Nov 29, 2016

How Green Was My Valley

by Richard Llewellyn

I can't remember the last time it took me a month to read one book. I have simply been busy- all the regular stuff plus a basement remodel, guests for the holidays and a very large project at work that has gone way past the deadline, have eaten up all my free hours. I'm still trying to wrap up stuff at work, often too tired at the end of the day to focus on more than a magazine article before sleep...

Well, this is a book that sat a very long time on my shelf- for over eight years. I can't recall what prompted me to first pick it up at the Book Thing, except perhaps the title caught my eye. Reading it at once I was reminded of Germinal, because of the similar theme. How Green Was My Valley is set in a coal-mining village on a mountaintop in Wales. It is told from the viewpoint of a younger son in a large family, Huw Morgan. Most of this bildungsroman is about family centeredness- the strong moral code, the younger son learning skills from his father and older brother. There is an incident in his childhood which leaves him weakened and bedridden for several years, so he studies a lot and becomes well-versed in classical literature. It is baffling later on when he is sent to receive formal schooling, but the school is run by the English and they look down on him and think he is ignorant, just because he is Welsh. Huw learns carpentry from the local preacher and boxing from a group of prizefighters- and there are lots of ins and outs in the story about love- his brothers wooing different women and getting married, the unrest some of these pairings cause in the family, his long infatuation with his brother's wife, his curiosity about 'the facts of life' and final realization with a girl from the next valley over- this part of the story was actually quite funny, as he didn't like the girl at first but she weaseled her way into his company. For some reason I never really connected with the main character- nothing about him really stood out to me, except that he had a strong sense of right and wrong, curiosity about how the world works, and didn't hesitate to question the actions of those around him when they seemed senseless.

The parts about mining and its effect on the valley loom in the background- slag heaps piling up to nearly topple over the houses, grime slowly covering everything, the meadows of flowers suffocating, the streams devoid of fish- but it all occurs so gradually people don't notice until it seems too late. Most of their concern was keeping their livelihood- Huw's brothers are involved in creating a union and there is a lot of unrest, times of suffering and famine. The ending, when Huw's father goes down into the mine to find one of their men who didn't come back after going down to see why the tunnels are flooding- well, it ends in tragedy as you might expect. All the fighting and suffering and despoiling of the mountain, to end in loss and sorrow.

The language is beautiful. Throughout the entire book there is a unique pattern of phrasing that comes from the Welsh language- it took me a while to get used to it, and then I loved the way the descriptions would put images in my mind. Huw's thoughts on the nature of the land and the depth of relationships in people around him are quite eloquent. It is for this I might keep the book on hand to read again, or look for others by this author- although from reviews I glanced at, the sequels to How Green Was My Valley aren't as good.

Rating: 4/5         497 pages, 1940

Oct 30, 2016

Educating Esmé

Diary of a Teacher's First Year
by Esmé Raji Codell

I found this book at a secondhand shop, and was interested because I have a friend who is in her first year as a teacher. It's the author's diary about her fifth-grade classroom in a Chicago school- one that had just been built. She tells how she earns the students' respect, helps them deal with problems (or leave them at the door) and how she galvanizes learning- especially when it comes to literature. About her plans and projects, how they work out or don't. She's full of creativity and energy, but comes up against reluctant volunteers, unenthusiastic co-workers, and a serious clash with her principal who mostly picks a fight because she wants her students to call her "Madame Esmé" which he insists isn't proper. The kids often give her a hard time. Some of them are dealing with abuse (it happens right in front of her a few times), homelessness, recent immigration... She isn't afraid to speak up to other adults or even the children- this could come across as rude but I admired her for speaking her mind. It's a funny, heartwarming, sometimes surprising account. But it was a really quick read. Half the book is made up of the foreward, an afterward, an epilogue, and Esmé's own tips for new teachers- which is certainly thorough and looks very informative. She taught two years at the Chicago school and then went to a different school where she became a librarian (and loves it). Her current space: The Planet Esmé Plan, where I might just get some recommendations myself.

Rating: 3/5       262 pages, 2009

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A Worn Path

Oct 29, 2016

the Dragon of Og

by Rumer Godden
illustrated by Pauline Baynes

This charming little story is set in Scotland, medieval times. A young dragon lives in a pool near a Lord's manor. Every so often the dragon eats one of the Lord's cattle, otherwise he leaves the people in peace. The people see him as a symbol of luck and protection, so they don't bother the dragon. Then power changes hands. The new Lady of the manor brings newfangled ways that upset a lot of folk- she wants to have basic cleanliness and order. The new Lord is upset when he finds out the dragon eats his cattle. He demands that the practice be stopped, and when they can't find a way to prevent the dragon from taking what he sees as his due, the Lord demands that a knight be found to kill the dragon. Meanwhile, the Lady herself has met the dragon on its own terms, and she has befriended the beast. So she is out to thwart her husband's plans.

Quite cleverly, I thought. There's a point in the story when it looks like this will be a tragedy, but it all turns out well in the end. A bit reminiscent of The Reluctant Dragon. And I have to say, the illustrations by Pauline Baynes are a perfect match with Rumer Godden.

Rating: 4/5      60 pages, 1981

Oct 25, 2016

Whatever You Do, Don't Run

True Tales of a Botswana Safari Guide
by Peter Allison

Peter Allison always loved wildlife. He waffled around trying to figure out what to do for a living in his early twenties, went on a vacation backpacking in Africa, and never wanted to leave again. When he found out he could make a living as a safari guide he was ecstatic. It was a dream job he'd never imagined existed- spending his time driving around looking for animals and showing them off to tourists. Apparently he worked in various locations for several different safari outfits, even was a camp manager once (but didn't like it, as he wasn't out in the bush observing wildlife) but this book describes his time in Botswana. When I looked for more titles I found he's written quite a few books about his safari experiences, and now I want to read them all. The way the book covers are designed and his goofy shocked expressions give the impression the books are all humor- but that's not true with this one, at least.

While there are plenty of self-deprecating jokes and Allison has no qualms about describing his clumsiness and mistakes that often get him into troublesome situations (drowning several vehicles when he tries to cross rivers, or finding himself too close -on foot- to an upset mother lion or elephant for example) you can tell he really loves the wildlife, and the book is just as much about appreciating the animals. There's also a lot about what goes on behind the scenes in running a safari camp, the ups and downs of the daily grind it becomes, the relationships with his co-workers, the visiting tourists who are often difficult or demanding. And there are some quite serious moments when people fall ill, have accidents, run into dangerous snakes. Or when a kill they are excitedly homing in on to show the tourists some action- lions and hyenas fighting over something- turns out to be the death of an animal they had come to know from long association- so instead it is something quite sad.

I liked this book. It was engaging, funny, heartwarming, interesting by turns and made me want to go look up more by this author. Still a 3- which is a good read in my little system, but this is a 3 that I will keep, whereas the previous book was a 3 I don't mind letting go (it's already swapped in the mail).

Rating: 3/5        246 pages, 2008

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At Home with Books

Oct 21, 2016

Monkeys on the Interstate

by Jack Hanna
with John Sravinsky

This book is by the zoo director of the Columbus Zoo. He tells about his childhood interest in animals, his early attempt to run a pet shop, first few jobs working for a veterinarian and in some older zoos, and then how he got the position of director at Columbus. The book goes up to the time he started appearing on the Letterman Show in the late 80's, but I think there is a sequel or two, I saw another title online where he looks older on the dust jacket, called Jungle Jack (also posed holding animals, of course).

There are a lot of animal stories in here- tigers, camels, gorillas, you name it. Even pet cockroaches. Hanna describes lots of amusing or interesting incidents, including times the public called him in desperation to take care of situations- an alligator in someone's backyard, an apartment full of venomous snakes. The zoo was small and in some disrepair when he started as director, and a lot of people didn't even know it was there. Hanna definitely put it on the map- rebuilt better enclosures, boosted employee morale, acquired more land, and especially worked hard on publicity. Including television appearances. In fact, a lot of the book is about that, and his work managing the zoo, not actual animal stories.

So for me it was an amusing light read, but nothing great (which I should have guessed when I saw it was co-authored). Quite a few other readers really liked it, though- it has five-star marks on amzn and LibraryThing.

Rating: 3/5        301 pages, 1989

Oct 15, 2016

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

by David Sedaris

I didn't like this book much. And it's not just because I had forgotten how crude Sedaris can be. Despite it's small, compact size and the cute cover illustration, these stories are not for children. It's a bunch of short stories, 'modern fables' Sedaris wrote, with animal characters that act and talk a lot like people. They're dark. Unpleasant, wry and snarky. I didn't laugh out loud once. Several times I was left scratching my head- expecting just a bit more to wrap up a tale. Especially the last one about the hippo and the owl- I really wanted to know what that exploring gerbil found. The story about the lamb and the crow was disturbing, the one about a mouse with a pet snake overly predictable, the storks arguing about what nonsense to tell their children about where babies come from, kinda lame. There's a dying rat in a lab, an Irish setter dog whose mate wonders if he's cheating when his owners take him to be bred to other females, a brutal rabbit who wants to safeguard his part of the forest with a ridiculous gate. Makes his point well. It was mildly amusing in an uncomfortable way, but I probably won't read this book again. The animals act too much like dissatisfied people, and too many of the stories leave me hanging.

Rating: 2/5       159 pages, 2010

more opinions:
She Treads Softly
Boston Bibliophile
a good stopping point
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Oct 14, 2016

Trash Mountain

by Jane Yolen

This is a brief story about a young red squirrel who struggles to survive when gray squirrels kill his family (his siblings die of squirrel pox, and his parents are killed outright in an attack). Includes lots of facts about squirrels and other wildlife- some woven into the story, others presented at the chapter headings. The red squirrel is pushed out of his parents' territory and runs away- to the dump. There he meets some rough characters- rats and gulls- and finds out they're not as stupid as his parents always told him (they called those scavenging species "lowlifes"). Our red squirrel has to figure out how to keep himself fed and safe among the territories staked out in the dump, and thwart the gray squirrels who come looking for him. He makes it in the end, and I thought the part about the defunct appliances in the trash heap being used to save the day was clever.

However, I wasn't quite able to get into the story or enjoy it. Some things were odd- the squirrels are ignorant about lots of things beyond the farm area they occupy- and they give descriptive names to things they don't really understand- for example cars are 'People Carriers'. Yet the red squirrel knows what trolls are from overhearing a family telling stories on their porch, and his mother keeps a photo of the Queen of England on her den wall- how could they not know what cars are, and yet recognize and revere the Queen, whom they've never even seen?? It didn't seem consistent.

Also, for a story written at a middle-grade level, there is a lot violence (although it isn't described in too much detail). The red squirrel's parents get killed, the gray squirrels try to kill him, and owl takes one of them, the squirrels and rats fight viciously, there's a lot of death. Which is to be expected in an animal story about survival, it just seemed a bit much for a book aimed at a young audience. I felt like it should have been toned down a little, or the story written with more detail for older kids.

Found browsing at the public library.

Rating: 2/5        176 pages, 2014

Oct 13, 2016

The Nature of Jade

by Deb Caletti

High-school senior Jade has a lot going on in her life. She has a heavy courseload at school. Her friends are being pulled in different directions as the school year draws to a close. Her parents are at odds, especially when her mothers' excessive involvement in organizing school activities leads to a flirtation with the school librarian. Through it all, she keeps calm via thorough talks with her therapist, repetitively counting up the words in sentences on her fingers, knocking on doorframes and watching elephants from the nearby local zoo on a webcam. Her therapist encourages her to reach out and do more than just watch the elephants. She becomes interested in a young man she sees repeatedly on the webcam- and feels they have a connection because he also seems interested in elephants. She wonders why he always has a young child with him. Her attempts to meet the boy flounder, but she starts to volunteer at the zoo, working with the elephants, and gets a second chance. Their brief meeting gradually evolves into a relationship, one she hides from her parents and friends: because Sebastian is a teenage father. With a secret. That threatens to undermine all Jade is hoping for.

I liked this book. The voice of its young protagonist is insightful and lively. It's not about a teen working through problems or facing the world on her own- her family and the rocky relationship with her mother, her simultaneous annoyance at and tenderness towards her younger brother- are very much a part of the story. People in this book aren't perfect- Jade's new love interest, for all his positive traits, has flaws as well as anyone else. Jade struggles to make the right choice when she finally learns what is really going on. I'm glad the book has a positive yet realistic ending- it's not all wrapped up super tidy, but satisfying enough for the reader.

And the setting was a nice touch. It's in Seattle and there was just enough atmosphere to remind me of where I grew up. The author is from the area, which helps a lot in getting the details accurate!

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5       288 pages, 2007

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Becky's Book Reviews
The Compulsive Reader
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Oct 5, 2016

The Fox

by D.H. Lawrence

Two women live alone on a small farm, in near-poverty just after the war. They are raising chickens but not making much success of it. A fox is constantly stealing the chickens. After some time a young man shows up on the farm, expecting to find his grandfather who used to live there. He is constantly described in terms that link him to the fox- sly, conniving, smoothy flattering to fit his needs. He invegiles his way into staying at the farm, even though it is considered highly improper. Finds ways of making himself useful, but his end goal is obviously to get one of the women, March, to marry him. He fixates on her from the very beginning. Even though he is much younger than her (also considered very improper).

There were some parts of this story that intrigued me, and other parts that seemed a bit off. I found that I really like how Lawrence writes characters. The way the three people interact, their little gestures and bits of conversation, feel quite vivid and significant. Descriptions of the landscape and the fox are strong, too. But I found it odd how constantly the women were portrayed as being less, being weak- they were referred to as 'girls', they were always identified by their last names, it was pointedly noted that March would loose her independence if she married the young man, that she wasn't a complete person yet, and so on. The man saw her as a mere object of desire and stopped at nothing to obtain her- he felt he needed to own her. The end of the story really felt heavy-handed with its constant reiterations -from both characters- on how miserable they were going to be in their new relationship. Not a happy ending. And the fox is dead at this point.

I was puzzled at a few points in the story that seemed inconsistent- I thought at first that the man wanted to gain the farm, by getting the woman's hand- but later he plans to return immediately to Canada. I failed to note when that intention changed. I also thought he had run away from the service, but he readily talks of having steady work back in Canada, and when he does return there on his own, there is no mention of difficultly in re-joining his camp- he's just suddenly described sitting there, "cleaning his kit". Wouldn't there have at least been some reprimand? Oh well, I suppose it's not important. Although the foreward by Doris Lessing was interesting and insightful, I wish I hadn't read it first. It gave away a major event that happens at the end of the story, so there was no surprise waiting for me there. It was pretty heavily foreshadowed though, I might have guessed what was coming anyway.

Funny thing, I had completely forgotten where I first heard of this novella. It was noted in my TBR list without a source. After writing I found two other blogs that mentioned this book- and I had commented my interest in the story on Bibliographing, over seven years ago! That's how long this title was on my TBR. I'm glad I finally read it. I might look for a few more D.H. Lawrence, now... any recommendations?

Borrowed this one from the public library.

Rating: 3/5      89 pages, 1921

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The Reading Life