Mar 4, 2015

The Marvels of Animal Behavior

edited by Thomas B. Allen

This book is from the National Geographic Society, part of their natural science library series. The chapters are written by over 20 different authors and scientists on animal behavior. Most of them from work in the field. A few are broad discussion on things like migration, how animals learn and different social orders among the animal kingdom. The majority have a specific focus: the shift of territorial boundaries between hyena clans, social order of bee colonies, echolocation in bats, how bison bulls vie for dominance, whale songs, penguin colonies, the courtship behaviors of fish. Featured animals also include storks, african lions, mountain gorillas, elephants, ants and wildebeest. Although the book is really outdated (for example, at the time it was written bat sonar and whale songs were new discoveries, nobody knew about elephants' subsonic communication and how birds navigate was still largely a mystery) I still learned many things and enjoyed the reading overall. For the first time I read the words of George Schaller! Another chapter is written by Dian Fossey (the other authors were unknown to me).

I recognized a number of the photographs- especially the ones of an albino gorilla- from my parents' collection of old National Geographic magazines- I used to look through the pictures a lot. Back then I hardly ever read the articles, so I don't know if the chapters in this book are just reprints of selected articles, or were written specifically for this volume. The publication data and acknowledgements are unclear on that. I did notice, if they were originally magazine articles, how focused they are on the science and the animals. Whereas I often feel that current articles I read (because I'm interested to learn about the wildlife) are just as much a travelogue- you get more about the place, its politics and relevant difficulties as information about the science and animals themselves.

Rating: 4/5         422 pages, 1972

Mar 2, 2015

Animalscam

the Beastly Abuse of Human Rights
by Kathleen Marquardt

This book is an opposing voice to animal-rights extremists. Using public quotes from animal-rights activists themselves and revealing machinations behind nonprofit organizations that claim to help animals, the author points out how absurd and harmful to mankind some animal-rights agendas can be, plus how money raised by some big-name organizations doesn't actually do anything to help animals at all. Funds not ending up where you think they should. People purporting to defend animals who use violent methods like bombing buildings and shooting at hunters. How activists stall research efforts that are working to help mankind by advancing medical science (not all research labs are poorly run or treat animals badly). She makes the case that animal-rights people are so for animals that they deliberately do things harmful to people, and that they would ban pet ownership altogether. And so on. Some of the arguments seem poorly put together, I am not sure how much of the quotes to believe- I'm sure they could all be found in public record, but guess that probably a lot are taken out of context to make their viewpoints seem more extreme. It's one of those books you really have to read with a lot of skepticism. A different take on everything. The author's voice comes across as pretty angry and judgmental throughout. This book is out of print. I read it some years ago.

Rating: 3/5        221 pages, 1993

Feb 26, 2015

neverending TBR

Deep Down Dark by Hector Tobar- At Home with Books
Very LeFreak by Rachel Cohn- Caroline Bookbinder
Threatened by Eliot Schrefer- library catalog
Stitches by David Small- Caroline Bookbinder
Sculptor by Scott McCloud- Stuff as Dreams are Made On
The Room by Jonas Karlsson- Farm Lane Books Blog
The Brother Gardeners by Andrea Wulf- Puss Reboots
Indian Boyhood by Charles Eastman- Bookfoolery
The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure- Shelf Love
Some Luck by Jane Smiley- Caroline Bookbinder
Decoding Gardening Advice by Jeff Gillman and Meleah Maynard- Garden Rant

Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King- Shelf Love
Into the Forest by Louis Nowra- Farm Lane Books Blog
The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns- Shelf Love
Man v. Nature by Diane Cook- Shelf Love
The Brendan Voyage by Tim Severin- mentioned in Dance to a Dolphin's Song
Twenty Years A-Growing by Maurice O'Sullivan- ditto
The Virago Book of Women Travellers edited by Mary Morris and Larry O'Conner- Read Warbler

Feb 24, 2015

Dance to a Dolphin's Song

by Horace Dobbs

Dobbs was a scientist who studied dolphins. In the 1970's, several wild dolphins were observed off the coast of Wales and Ireland, which would curiously approach humans in small boats. Dobbs noticed the strong emotional impact that contact with a wild dolphin had upon people, and began to wonder if it could help individuals overcome depression. He invited "depressives" to come out and meet the wild dolphins, under his supervision and the eye of a film team. He wanted to find out as objectively as possible if contact with dolphins really helped people, so he filmed the encounters as a record (and made a documentary out of it all that appeared on british television). After two years of frequent interaction with one particular wild dolphin near a fishing village in Pembrokeshire, Wales the dolphin broke contact (which was always completely voluntary) and never reappeared. Dobbs and his team heard of another dolphin in Dingle Bay, Ireland that also approached boats, so they went there to continue the experiments. They not only tried different methods of attracting the dolphin's attention and enticing it to stay, but also approaches to filming underwater. The book is just as much about the filming effort as it is about the dolphin-human interaction, and the descriptions of underwater scenery and the ocean environment are riveting. It's amazing the trust and deep emotional pull people felt towards the dolphins- many of those who traveled from afar to have a dolphin encounter had never been in the sea before, some didn't even know how to swim. Others were so eager to jump in with the dolphins they didn't even wait to put everything on. Dobbs describes four individuals in particular who came several times to see the dolphins, and how they responded. One woman became part of his film project and the dolphin in Wales (called Simo) took a particular liking to her. He would tow her far out to sea, miles from the boat, to keep her attention to himself it seemed. I have to wonder at the animals' motives; reading between the line, the crew did not really seem to know much about dolphin behavior. It appears these were juvenile animals- were they out looking for adventure before settling down to adult life? ostracized from their pod? or just happened to be curious individuals, lacking normal fear of humans? Who knows.

What does seem certain is that close contact with the wild dolphins had a profound effect upon people (although there were a few individuals whom the dolphin ignored or spurned, and they felt the trip was a waste of time and money!) Many called it a life-changing event, most felt lifted out of their depression by it. Dobbs capitalized on this, founding an organization to bring people to the dolphins, producing various books and films about the encounters and creating recordings of dolphin sounds mixed with Australian aboriginal music. He asked people to listen to the tape and record their responses to see if that, too, could lift moods. The last few chapters of the book aren't about meeting the dolphins, but about the author's speculations on what contact with them can do for people. He briefly describes travelling to other locales around the world where close connections with wild dolphins were reported, and mentions other things like midwives who not only assisted women giving birth underwater, but in the sea with dolphins, and therapy groups that brought autistic children to meet dolphins as well. Pretty interesting stuff overall.

Note added 2/26/15 I forgot to mention this curious line on the publication page: Horace Dobbs has asserted his right to be identified as the author of this work What does that mean? was the authorship in dispute? I'm curious, but doubt I'll ever find out.

Rating: 3/5     192 pages, 1990

A Ring of Endless Light

by Madeleine L'Engle

Vicky and her family are spending the summer on an island with her grandfather, who is dying from leukemia. The story is about her search for a sense of identity and stability, while facing her grandfather's approaching end, and the unexpected deaths of several other people around her. At the same time she's juggling the attentions of three very different boys- a solid friend who wants to be more, a reckless spoiled rich guy who has obvious history with her family (they don't like him, and I don't blame them although I missed the backstory, not realizing at first this is the fourth book about the Austins) and a friend of her brother's who works in a marine biology lab. She gets involved in his dolphin study and through him meets some wild dolphins. Her natural ability to communicate with them grounds her through all sorts of difficulties. She's always got the wisdom of her grandfather to fall back on, her older brother and the shoulders of her friends, but she often feels alone and confused as well. The summer is full of new experiences for her. She's apparently used to being overshadowed by her pretty younger sister, but now is growing into her own.

I am pretty sure this book wound up on my shelf from a library sale or secondhand shop. I picked it up just because it was an unfamiliar L'Engle to me, with a girl riding a dolphin on the cover! It's the first beyond the Wrinkle in Time quartet that I've read. I think I would have loved this book as a teen, but unfortunately reading it first as an adult, I wasn't so impressed. And that saddens me, because so many other readers mention this is their favorite of the Austin family books. It's got a lot going for it- young teen longings, cute and mysterious boys, exciting moments with the dolphins, a very bookish and wise family. I think the main reason I couldn't really get into the story was, surprisingly, the amount of deep, serious conversations everyone had. About life, death, humans wrecking the environment, animal communication, cryonics, suicide, poetry, science, discoveries in outer space and so on. It was interesting reading and has some wonderfully quotable lines, but I don't know many people who actually talk like this to each other- always sounding so profound. It stretched my ability to believe in the characters. I really felt for Vicky though. There's so much death in this book, so much grief. They handle it very well. The part about the dolphins and their telepathic communication was almost too much. If the book had been more mystical maybe I would have gone along with it easier. It did make me curious to read An Arm of the Starfish, though.

I should hand this one to my ten-year-old and see what she makes of it!

Rating: 3/5       324 pages, 1980

more opinions:
The Librarian Next Door
who else?

Feb 23, 2015

Charlie's Raven

by Jean Craighhead George

Charlie is visiting his grandparents for the summer, who lives in a small cabin near Yellowstone National Park. Charlie's beloved grandfather is suffering from a long-term illness. His friend from the local Sioux tribe, Singing Bird, is studying to be a storyteller among her people. She tells him of a legend that the presence of ravens can heal people. So Charlie steals a baby raven from a nest, and brings it home. His grandparents chastise him, but Grandfather (a retired naturalist) lets him keep the bird if he will make it part of a scientific study. So Charlie begins keeping notes, caring for the bird and closely observing its behavior as it grows.

Charlie is confronted with opposing opinions about ravens by those around him. Singing Bird says they are good luck. His grandfather admires their intelligence. And a new neighbor claims they are omens of evil, wants to drive them off his land. Charlie determines to find out for himself if ravens are "good" or "bad" by tallying up incidents in his notebook. Along the way he learns a lot about raven behavior and communication. He ends up with a mystery to solve too, when the raven comes of age and nobody knows where it goes (this continues part of a study his grandfather had given up on years ago). There's also a puzzle of why his grandfather's health seems to improve only on days the raven visits him in the mornings, and a problem to resolve with their neighbor who wants to shoot the ravens. It's a decent story, and I learned some things about ravens myself (the book even gives nod to Bernd Heinrich!) Some of the resolutions a bit too convenient, but I liked it regardless. (It reminded me a lot of Coyote for Keeps, even though I haven't read that book in ages).

Rating: 3/5       190 pages, 2004

Feb 22, 2015

Marley

A Dog Like No Other
by John Grogan

I was right in my initial guess about this book. This is a middle-grade version of the book Marley and Me, simplified for younger readers. For what it is, it was pretty well done. Even though it doesn't really have any new material and all the main incidents and jokes were familiar to me.  I read it in one sitting, laughing all over again. It's been long enough since I read the first book that I had to stop and think to remember what portions had been left out. I still prefer the original, but this one is pretty good too. And has less of the serious moments, the adult issues and dealings with raising kids. It's mostly just about the family dog.

Rating: 3/5   196 pages, 2007

more opinions:
A Year of Reading

Feb 21, 2015

All Moms Go to Heaven

by Dean Hughes

I'm not sure where I picked up this book, I probably thought it looked cute. I didn't realize at first that it was written by a promient LDS member who has penned a lot of popular LDS historical fiction and children's books. Well. It started out pretty good, the author describing a summer he spent at home caring for his children while his wife worked on her degree. The chaos, funny moments and realizations about how difficult it can be spending all day with small children were familiar. He seemed to feel he'd earned his badge as stand-in "mom" and refreshingly, admitted to his own mistakes in parenting as well. But there's not much depth (even for a book that's so short) and the amusing conversations with his children are nothing compared to a favorite of mine, Conversations with Adam and Natasha. And before you get halfway through, the book starts to go downhill. It's still nice enough. Full of stories about mothering skills and incidents surrounding the children and women in his extended family- his grandchildren, his own wife as a mother and grandmother. There was too much of him being careful to name every person mentioned, give them credit, and excuse where he might sound critical, than actual storytelling. In the end, it reads more like an essay or a written "talk" than a proper book.

Rating: 2/5        95 pages, 2005

Feb 19, 2015

How to Speak Dog

by Stanley Coren

I've read many books before that describe the communication methods used by dogs, and how people can successfully interact with them. But none with this level of depth, detail and comprehension. Coren very systematically looks at the "language" of dogs- how well they understand spoken human words and human gestures, or can be trained to do so. What the wide variety of sounds they make specifically mean, plus all the different uses of body language, and the combinations thereof- which can vary meaning and nuance more than I had realized. How cross-communication works, why cats and dogs are classic enemies (many of their basic body signals mean opposite things). How dogs communicate with scent (hilarious story in here about a man who tried urinating around his wife's flower bed to deter neighborhood dogs from digging in it). He uses scientific studies, personal observations and carefully examined anecdotes to demonstrate the discussed communications (or miscommunications, as it were). Even points out why some methods used by humans to dominate their dogs, or teach them who's "leader of the pack" such as flipping a dog forcefully on its back or biting it on the nose (!) are misguided and won't get the result you want. Through it all there are interesting passages on the evolution of dogs, comparison of dogs to wolves, comparison of dog intelligence to that of children (about equal to a two-year-old's, although their concerns with social status and the doings of other dogs are more adult in nature), descriptions of studies on animal intelligence and communication with other species (many familiar names here- Clever Hans, Washoe and Koko, but also new insights and other individuals I had never heard of before).

To sum it all up- yes, dogs have their own form of language. They understand a lot, and can read incredibly subtle body language. When confronted with a fearful or aggressive dog, you can mimic canine gestures to give a dog confidence, or appease a possible attacker. You can use dog langauge to let your dog know you're definitely the boss in the house, but that he's accepted and loved. I was surprised at how many kinds of dog expression are often misunderstood by humans (for example, a dog who leans his body against you is trying to assert dominance- if you move aside, giving way, you've confirmed his higher status. Same with a dog who sleeps on your bed, or demands food from the table, etc). Fascinating stuff. A book I think every dog owner should read.

Rating: 5/5        274 pages, 2000

Feb 15, 2015

Woman's Best Friend

edited by Megan McMorris

From a collection of women writers, short stories and reflections about their dogs. The search for the right dog, the connection and depth of bond with an animal- whether it comes quick and easily, or slow and unexpected, sometimes reluctantly. A few amusing moments, but more of them are thoughtful, perceptive, precise in detail and pinpointing emotion and meaning. There are first dogs, training efforts, animals whose companionship helps women through tough times (more than one story about loss, divorce and the search for new connections). There are stories about finding an animal, and stories about loosing one. Nearly all of them resonated with me in one way or another. Very good reading.

I was at first dismayed that I only recognized two of the authors' names, until I read the short bios in the back and learned that most of them usually write for periodicals- thus I am unfamiliar with their names. I liked their words here.

Rating: 4/5       305 pages, 2006