Dec 11, 2017

Word Freak

Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players
by Stefan Fatsis

My favorite game is Scrabble. But I play it casually compared to the people in this book. The author is a reporter who took an assignment to write about Scrabble tournaments. Enjoying the game himself as a "living room player," he quickly became an insider in the odd subculture of Scrabble fanatics. Hung out with the "parkies" in New York City, went to Scrabble clubs, learned from some of the best how to study word lists, and worked his way up to the level of the pros.

So the book is a mix of descriptive journalism and personal endeavor to master the game, character studies on some of the top players (fairly eccentric people), history of the game itself (invented during the Depression by a guy named Albert Butts- that chapter was really interesting), involvement of the two companies that own rights to the game, how Scrabble tournaments are conducted, difference between acceptable words in American and British English, arguments between players about acceptable words and best methods of study, and so on.

Early on I realized that making notations of all the curious words I don't know that cropped up in the book, was really bogging me down and squelching the enjoyment of reading it. All the words used in games described in the book (or in verbal word-games played by people as part of their study) are in all-caps, so it was easy to thumb back through afterwards and jot them down. I ended up with a sheet of notebook paper filled with four columns of words on each side. And that's just a drop in the bucket compared to the lists of words serious players work at learning (many of which are no longer included in any extant dictionary- having fallen out of use long ago). I'm just curious what they mean, I don't think I'll ever seriously study up on lists like the pros in this book do.

Reading about the tournaments and worldwide competitions was pretty intriguing. It's not the same now, with online versions of the game that let you immediately look things up. During the time period Fatsis describes, word lists were tediously worked out by hand, serious top-level players poring through the dictionaries to compile them. The kind of mental gymnastics people play with anagrams, finding letter combinations and learning strategies to make the best play based on probabilities are beyond me. I never write down my racks throughout a whole game to study missed possibilities later, or play games against myself for practice. But the book didn't spoil it for me either (I already knew I'm not that good): after finishing the read I invited my teen daughter to play a round of Scrabble, and it was just as fun as ever.

Rating: 3/5                372 pages, 2001

Dec 2, 2017

The Inner Lives of Animals

by Peter Wohlleben

This book explores the emotions of animals, and their thinking capacity. Its conclusion is that humans are nothing special when it comes to having feelings, so we should treat animals with consideration and kindness. It reminds me a lot of What A Fish Knows, but the main focus here is mammals and birds. Even ticks, house flies, tardigrades and very tiny beetles in the weevil family are mentioned.

Among the many examples Wohlleben gives are squirrels who adopt orphans (but only if they're related), wild boars who show evidence of fear (knowing where it is safe during hunting season), goats who teach their offspring good behavior, birds who cheat on each other (and a rooster who tricks his two harrassed hens into mating with him), rats who dream about their tasks in a research lab, corvids that play games and identify each other by name, deer who grieve their lost offspring, dogs and other animals who suffer dementia in their old age. There were some familiar anecdotes and research studies referenced in here, and many others I read about for the first time. Notable things I learned: why moths are so furry, the exact reason rabbits (also gerbils, hamsters, etc) eat their own droppings, that cities are becoming preferred habitats for many animals because the monoculture of cultivated land lacks diversity, and that deer will often starve if they are fed by well-meaning people in the winter (they will burn more energy than they gain, having to raise their body temperature for digestion. Better to live off their stored body fat). For some reason the description of a slime mold outlining the routes of a subway system in Tokyo made me think of the carnivorous lichen in William Sleator's Interstellar Pig.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5       277 pages, 2016

Nov 30, 2017

Dun Lady's Jess

by Doranna Durgin

This story features another world, parallel to ours, that has magic. Technology isn't developed because they use magic for everything- from keeping bugs out of the house and starting fires to sending messages and travelling far distances. But anything done with magic can be felt by other people with magical abilities- and intercepted by magic as well. To avoid that, important items are written down and carried by couriers on horses. When the book opens, a new and possibly dangerous spell is being taken on horseback from a magician's hold to his ruler- and the courier gets attacked by men who want the spell for someone else. In the confusion of a fight, the courier invokes a charm that should protect him- it does, by transporting him and his horse to our world.

His horse is somehow turned into a woman. Two people walking in the woods find her there alone and unconscious, naked except for the horse's tack, saddle and blanket. They take her home intending to call authorities in the morning. But after arguing about it, decide she has suffered some kind of trauma and they'd rather help her personally, than see her locked up by police or committed to an insane asylum. She still has the mind of a horse, so she acts very strangely for a person. She has a limited use of language, which gets better with some practice. Once over her shock, she is very anxious to find the man who was her courier- but it so happens that his attacker was also transported to our world. So the horse-woman gets her new friends involved in trying to find the courier and help him return to his own world, while evading "the bad guys" as I kept thinking of them...

I expected going into it (from some other reviews) that this book was a little weak in points, so I was able to overlook some of that. There were a few typos, occasionally a phrase that didn't quite make sense. The e-book edition I read has some odd formatting, worst of which was the title of contents included as the last pages of the book, instead of at the beginning where it would actually be useful.

Hardest to get around were the poorly-written characters- human characters, that is. The horse-turned-woman is very convincing. In fact, she's the best aspect of the entire book, and the main thing that kept me reading. The author obviously knows horses, and her idea of how an animal suddenly transformed into a person might think and behave was excellently done. But the other people in the story often had me baffled. They frequently jumped to conclusions in an unbelievable manner- convenient for advancing the story but frustrating the reader. Their arguments with each other felt flat and unconvincing, dialog was awkward. Sometimes I was completely confused by decisions they made and responses they had to situations. Personalities did not stand out well- in fact, I didn't even care when one of the group got killed. The two main villains were unbelievable as well- their statements and actions often didn't make sense. Parts of the storyline that had to do with conflict between the courier's side and "the bad guys" in the other world really started to bore me, so much that I almost quit halfway. However the description of this alternate, magical reality was interesting, and the details about horses so well done that I'm considering reading the sequel- although prepared to roll my eyes at what the people say and do, and just pay attention to the animals in it, haha.

It's overall kind of an odd mix. Parts of this book feel like an action/thriller, parts like urban fantasy, and then it starts to lean towards being a romance as well. Not strongly any one thing- except for the horses.

Rating: 3/5             295 pages, 1994

more opinions:
Thistle

Nov 26, 2017

A Wayside Tavern

by Norah Lofts

This is the story of a place. The home of a wine-seller at a crossroads. When a group of Roman soldiers moved through the area they left their wounded leader behind, and he found an ill slave girl locked in a room (for her safety). Together they struggled to survive in the lonely place- all other inhabitants in the nearby villages having fled. By the time the Roman soldier had healed enough to leave, he didn't want to- had found acceptance there- even when people antagonistic towards Rome moved in and he had to hide his identity. What began simply as someone's home became an important locale in the community; eventually it became a tavern and inn. Over the centuries the building with its specially tiled floor served many different functions, but always remained in the hands of the same family, originally formed by that Roman soldier and the slave he rescued from starvation, so long ago.

I liked a piece of historical fiction written by this same author which I read many years ago, so I'd always hoped to have more of her books. Unfortunately I didn't care for this one. The initial story of the slave suddenly finding her freedom and together with the Roman finding ways to stave off starvation until the settlement was populated again, when they became prosperous- was interesting. But then suddenly the woman was old, invoking vaguely understood rituals the Roman had mentioned to her, baffling her companions. And the storyline quickly moved on to other characters, all introduced very briefly as the book tells of how this place remained useful through the centuries. It just wasn't keeping my attention at all, by page 95 I simply lost interest.

Abandoned               376 pages, 1980

Nov 22, 2017

Caribou Island

by David Vann

I didn't like this book. Halfway through I started skimming so much I really ought to call it Abandoned. It's about a couple in Alaska trying to build a log cabin on a small island, while their marriage is falling apart. The husband, Gary, has always rushed headlong into projects without adequate planning and then gets frustrated at the inevitable failure: this cabin is no different. It was really ridiculous that the island already had a cabin- one that Gary admired and tried to copy, but couldn't. Why didn't they just live in that one, cut down some trees for the view? It made no sense. Through all their difficult work (in endlessly bad weather), the wife is suffering from debilitating headaches that doctors can't find a cause for. She's bitter at being dragged into the building project which she doesn't care about, and seems to harbor years of resentment against her husband. There's a lengthy side story about their grown children, one of whom is cheating on his girlfriend with a tourist. I don't know why that was such a large part of the plot, it felt pointless. I didn't care about any of these people. I did like the descriptions of the wide landscape. Nature was beautiful, but the weather terribly oppressive- the cold, wet and relentless wind are emphasized. It's full of miserable people wallowing around in their unhappiness and ineptitude with relationships, career choices, building projects and all. The ending is horrible. (Something awful happens right on the last page).

Oh, and I was once again thrown off by the sameness of conversation and thought. This book has no quotation marks whatsoever. I suppose it heightens the sense of unease, not being able to trust your own senses, not knowing for sure if something is spoken aloud- or maybe it's a style thing, to make it feel seamless. But on the heels of a different book which overused quotation marks to the same effect, it was just annoying.

I should have known better. I picked this up off a library shelf recognizing the author- I did like his book Aquarium not so long ago. But I had a sense from other reviews that most of his works are very dark, and they weren't kidding. I don't think I will pick up any more by this author.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 1/5                293 pages, 2011

more opinions:
Savidge Reads
The Asylum

Nov 21, 2017

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita

by Rumer Godden

Middle-aged Englishwoman Fanny has always done the right things. She cares for her home and children, socializes with her friends, she is kind and patient, never improper. Her husband often travels for work, so she is alone and rather bored when the children go off to boarding school. A film company comes to their village to make a movie, and Fanny catches the director's eye. Rob takes her out to the theater, for drinks, to dinner. She thinks she is just keeping company and having a bit of fun, but it turns into an affair. Fanny finds herself happier than ever with Rob- sees a new life opening up with delights that she'd never imagined- so she leaves with him for Italy, filing for divorce.

Her children are shocked. They have to leave their country home and live in a small London flat with their father. The youngest girl is forced to sell her beloved pony. The children are unhappy with all the changes- big and small- in their routine. Suddenly refusing to accept the situation, two of the kids run away to find their mother in Italy, intending to make her come back home. Things in Italy are not exactly what they expected, the situation is of course strained. Rob wants to send the children back to their father immediately but the boy falls ill and his mother won't allow him to travel. So Rob brings his own daughter (who has been raised by her grandmother) to stay with them as well. She is also opposed to the new relationship. Although not quite on friendly terms with each other, the children band together against their parents. Their presence makes Rob show another side of his personality, opinions about raising children quite different from Fanny's. They're all discontented in the end.

Sadly, this is not one of my favorite Rumer Goddens. I read through this book rather quickly, intrigued by the characters and their interactions, but in the end felt dissatisfied and don't think I will return to it. It is very slow going at first. Lots of description of time and place- which is enjoyable in its own way- but the details of Fanny's unfolding affair made me feel bored and impatient. I suppose it was to show how gradually it all happened- how she excused the little deviations of her behavior until they piled up into one big thing she couldn't extricate herself from, but I wasn't terribly sympathetic. The story got a lot more interesting once the children were in the picture. But the writing sometimes felt a bit awkward- it shifts back and forth between recollections and present events without clear indications. As the characters' spoken words and thoughts are both framed with quotation marks, sometimes I didn't know if someone had said a phrase aloud or not; I'd have to read a sentence over again to make sure. It's a shame, because I really do like this author and her depiction of how kids think -in this case especially, how acutely they are affected by divorce- is very astute. I was glad the children decided to stand up for themselves, but when all was done, I wouldn't call it a happy ending.

Side note: the prim young Italian girl would absentmindedly sing while reading crime novels. That small detail baffled me. I do have a habit of fiddling with the pages while reading (my hands can't keep still), but I can't imagine singing. I often hum, whistle or sing while painting or doing chores- but reading? How do you divide your brain like that.

Rating: 2/5            254 pages, 1963

more opinions:
Leaves & Pages
Desperate Reader

Nov 17, 2017

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

by John Boyne

Another story that depicts a horrible situation through the eyes of a child. Bruno is upset that his father's job makes them move from their nice home in Berlin to what he at first assumes is the desolate countryside. He mispronounces the name of this new place as 'Out-With' but the reader can soon guess the real location. Also the identity of his father's seldom-seen boss, of whom everyone is very much afraid- 'the Fury'- is very clear to the reader, but then we are seeing it all through hindsight. In the middle of the story, nine-year-old Bruno is just angry and bored, squabbling with his sister, questioning the maid and finally wandering outdoors. Where after a very long walk he finds another boy sitting on the opposite side of a tall, barbed-wire fence. He slowly makes friends with this boy, all the time innocent of what is really going on. Who his father really works for, why are those hundreds of people standing around on the other side of the fence, looking terribly thin and all wearing the same clothes. There's a very real sense in this book, of how people- especially a child- could have been blind to what was going on during the Holocaust, how they started to deliberately not see- for fear of their own lives- when it became apparent what was really happening. Brutality. And this kid just wants a friend.

I read it in just two sittings. The ending is chilling.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5            216 pages, 2006

more opinions:
Vulpes Libris
Booknotes by Lisa
the Literary Omnivore
Parchment Girl
the Wertzone
Musings of a Bookish Kitty

Nov 16, 2017

Room

by Emma Donoghue

This is another book that was all over the blogs some years ago. I think I avoided it back then because I assumed the subject matter would be too harrowing: it's about a college student who was kidnapped and locked up in a storage shed refurbished into a dismal prison cell. Her captor kept her there seven years. While held prisoner, she bore a child. Keeping her son as healthy and safe as she could in such oppressive circumstances gave her a reason to live. She taught and entertained him. The eleven-foot space and his mother, were all that he knew. They had a television, a few books, a glimpse of the sky and occasional 'treats' brought at their captor's whim- that was about it. The story works because it is told through the boy's perspective, at the time just five years old. He thinks everything inside the television is pretend, and personifies all the objects in the room- Table, Rug, etc. At night he hides in Wardrobe when his mother is visited by their captor, dubbed Old Nick. His energy and questions start to stretch the limits of their world, and his desperate mother finally tells him the truth of their confinement and makes a move to break out.

I was glad that the story moved quickly, that the filter of a child's mind kept the worst of horrors from being too stark, that a lot of the book is about how the boy and his mother struggled to adjust when they finally escaped to freedom. A huge shock to the child, a different kind of stress for his mother. He had never felt rain, never played with other children, never seen a real dog. He was smart in the things his mother could teach him- math, spelling, literature even- but completely baffled by so many ordinary things. His close relationship with his mother strained by their suddenly expanded environment, by so many other people crowding around. There are, of course, a lot of really disturbing aspects to this story- but it is also a tender one of hope and resilience, in spite of the dark premise.

There's a lot more depth to this story- and many other readers have detailed it better- see some of the links below. It was a good read, very compelling. Hard to put down and a lot to think about afterwards.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5           321  pages, 2010

more opinions:
Farm Lane Books Blog
You've GOTTA Read This!
Rhapsody in Books
Love, Laughter and a Touch of Insanity
Write Meg!
Reading Through Life

Nov 14, 2017

Our Native Fishes

the Aquarium Hobbyist's Guide to Observing, Collecting and Keeping Them: North American Freshwater and Marine Fishes 
by John R. Quinn

This book on fishkeeping addresses a very specific aspect of the hobby: catching and keeping wild fish in the aquarium. I suppose it all started once when an angler or fisherman caught a particularly pretty specimen and decided to take it home alive as a pet or for study. The book is focused solely on fish species that can be found in North American waters. It details the best methods used to catch native fish- varying according to the habitat and the behavior of the species- and where they can usually be found (without naming exact locations). Also information on how the fish should be handled to avoid damage and stress, what they will eat and their husbandry needs. Only those suitable to be kept in a home aquarium are discussed- fishes too large or otherwise unable to survive in healthy condition are omitted; a few endangered and protected species are identified so the collector will know to release them if caught. Explanations of the laws regarding collection are detailed, although the book is more than twenty years old by now, so regulations may have changed. I like the way this author writes, the book has an engagingly friendly, matter-of-fact manner. He was formerly an editor of Tropical Fish Hobbyist magazine, one I happen to subscribe to.

I had only one small disappointment with the book- the inked illustrations identifying the many fishes in the species profiles are nicely done- but it would be lovely to have color plates. This was one of those books I read with a computer close at hand, so I could look up fish species I wanted a better visual of. Also, the author frequently advocated keeping certain fishes for a short time and then releasing them again in the location where they had been caught. (Because some would outgrow a reasonable aquarium, thus only suitable to be kept as juveniles). However I thought this practice was generally frowned upon: a fish once kept in captivity should not be released again due to the risk of introducing pathogens into the wild population.

Aside from that, it's an excellent book regarding a very specific interest. I have never kept native fish and I don't know if I would ever collect my own, but I found it pretty interesting reading.

Rating: 4/5                  242 pages, 1990