Mar 21, 2018

In Africa with Schweitzer

by Dr. Edgar Berman

I knew very little about Albert Schweitzer before picking up this memoir at The Book
Thing out of curiosity. Schweitzer was a brilliant philosopher, theologian and a virtuoso on the organ. His great loves were writing, studying religion and music. As far as I understand it, he was Lutheran and wished to travel to then-French colonized Africa to preach to the natives, but the church declined to send him because his historical studies of the life of Jesus were considered heretical. So at the age of thirty he took a three-year course at a medical school and then went to Gabon to set up a hospital in the jungle on the edge of a river. There was no other medical care available in the area at the time, people would travel from hundreds of miles away. Schweitzer treated the impoverished native people for myriad diseases and injuries, in appallingly primitive conditions, while indulging in his desire to preach the gospel (his view of it, over the supper table more or less) to them. Schweitzer received the Nobel Prize in 1953 for his humanitarian work. He used the money to build a sanatorium for lepers on his hospital grounds. He ran his hospital, living in rough conditions without electricity and many other conveniences, for some fifty years.

Anyway, this book was written by a surgeon who deliberately volunteered to go work at the hospital in Gabon because he wished to get to know the famous man, and question him personally about his views. He was honest about his intentions and Schweitzer reportedly said well, if you work hard and prove yourself, we'll get to know each other. So part of the book is about conditions in the hospital, how the local people were treated, how the staff was managed, certain medical cases and surgeries the author assisted at or performed himself. The rest of it relates the private talks he had with Schweitzer (which some of the staff resented, as they were not on such close terms with the man in spite of having been there much longer, and had to often act as interpreters for these conversations as well). They discussed religion, medicine, music, touched a bit on recent history- the atrocities of WWII were painfully close and that subject often avoided- and especially Schweitzer's personal philosophy of reverence for all life. He had a pet deer, pig, owl and myna bird, and allowed various monkeys, goats and chimpanzees to roam the hospital grounds freely. I liked reading the few descriptions of the animals. One incident where an elderly tribesman brought his wounded, ill dog in for treatment, which Schweitzer took quite seriously, was very touching.

In all, the description of work at the hospital was very interesting, the chapters on philosophy and religion could get tedious- either because they were frankly over my head, or simply outside of my interest. There was an obvious contrast when the author once went downriver to perform an emergency surgery at another small hospital (because its surgeon was drunk, a state he cultivated to forget the horrors he had survived as a prisoner of the Nazis). This other hospital had more modern, pristinely clean facilities which impressed the author, but the surgical tools were so crude he had difficulty performing the operation. After several months spent working at Schweitzer's hospital and living in awe of the man's company, the author returned home, obviously relieved at having modern comforts again. He returned once more to Gabon some twenty years later, after Schweitzer had died and the hospital was run differently, and reflected upon the improvements made, but the loss of "spirit" that had once pervaded the place.

I looked up some stuff after reading this book. The hospital still exists in Gabon, it is now a world heritage site. The original buildings are part of a museum, and newer ones operate as a research and medical facility providing care to the locals.

Rating: 3/5                308 pages, 1986

Mar 19, 2018

There's a Rhino in the Rosebed, Mother

by Betty and Jock Leslie-Melville

This is a hilarious, and sometimes sobering, collection of little stories and anecdotes by a couple who ran a private tourist operation in East Africa during the sixties. I've read their book about raising Rothschild giraffe, and apparently they were famous through their other writings because they spent half the year touring in America, giving talks about their life in Kenya and drumming up business, the other half of the year taking people on safari.  The book has kind of an odd beginning- it pitches almost immediately into anecdotal stories about traveling around the States, getting into odd, amusing mishaps. Other parts have just as amusing snippets about their dealings with safari guests, and what life was like in remote, rural Africa. And their complaints about how things changed as it became modernized. The book is solidly placed in its time. Diane Fossey was still alive. There's mention of the Adamsons filming stories of their lions, and of Zamba as well. African countries were just gaining their independence from colonialism; in fact several of the final chapters went into great depth about the horrors of apartheid and the "terrorists" in Rhodesia, which gave a different view on the local situation as described in Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight. There is not a lot about wildlife, something I missed as I rather expected it from what I remembered of another book they'd written. In spite of that I found this one quite entertaining with its sometimes insightful look at people just being people. The friendly, down-to-earth tone reminds me of Betty MacDonald. Of all the many quirky little incidents related, I think my favorite is the one about a man who encountered a chicken in the outhouse, and thought it was a snake. In spite of his misfortune, I laughed so hard.

Rating: 3/5           253 pages, 1973

Mar 14, 2018

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight

An African Childhood
by Alexandra Fuller

Memoir of the author's childhood in Africa - she grew up on various farms in Rhodesia, Malawi and Zimbabwe, during and just after the Rhodesian war for independence. It was a rough childhood to say the least. Her family was always struggling on poor land, whether it was for cattle ranching or raising tobacco. Drought, disease and violence were common. Her mother was a drunk, to put it mildly, and struggled with mental instability after loosing three of her children when they were very young. The author describes all the struggles they had with poverty, and then the moment of revelation when, as an older child, she finally stepped into the home of an African for the first time, and realized there was another level of deprivation altogether. All the details of growing up, with correspondence lessons and then boarding school, with treks into the bush and picnics on lake shores, with hyenas whooping at night and dogs forever crowded under their feet. Endless teasing from her older sister, casual racism towards servants and nannies. Bad roads, poor medical care, soldiers and checkpoints wherever they went. Blackouts, frequent power failures, unclean water, you name it. Came through it all with a fierce love for the country, which stayed with her, even after living in America later when she became married. Not much wildlife mentioned in the story- well, aside from snakes, rumors of leopards and baboons that lurk near. Mostly it's about the vast land, the people, the political upheaval and what it was like to live through all that as a kid. Reminiscent of The Flame Trees of Thika, and also in some ways Rules of the Wild.

Rating: 3/5                  315 pages, 2013

Mar 12, 2018

Salvage the Bones

by Jesmyn Ward

This is sad, brutal and touching. It's about a poor family on the Mississippi coast, facing the oncoming terror of hurricane Katrina unawares. Well, they've had warnings. They prepare as they have always done, for hurricanes. This one is different. Without a mother, with their father injured, ill and abed. One son preoccupied with basketball, another keenly focused on his treasured pit bull who just birthed puppies and is also lined up for a fight. The daughter, through whose eyes we see all, has just realized she's pregnant. They don't seem particularly tender or supportive to one another, but cling together fiercely when facing the dire hurricane. The book has so many heavy themes: poverty and racism, dogfighting, teen pregnancy, the kids growing up pretty much on their own, older ones still keenly missing their mother and trying to raise the youngest. There's also some very poetic and vivid prose, which led me to read it all the way through, in spite of the times when you'd want to look away.

Just so you know, there is brutality towards dogs, and to people. There is death. Katrina is a looming presence all through the book, but the actual storm doesn't happen until the final two chapters. The aftermath is very brief, with the survivors going through the wreckage and finding who is still alive. Then it ends and you don't even know what happened to all the characters, particularly the one I was most interested in... it has a hopeful note, but still, you don't know.

Rating: 3/5                      271 pages, 2011

Mar 7, 2018

Menagerie Manor

by Gerald Durrell

This wonderful book is about a young zoo. Durrell was determined to start his own zoo against all odds; he parked his collection of wild animals in his sister's back garden and simply went looking for a location. Happily acquired the grounds of an expansive estate to convert into his zoo. Some of the book is about the management, brief purchasing trips to foreign countries, public relation efforts and necessary fund-raising. But most of it is just about the animals, which delights me. Durrell describes with obvious fondness the antics and behavioral quirks of many of his wild charges, as well as their efforts to provide the proper diet, improve housing, treat diseases, deal with accidents and breed rare species. There's an amusing account of trying to catch a tapir that escaped and rampaged through a neighbor's fields (at night, in a rainstorm), and another of baby coatis that constantly squeezed out of their cage to romp on the main driveway, and a funny bird that seemed to think its role in the zoo was to welcome every new animal that arrived (a few of them did not appreciate its company). Some of the more interesting animals featured include a spectacled bear, a pair of tuatara, surinam toads, a very grumpy crested porcupine, some wonderfully amusing marmosets and a wide variety of apes, monkeys and smaller primates. A chinchilla that liked to ride on the backs of giant tortoises and steal their food. An overweight skunk who needed a mate to encourage her to get enough exercise. And more. Near the end of the book Durrell realizes that the zoo's purpose should be to keep more rare specimens and attempt to breed them to aid conservation efforts, and he closes with an environmental appeal in particular asking for donations to further the zoo's cause and hopefully slow the extinction rate of wildlife.

As usual, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the animals' behavior, and efforts made with their care and husbandry. There's plenty of very amusing passages as well which had me laughing aloud. Durrell has a real knack for telling a story. The book has some beautifully expressive pen-and-ink drawings by Ralph Thompson illustrating nearly every other page. I love that so many were included, and found through one of the descriptions that the artist made at least some of these drawings (perhaps all?) from life, which you can tell by their liveliness and quality.

Rating: 4/5                 180 pages, 1964

Mar 6, 2018

El Zoo Petrificado

Los Diarios de Cereza
by Joris Chamblain

I bought this book while traveling, because the illustratons intrigued me so much. It's the first book I've ever read in Spanish and actually enjoyed, rather than struggling to translate every sentence. I did have to look up quite a few words, but not enough to slow me down. The original is in French.

It's about a young girl Cereza who dreams of being a writer and likes to imagine other people's secrets. She's busy decorating a tree house with her friends when they notice an old man come out of the woods in paint-splattered clothes. They're nervous and go home. Cereza comes back later on her own and sees the old man again. She decides to follow him and see what he's doing. Without telling her friends and lying to her mom, by the way.

- spoilers ahead -

He's painting scenes of animals on the walls of a derelict, abandoned zoo in the forest. Cereza decides to help him and gets her friends and other kids involved in cleaning up the old zoo grounds. Eventually they get some adults of the town involved as well to make major repairs. Delightfully, the artist not only paints animals on the walls, he renews the paintings periodically to make it look like the animals are feeding, new young are born and grow up, etc. It's a constantly evolving art form. Cereza convinces him to let the town see, and they open the doors to visitors, bringing memories alive for many of the older citizens and recognition to the old man for his art. The front and end pages of the book are like a diary (in a hard-to-read handwriting font) and some of the later pages are news articles about the revitalized zoo in its new format, and criticism/praise of the old man's art. These articles with more formal language was the most difficult for me to read.

- end spoilers -

The story is a nice tidy mystery, and in spite of some flaws (dishonestly, ignoring and criticizing her friends) I rather liked Cereza's character. At the end of the book she determines to find a way to talk more openly with her mother, but isn't quite there yet. While a big part of it is about friendship and acceptance, I admit I liked best the parts about the old man's secret work. I'm reading this book aloud a second time round with my teen, so she can practice her Spanish, and she's quite enjoying it as well.

Rating: 4/5             72 pages, 2017

Mar 3, 2018


Exciting Recipes for Cooking with Herbs
by Linda Tubby

I have so many cookbooks, and I rarely use them. Attempting to change that. This book delighted me with its absolutely beautiful photos of live plants and fantastic-looking plated dishes. They are a bit sophisticated for my regular kitchen pantry, but the author helpfully mentions what substitutions can be made, if you can't find a particular ingredient. Which is nice because she uses a lot of uncommon items like shiso leaves and fenugreek (at least, they're unfamiliar to me). The intro portion of the book has some basics on selecting fresh herbs or growing them yourself, and methods of  preserving them. The list of plants tells a bit of interesting facts about each one- where it originated or something of its historically medicinal and culinary use. It has me curious to try a few new things in my garden: lovage, winter savory, tansy. The recipes are sorted into groupings: appetizers, soups and salads, light brunch/lunch dishes, full entrees, vegetable courses, pastas and breads, desserts. Final pages include how to infuse olive oil and vinegars with herbs, make candied flowers, tisanes, syrups and flavored drinks. I am encouraged to try!

The stretched pasta with herbs pressed between thin layers and then quickly cooked, has me super intrigued. It's pictured all over the endpapers- see below.* Unfortunately, I don't have a pasta machine. I did make the salmon and new potatoes dish, with dill. It was pretty good, but not spectacular. However I used dried instead of fresh dill, and fresh instead of smoked salmon. Definitely going to make more recipes from this book. Especially in the summer, when I have fresh flavors at hand out in the garden.

* photos coming soon

Rating: 4/5               144 pages, 2004

Feb 28, 2018

A Horse Called Dragon

by Lynn Hall

Another older horse story, one I'm sure I must have read as a kid, borrowed from my elementary school library. It's a fictional account of a real horse, an Appaloosa mustang from the Sierra Madre mountains in Michoacán. Who was caught and brought into captivity to become a founding sire of the POA breed. This little book tells of his early life, years as a stallion defending his band, modes of survival. His capture and slow adjustment to a new way of life (the mares tamed pretty quickly in this story, which I found amusingly implausible but oh well).  For such a short book, it's a surprisingly satisfying read. Very well-written. I like how it shows things from the stallion's viewpoint- what he would have understood, his reactions and decisions according to various circumstances. There's vampire bats in this book too, which feed on the horses at night and sometimes endanger the newborn foals. In that area of Mexico the bats are still a common threat to livestock.

Rating: 3/5                96 pages, 1971

Feb 26, 2018


Wild Stallion of the West
by Rutherford Montgomery

An older book I picked up secondhand somewhere. It's about horses that live on a cattle range in the southwest. In particular, one fine black mare owned by the ranch but allowed to run free on the range and an old squatter living in a cabin in the high country who admires her. The mare sometimes mixes with a band of wild horses. When she goes missing the squatter is accused of stealing her. Things happen, the mare goes off on her own and raises a colt in seclusion. Later the mare dies and the young horse grows up on his own, eventually challenging the stallion of the wild band, drawing attention of a ranch hand who recognizes he must be the offspring of the missing mare. This guy determines that catching the young stallion and showing it to the ranch owner will exonerate the squatter- plus acquiring himself a fine horse. His plan to catch the wild black horse does not turn out so easily.

I was skeptical of this story at first, but it turned out to be pretty good in the end. While it has a lot of vivid descriptions of the scenery, weather and interactions of various wildlife, much of the animal behavior is exaggerated or downright inaccurate and had me rolling my eyes. For example, wolves don't hamstring their prey, and the mating behavior of bears described in here made me laugh outright, it was so ludicrous. It's obviously written to be exciting for young readers, with a lot of vicious battles between wild animals for survival, and sensational scenes. The young black horse fights off (at different times) wolves, cougars and a bald eagle, survives an encounter with a bear, and battles another stallion on the edge of a cliff. But then many depictions of how the wild horses live, elk in the rutting season, mule deer interacting with the mare and her colt, are very nicely done. I really found the final third of the book more interesting, when the young stallion had taken over the band but obviously did not know how to lead the mares, and had to face his human opponent.

I happened to like the ending, particularly because it had some unexpected outcomes.

Rating: 3/5                 274 pages, 1940