Feb 3, 2016

Faith in a Seed

by Henry David Thoreau

This volume compiles some nature writings Thoreau did late in life, which were published after his death. The book contains "The Dispersion of Seeds" and parts of manuscripts titled "Wild Fruits", "Weeds and Grasses" and "Forest Trees." It's a lovely and tedious read at the same time. Thoreau was intensely interested in plant life around Concord and made meticulous observations about how plants were naturally distributed. Most of the book details how seeds are spread by the weather and/or wild animals, the resulting patterns of growth, what types of habitat different seeds find favorable, and most interestingly, the reasons why pine woods are succeeded by oaks and oaks again by pines, if all the trees are cut down. I was surprised to read about how many years seedlings would grow up again after being cut down- eaten by rabbits, mown over, etc- some young trees he dug up and measured were spindly little things above the surface, but underground the taproot often proved to be five, seven, ten-plus years old. Tenacious things, trees. They just keep sending up new life!

While I find the subject matter pretty interesting and Thoreau's writing more accessible than I had expected (I've struggled twice to get through 'Civil Disobedience' which is the opening chapter to my volume containing 'Walden', and failed) at the same time the lists of plants and brief descriptions of how this seed is shaped, how it falls, where it falls, what percentage of it comes up in what part of the woods etc etc can get to be really dry. It has been my go-to-sleep book for a week- a week that felt really long. I'm glad I read it, I admire the work that went into it, but I'm not sure if I will deliberately read it again.

I was also pleasantly surprised at how modern-sounding Thoreau's voice is. Yet certain details distinctly reminded me that I was reading the words of a man who lived in another era. He often proclaimed things from scientific circles that have long since been proven otherwise. Was very skeptical of accounts of seeds being recovered from old sites and successfully germinated after tens or hundreds of years- discredited them entirely. And every now and then casually mentioned the numerous pigeons that fed on certain seeds or fruits. I wondered at this for a bit, then a mention of them flying off elsewhere to be shot in great numbers made me realize: he was speaking of the passenger pigeon! Which is now extinct.

Note: the book was compiled and published in 1993, Thoreau actually wrote the studies between 1856 and 1861. There are extensive notes in the back of the book describing how the writings were compiled, identifying quotations, individuals or incidents Thoreau mentioned, and making note of where his self-editing was unclear (passages he might have meant to delete or insert in different places, etc.)

Rating: 3/5       283 pages, 1993

Feb 2, 2016

deer crossing

Yesterday my youngest pestered me to do a puzzle with her. She quit as soon as the border was assembled but I kept going. Even though this is another cheap papercity puzzle, I found I rather liked it. There's enough texture and color going on, and avoiding use of the box picture as a reference made it just challenging enough. 500 pieces.
I miss reading however. Too many other projects lately and my current book is one of those put-yourself-to-sleep kind of reads. I like it, but it's tedious. I hope to finish it soon and get to something a bit more enjoyable.

Jan 25, 2016

My Weeds

A Gardener's Botany
by Sara B. Stein

This wonderful book is a botanical exploration of the weeds one writer dealt with in her garden. It turned out (once again) to be much more than I expected, full of meticulous detail and scientific information on all aspects of understanding plants- weeds in particular, but many other species as well. Their relationship with insects, with soil organisms and fungi, the process of photosynthesis, their widely varying modes of reproduction, how they have managed to disperse so far and much, much more. Ordinary looking plants -dandelion, hedge rose, even pond scum (duckweed), have so much more going on than I had realized. And to make it all a great read, the author is an excellent writer as well. In one chapter she traces the geological history of her neighbor's pond back 450 million years. In another, she describes how the landscape of her town has change dramatically in just the past fifty years- reverting from cleared farmland back into wood lots. She discusses pesticide use and seed engineering, the strength and deadliness of many chemicals plants produce themselves (to use against their insect enemies). There's even some criticism of Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, which I was surprised to read at first but it made sense the further I went on. Stein brings the wonders of the plant world alive, all from the starting point of trying to identify the weeds in her yard, striving to understand their mechanisms in order to combat them more effectively. I particularly liked the final chapter, where the author explained her new goal to create a garden that would perpetuate itself after her, plants that would fill the landscape without much room for weeds at all, partnered in the right places to enable ready succession from neglected garden patch to wildflower-strewn meadow to brush and eventually, mature woodland once again.

Rating: 4/5      229 pages, 1988

Jan 10, 2016

Letters from Father Christmas

by J.R.R. Tolkien

Charming, amusing, and a bit sad if you read between the lines. Tolkien wrote some very creative letters from Father Christmas to his children, every year at christmastime, for twenty-three years. The letters are sometimes brief with just greetings and hopes the children will like their gifts, and sometimes much more elaborate, with stories about life at the North Pole and all the mishaps caused by a polar bear, who is very much a central character. Later other characters come in, too- including goblins that break into storage cellars and steal things, penguins that visit from the South Pole, snow-men and cave-bears, and secretary who takes over writing some letters. Tolkien varied the handwriting (including amusing inserts done by the polar bear, interjecting his own comments and little digs at the storyteller) according to which character wrote the letter, included a specific alphabet for polar bears and another for elves, and lots of lovely drawings.
The style of it all reminded me very much of Mr. Bliss (another children's tale Tolkien wrote) but there are also some more sombre undertones to this. Often the letters described some mishap that happened at the North Pole, which explained why the children would receive fewer presents, or not exactly what they had asked for. Statements bracketing the stories of a war between goblins and elves (foreshadowing some elements of Middle Earth definitely) remind one what the atmosphere was like in the thirties. It's a book Tolkien fans will probably find intriguing. I kept thinking as I read it how wonderful it must have been for his kids to receive these messages each year, so carefully crafted by their father.

Rating: 3/5      112 pages, 2004

more opinions:
Nose in a Book
All Booked Up
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Jan 5, 2016

The Bafut Beagles

by Gerald Durrell

In this delightful book Durrell describes a trip he made to the Cameroons -probably in the late forties- to collect wild animals to take back to England (for a zoo or his own collection I am not sure). He plunges straight into the story without much introduction or explanation, but happily I have read enough of his other books that I recognized the context immediately. Having gained the support of the local headsman, the Fon, via copious drinking bouts and gathered a group of eager hunters and mongrel dogs (the "beagles" of title) he avidly gathers up as many animal "specimens" as possible. This is done by paying nice sums to local people for what they bring him, as well as going out on his own hunting forays. Several times he ran into difficulties convincing the people that an animal he knew of actually existed, as they had never seen one, or that an animal could be safely approached and caught, as they thought some innocent creatures deadly. (Yet they often handled very poisonous snakes with a seemingly careless attitude!) I really enjoyed the story, the straightforward humor and the descriptions of the wildlife. Some species I had never heard of, or didn't recognize right away because the name Durrell used for them was unfamiliar. It took me a minute to realize that the galago is a bushbaby, and I think the colorful skink the natives feared so much must have been a fire skink (going on his description of its appearance alone). I find the agama lizard just as beautiful, although it didn't get much mention (too common) and definitely the most curious creature of all is the hairy frog (also known as the horror frog)! Also described are several kinds of monkeys, flying mice, bush pigs, the golden cat, rock hyrax, numerous excitable squirrels, cane rats, snakes and many others.

At first I found reading the book a bit awkward and uncomfortable, as he communicated with the natives in pidgin English and there are entire conversations written this way (reminiscent of certain parts of Peter Pan). It felt insulting, but there were a few times where moved by sudden excitement or indignation the author would burst out a sentence or two of grammatically correct English, which baffled his native hunting companions. So I guess the people actually spoke that way, and partly through the book I was able to accept this and just read it. The depictions of local customs and characters (especially the Fon himself) were really well-drawn and add a lot to the book. In one particularly funny incident Durrell witnessed a young man and a girl arguing hotly in the street, pursued by an old woman who was beating the man (while he completely ignored her and continued scolding the girl). Durrell watched the charade with interest and being unable to understand what they said, invented in his head a rather elaborate story involving infidelity and witchcraft. Then he asked a passerby what was going on and found out it was simply an irate husband who came home to find no dinner waiting for him, and his mother-in-law got into into the resulting fray! Durrell was disappointed to find out it was just a domestic quarrel, but laughed at himself for thinking otherwise.

Rating: 4/5     254 pages, 1954

more opinions:
Suz's Space
Everything Distills Into Reading

Jan 4, 2016

eight zebras

My four-year-old wanted to do "the big zebra puzzle" with me. It's 500-plus pieces, but we worked it all in one day. It wasn't all broken up properly last time- about half the pieces were stuck to a few others so it went quicker than I'd expect. I kind of feel like this is cheating but she thought it was a great bonus!
It's an older puzzle and I thought I'd find it boring because of the typical straight grid cut. But the pieces all have wavy edges on the vertical sides, and they varied enough to make it interesting.
This one's a keeper.

Jan 2, 2016

2015 book stats

Total books read- 98

Fiction- 41
YA- 2
Historical- 2
Fantasy- 5
J Fic- 15
Picture Books- 7
Animals- 12

Non-fiction- 57
Memoirs- 8
J Non-fic- 2
Nature- 2
Animals- 51

other formats-
ebooks- 0
Short Stories- 5
Graphic Novels- 4

Owned- 57
Library- 39
Review copies- 2

abandoned books- 8

No surprises here: I read more nonfiction and even more animal books, wrote about a few picture books that interested me. Somehow the count is off, but that's probably because I didn't keep a running tally this year and figuring out all the numbers by going through lists of posts is a bit confounding- but it doesn't matter too much. You get the general picture. I read more of my own books this year, and crossed a few off my TBR lists as well.

Favorite books of the year? I really must say it was H is for Hawk. Other books that really stand out in my memory were animal related as well: Fish Behavior was a perfect match for my growing interest in the home aquarium inhabitants. Wesley the Owl was amusing, intriguing and personal, on a bird I know so little about. A book that really wowed me with fascinating new information was The Soul of an Octopus. Paul Gallico's The Abandoned was just lovely, a story of friendship and what it must be like to really be a cat. On a completely different note, I must also mention Women Who Run with the Wolves. It's one I recommend highly. So dense with rich material on strength of self, all drawn from mythological figures and fables featuring women.

Dec 31, 2015

Chi's Sweet Home

vol 12
by Konami Kanata

We happily discovered a new volume of Chi's Sweet Home at the library last week, which prompted my older daughter to re-read the entire series. I glanced through the prior volume to remind myself of the storyline- Chi has finally met her mother, from whom she was separated as a young kitten. Her current family now realizes that her original owners are still looking for her. It seems like a perfect moment for her to be reunited with them, as her current family is imminently moving to France (job relocation). But they still waver over what to do, because Yohei is so dearly attached to Chi. Meanwhile the cats take matters into their own paws, as Chi's momma is actively seeking a reunion now, and Chi knows the other kittens are her cat-siblings. She is naturally drawn to them, but while spending more time with her kitty family, still remembers and misses Yohei and the others. Where will Chi finally belong?

It's darn cute like all the other Chi books, but the story here is a lot about moving preparations, family reunion and the internal conflict of finding out you might belong somewhere else. Not so much depiction of cat behavior and kitten antics, which I really enjoyed before. Still, a fun read and a nice ending to the series. i did like the "interview" at the back of the book between the author and one of the cat characters, Blackie. Sad there are no more Chi books, but my daughter and I do want to find and watch the animation of it all.

Rating: 2/5        176 pages, 2015

The Bonobo and the Atheist

by Frans de Waal

As you can tell from the title, this book is about religion, morality and humanism. Particularly, what we can learn or speculate about the evolution and nature of our own moral codes, from how our closest animal relatives behave. While I was expecting it to be mostly about bonobos, it uses a lot of examples from other animals- mostly chimpanzees, some old-world monkeys, elephants and dogs. Its author is a very well-known biologist specializing in the study of bonobos but now I wish I'd read one of his earlier books, as this one lost me. (I don't know if they would have been any better, but there are nine prior titles listed to his name, which seem to be about bonobos or chimpanzees. My guess is they might be more concrete and less meandering, being written earlier in his career?) This book quickly goes into philosophical and religious debates, straying frequently from what seemed to be the topic at hand. Maybe there was a relevant point tied up in it all, but I could not always follow it. I ended up skimming through the entire book, reading the passages that had examples of animals displaying a sense of fairness, ethics, compassion, guilt, etc including what those observations implied, but allowing my eyes to glaze over when it started diving into the tangle of arguments between religious thought and atheism. The book has a lot of acclaim in online reviews at the biggest seller's site, but I can't find it mentioned on any other book blogs.

Abandoned        289 pages, 2013

Dec 27, 2015

Bonobo Handshake

by Vanessa Woods

The bonobo is very similar to a chimpanzee, but with significant differences. They stand upright and have smaller heads, with more humanlike proportions. They live relatively peacefully, don't engage in warfare between groups or commit infanticide. The author's new husband was studying bonobos in the Congo (the only place in the world where they exist in the wild) and she went along to help with the research. The studies, which examined the extent of the bonobos' ability to cooperate, tolerance levels and their hormonal response to the presence of strangers, were conducted at a rescue center that took in young bonobos orphaned by the bushmeat trade and illegal wildlife trafficking. Though her story was just as much about a time and place (heavy on details of local politics and ugly warfare) as it was about the bonobos, I still learned quite a lot about the wild apes. Compared to them, chimpanzees appear brutal and outright vicious. I'm now curious to learn more about them, and have found a few more titles (there are not many published).

This book is definitely not for the squeamish: the author describes horrific atrocities that took place in the Congo, devastating things to live through for humans and bonobos alike. Yet she describes it all in a rather detached, casual manner (with a fair sprinkling of expletives) that sometimes almost made me loose interest in reading. The profanity obviously bothered a reader before me, who marked up the library copy I had with a ballpoint pen, crossing out phrases they apparently found objectionable, and writing in other words in their place. Oh, and there are a number of descriptions of the bonobos engaging in sexual activity. That's another significant characteristic they have- they use sex to diffuse tension. Frequently. Although after carefully observing when, why, and between whom these acts occurred, the author came up with her own ideas for why the bonobos are so free with sex compared to other apes (even youngsters who had never observed adult behavior- being orphaned very abruptly- engaged in what looked like sexual behavior). Surprisingly, my fellow reader with the blue pen didn't mark out or comment on these passages!

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5        278 pages, 2010

more opinions:
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