Feb 18, 2020

Saving Jemimah

Life and Love with a Hard-Luck Jay
by Julie Zickefoose

A beautiful, tender and eye-opening book. Author and bird rehabilitator Julie Zickefoose tells how she raised a wild blue jay, named Jemimah. It was found as a young chick on the ground under a despoiled nest. Zickefoose had a lot of experience raising other young birds, but not any corvids before this. Lively, intelligent and very social, the jay demanded a lot from her and her family. The bird's care, feeding, habits, learning, socialization and eventual release are all detailed. Not without some difficulties- at one point the jay is ill and needs quick treatment (hard to manage as Jemimah was already flying free outdoors at that point, although still visiting the house regularly). Later on Jemimah breaks some feathers, seriously hindering her flying ability and Zickefoose wonders if she'll ever survive to her second year, so handicapped. Some investigation reveals that the feathers were probably weakened by an illness the jay had as a chick, and might even be the reason it was originally ousted from its nest. Against the odds Jemimah survives with a wild flock she's taken up with, and the author is overjoyed to see her again over a year later. In the time between, she tells of a few other jays that were rescued and rehabilitated (some successfully, some not), her methods for photographing birds that visit her yard, identifying markers she uses to tell jays apart, and what she learns by meticulously going back through hundreds of photographs- sometimes able to recognize a certain bird again, and piece together some data about its circumstances. During the time she raised Jemimah, the author also debunked some commonly held practices in caring for young blue jays. It's all fascinating, very heartwarming and makes me very keen to see a flash of blue among the trees again (jays visit my yard sometimes, but never stay long).

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5               254 pages, 2019

Feb 15, 2020

A Thousand Miles of Mustangin'

by Ben K. Green

This is one of the books I got at Powell's. It's not quite as lively and funny as Horse Tradin', but I still found it plenty interesting. The author needed work during the winter so he travelled south -horseback of course- to Big Bend country in Texas, across the border into Mexico, and later on to Arizona. All to try and catch wild horses he'd heard of but nobody seemed sure they were even in the area. Used his smarts to find the mustangs, several different methods to catch them, with the help of some Mexicans in one area, and members of the Yaqui tribe in another, usually individuals who just wandered into his camp and offered to help (for a bit of pay, of course). In some cases he chased down and roped the wild horses, in another instance a local set snares for them, and in a third place Yaqui runners (mostly young girls on foot it turns out) would follow the horses for days until the worn-out animals gladly integrated themselves into Green's herd when gently driven towards them. The story rounds out by telling how he moved his growing herd of horses back towards home, dealt with Mexican bandits along the way who tried to extort money out of him, and then ranchers who didn't necessarily like him crossing their land. Gradually taming and breaking to ride some of the wild horses as they travelled, traded off a few along the way, and sold the main bunch to a man he knew who supplied them to the government. All through the story, the dependability and skill of his main horse Beauty really stands out. And more than anything, I was intrigued to read of some cures that he came across when in remote areas of the desert- in one case a Mexican treated a horse of snakebite using yucca (called dagger plant in the story), and in another instance an old woman used flour and yeast to grow mold- penicillin!- to treat an infected wound in Green's hand (where a mare had bit him). (Interestingly, there's another account of someone using yucca to cure a dog of snakebite on this page of a 1920's Dog Fancier publication). Oh, there's also a few encounters with cougars- he called them 'panther cats'. Green would kill a young burro to distract the cougars from his horses, which incensed some of the Mexicans with him, who valued the burros just as much as horses, if not more. He actually lost a few helpers over their disagreement on this point.

Rating: 3/5                   145 pages, 1972

Feb 13, 2020

Last Chance Mustang

by Mitchell Bornstein

Subtitled The Story of One Horse, One Horseman, and One Final Shot at Redemption. This guy is a lawyer, but his passion on the side is working with problem horses. He takes on a project to train an adopted mustang that seemed impossibly violent and unpredictable- the horse attacked other animals and people, destroyed property, fought viciously any attempts at being handled, and constantly injured himself on fences trying to escape. He'd been caught off the range after living years of his life a free wild stallion, and was gelded at the age of twelve- which did very little to change his behavior by the way. The owner asked Bornstein to work with him as a last resort. So this book is about how the author worked through issues with the intractable horse, step by step teaching him that this one person, at least, did not mean him harm, and working to get him to accept halter and lead, bridle and eventually even a saddle. The details about methods used to approach and train the horse- readjusting its thinking from flight-or-fight to understanding and then acceptance- was fascinating and the reason I kept reading. The rest of the book- not so much. I got tired of the repetitive, flowery clichés and how the author explained himself over and over again. While the atrocities of how wild mustangs were treated by government management programs is useful and interesting information, I felt there was too much of it in this book. It did give me more detail than what I've gleaned from books like The Horse Lover or Nobody's Horses, but to the point that I started skimming a lot- rather felt those sections interrupted the story instead of enhancing it. And while I don't mind a bit of anthropomorphism- I do believe that animals have emotions- I felt this author took it too far, and I often questioned what he imagined the animals were thinking. (He also made a lot of assumptions about abuse the horse must have suffered in its past). While I enjoyed the main story, and admire the patience and perseverance this man had to work with a horse nobody else could handle, overall I was left with a feeling of unease akin to the end of reading A Dog Called Perth (but not for the same reasons).

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5            300 pages, 2015

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Feb 12, 2020

The Snow Child

by Eowyn Ivey

Suprised at how much I liked this novel, which is kind of like a modern fairy tale, haunting and grittily real at the same time. Tender and harsh, it is the story of an older couple who make a new start homesteading in Alaska. They have long been childless, and one day playfully make a small figure out of snow. The next morning the snow has been scattered, the scarf and mitten they'd placed on it missing, and a single set of footsteps leading away. Then a thin, strange girl starts to show up near their cabin- flighty and shy yet fierce and wild. She apparently lives alone in the woods. Concerned for her well-being, the couple tries to draw her into their lives, while their friendly neighbors are frankly skeptical of her existence, wondering if the middle-aged wife has symptoms of cabin fever. Years pass with the girl coming and going when the first snow falls, disappearing all summer. Until finally one day the neighbors' son, a young man who's been helping out at the homestead, spies her in the forest and realizes there is some truth to the crazy tales. The story isn't just about this wild mystery child, it's also about their struggle to live in the remote wilderness, the toll it takes on the couple's relationship, and what turns to bring them together again. How they come to depend on the neighbors, and help each other out when times are hard. How the wild animals circle in the dark trees, admired for their beauty or hunted for their pelts and meat, but always with their own secret lives just offstage. It's an intriguing story that I enjoyed very much, in spite of some frustration that there's no clear answer at the end, with a broad streak of sadness through it all.

Rating: 4/5         391 pages, 2012

more opinions:
Page 247
Savidge Reads
You've GOTTA Read This!
Things Mean a Lot
Don't Be Afraid of the Dork

Feb 9, 2020

Spineless

the Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone
by Juli Berwald

I finished this one several days ago, but didn't have time to sit and write. It's one of those amazing books that I read slowly on purpose, in order to drag it out longer. Every chapter it seemed, was filled with stuff that astonished me. I didn't realize how little I knew about jellyfish before! The author is, quite simply, a woman who became enthralled with jellyfish. She read about them, watched documentaries, traveled to visit scientists who studied them and fishermen who caught them. She kept some in a special tank in her living room, and several times ate jellyfish- once cooking it herself. She took her family on detours during vacations to visit beaches where jellyfish had been sighted. And more. The details are mind-boggling. Jellyfish have a very complex and curious life cycle- and one species at least, is known to reverse the process. The way they physically move through the water is intriguing- so different from how we do that it's hard to understand. They can be incredibly fragile- literally dissolving away once in open air- and yet jellyfish blooms- when certain populations suddenly reach staggering numbers- can dramatically change local oceanic ecosystems, causing fish numbers to crash. Then there's the jellyfish toxins- their sting can be mildly irritating, or deadly. Jellyfish stinging cells move faster than anything- even the mantis shrimp, whose strike is so fast it literally makes the water boil. I'm boggled. I was also blown away by the verve the author had to follow her growing passion- she had a job in a different field, an everyday family life with kids- yet sought out people and events revolving around jellyfish, even sitting down at conferences about them. There's a lot in here not only about the physiology and mystery of jellyfish (so much we still don't know), but also what jellyfish indicate about ocean conditions, which throws light on what we are doing to the ecosystem. It's a book I'm very glad to have read, which has fired my mind with so many questions and curiosity for more.

My father gave this book to me.

Rating: 4/5               336 pages, 2017

Jan 28, 2020

Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms

the Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind
by Richard Fortey

This book by a paleontologist (who also wrote Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution- a book my husband happens to love) is all about various living things- animals, plants, bacteria, etc- that still exist on earth today since prehistoric times, the "living fossils" so to speak. In most examples, the author travelled to view each creature in person, and described the experience (including a lot of details on locations). A few he was unable to access, and had to describe others' observations of them. Included are the titular horseshoe crabs and velvet worms (which I knew very little of before), the coelacanth, lampreys, Lingula brachiopods, nautilus, ginkgo trees, horsetails and liverworts, the lungfish, cycads, monkey puzzle trees and crazy welwitschia. There's echidnas and platypus, sea sponges and jellyfishes, crocodilians and the tuatara. Many other creatures deemed primitive or very very long-lasting, and mindboggling hosts of tiny things like bacteria that can live in extreme conditions. Oh, and stromatolites, which I never heard of before. A lot of the book is about the tiny things, as they comprise the largest mass in terms of numbers, and have lasted the longest. So sometimes I got bored, or it made my head hurt, to read what felt rather like a biology textbook. It wanders a bit but always comes back to the point. I certainly learned a lot, and much was put in perspective for me. Certainly a hefty respect for those living things that have been here doing their thing for countless centuries. Like magnolia trees. Did you know magnolia trees have been around since the Cretaceous? Wow.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/4                     332 pages, 2011

Jan 24, 2020

Dragon Outcast

Age of Fire Book Three
by E.E. Knight

Eh again. I thought I'd give this a try because it was the one that initially caught my interest in the series. It's about the third dragon, maimed by his siblings at birth and shoved out of the nest. In the first two books he's portrayed as a traitor, but this one shows from his perspective, how the dwarves tricked him and he crawled away in bitterness at what he'd done. Travelled for ages underground and fell in with a lot of bats that wheedled him into letting them suck his blood, in return for which they guided him to a hidden stronghold of dragons. So the part with the bats was engaging. The mishaps and scrapes along the way, dismissive. The encounter with dragon society, so dull. I just did not want to read a lot of what came across as court intrigue and power struggles- at some point, in spite of the constant fighting and mention of draconic characteristics- greedily snarfing down meat, snapping their tails around, caring for the health of their scales- it felt like I was reading about people, not dragons. As before, I liked well enough the first part, when the dragon was travelling companion with another animal species. Almost halfway through the book, when he joined the other dragons, I lost interest. I did skim enough to see where this was going- in spite of his outcast status and multiple physical shortcomings, the copper dragon overcomes the judgement of the other dragons to obtain a position of power among them and- presumably- lead them against their enemy mankind. But the execution was just so poor I never got there. Bummer.

Abandoned                  379 pages, 2007

Jan 20, 2020

Dragon Avenger

Age of Fire Book Two
by E.E. Knight

Eh. I thought at first this one was going to be better, even though the pace at the beginning when the dragons are hatchlings moves too quick. If I hadn't read the first book, I might not have picked up on everything going on. I kind of like how each book in the series (so far) tells the story from the viewpoint of a different dragon, all siblings from the same clutch. When their cave is attacked by dwarves, this green female dragon Wistala flees with her brother Auron and they part ways soon after. She makes her way back to the home cave and finds some of her family's bodies skinned and mutilated. The rest of the story is how Wistala seeks revenge for the dragons. At first, still being small and vulnerable, she travels the wilderness alone, pitting her wits against other animals and creatures.  Tries to fight dwarves and barely survives. Kind of accidentally falls in with an elf and lives on his estate, cannily learning more about hominids so she can fight them later. That part- well, it just got to be very boring. I liked the part when the dragon was hanging out with a vulture- amusing how the carrion birds considered themselves to be more refined than any predator- because they politely wait for prey to die on it's own! I also liked the part where the dragon befriends a cat- each finds the other has some very familiar and similar traits- although their trip underground to find treasure in rat tunnels was confusing. Once again, I'm intrigued by this author's portrayal of dragons, their reasons for hoarding precious metals, their mannerisms and all. Wistala encounters her father again- I won't say more about that, it's a pivotal moment in the story- and talks hotly of fighting the hominids, but her father advises her to help the dragon race by repopulating with "lots and lots of hatchlings" because he of course thinks fighting should be done by male dragons. So she's asserting herself outside the usual female dragon role- going off on her own to battle trolls that are troubling the realm, for example. (This book has the weirdest depiction of trolls ever. I could not get my head around what it was supposed to actually look like. I feel like it should have had a made-up name like the blighters, because it wasn't anything like your typical fantasy idea of a troll). But oh, it got tedious when the dragon was living with the elf. That part of the story dragged on and on- I skipped ahead and read a later portion where Wistala left to try and find more dragons- that section held my interest until, disillusioned by the reclusive dragons' attitudes, Wistala returns to the elf's home again- and once more I just didn't care. Skipped and skimmed so much I really ought to called this one Abandoned.

Rating: 1/5                        390 pages, 2006

Jan 15, 2020

Dragon Champion

Age of Fire Book One
by E.E. Knight

It's a story from a dragon's perspective, and that's the main enjoyment I got out of it. The young dragon hatches in a secluded cave guarded by his parents and immediately pitches into a battle for survival- the male hatchlings fight for dominance and one ousts all others from the nest. The young dragon then grows with its sisters under the watchful eye of parents, learning dragon lore and practicing hunting skills on slugs and bats. Before he is old enough to venture into the outside world, their cave is attacked by a band of dwarves, and the dragon barely escapes with one of his siblings. He embarks on a long trek- at first attempting to return to the cave and discover what happened to his family, but then gets separated from his sibling and is just scrambling to survive. He falls in with some wolves, then gets caught by elves and escapes, then makes a deal to guard a caravan of traders, then goes on a search to find an ancient dragon who might tell him why their race is dying out. Eventually ends up in the company of humans- and part of a tangled confusing war- all the different hominids in this world (elves, dwarves, humans and creatures called blighters) are fighting each other, but one group seems to be overpowering the rest because it controls dragons to battle for them. Our dragon seeks them out, hoping to discover what enabled one man to command the dragons, but he finds much more than he'd bargained for.

Well- there's a lot I liked about this book, and a lot I didn't. I found this author's idea of dragon physiology really intriguing- especially the main character who was different from the other dragons, being born without protective scales. While others immediately saw him as a weakling or a freak, he found his own strength and was often quite clever and bold. I was just as curious as the protagonist to find out how the other dragons were being held in thrall, and the part where he infiltrates the enemy island was pretty interesting. But all the middle of the book- what a slog. It seemed that any part where the dragon was accompanying hominids got to be very dull and boring. I just did not care about their factions and battles and different cultures. The conversations are often awkward, the characters' reactions to things feel flat, and the pacing is sometimes odd. I like these dragons, but the execution felt a bit poor. In spite of that, I'm moving on to the second book in the series, there is something about the story that makes me want to find out what happens.

Oh, and if this might bother some readers- there's a lot of death. The dragon eats children, bites the head off foes, tears apart animal prey and so on. It's really quite brutal and bloody- which you'd expect from a story about the dragon's viewpoint- but also very tame for all that- the descriptions never really made me feel squeamish or horrified- just oh, so that guy lost his head too? Moving on! which was part of the disconnect I felt through the whole thing . . .

Rating: 2/5                            371 pages, 2005