who ask- although they don't always hear what they want to. The depiction of faeries in this story is so very different from any I've come across before- very intriguing.

"On Lickerish Hill"- another story of fair folk living in a hill, but also with threads of the Rumplestiltskin story. This one is placed in seventeenth-century England, with magic and fact blending confusingly in the character's minds. The main figure in the tale -a young, rather ignorant woman newly married to an older respectable man- mistakenly called the fair folk 'Pharisees' throughout the story.

"In the Insomniac Night" by Joyce Carol Oates- this one I had trouble placing in context with any traditional stories I know. It's about a troubled single mother who worries that her ex-husband is trying to steal their children back from her. She sometimes goes running at night when the children are asleep, and starts to imagine that someone is stalking her on orders from her husband. I just kept thinking- is she crazy? who would go jogging at night leaving kids alone in the house sleeping, no matter how secure you think it's locked up.

A long time ago I read one or two books of re-told fairy tales edited by Terri Windling, and determined to someday to read them all. My library has a few, so I'm approaching them again. Also the recommended reading in the back of the book provides a lot more titles I'm adding to my list.

Rating: 3/5          366 pages, 1997

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Jun 3, 2016

The Time Machine

by H.G. Wells

This was a strange view of the far, distant future. It's projected from the Victorian era, where an eminent scientist announces to his friends and colleagues that he has built a machine which can travel through time. They are skeptical and the first chapter of the book is a detailed discussion between them about the nature of time and space, physical matter etc- a lot of it over my head, frankly. At the end of the discussion the Time Traveller (as he is identified throughout the novella) announces that he is going to experiment with his machine. When all the men arrive for a dinner party the following week, the Time Traveller arrives late for the meal, looking disheveled and shaken. He relates a detailed story about where he has been- to the year 800,701 and beyond.

It is a very strange report that he makes. The world he visited is practically unrecognizable. The people he encounters are small, mild-mannered and apparently unintelligent. They seem to live at ease in a world without disease, animals or any conflict. Of course he can't understand their language, and his first attempts at understanding the situation turn out to be greatly mistaken. He's only there for eight days but soon finds out that there is another population living underground- that, in effect, the human race evolved into two very distinct groups. Alarmingly, the Time Traveller discovers that his machine is missing- and he thinks that the underground people have stolen it...

I can't think of another story or premise that shows mankind becoming less advanced in the future. The idea that Wells posited of human abilities becoming atrophied and the entire population slowly falling into decline made sense when finally explained, but I also found it odd. And although the book is quite short, it feels very dense- full of ideas and theories and speculations.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5       122 pages, 1895

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