Nov 19, 2014

Witch Child

by Celia Rees

Mary's grandmother, the woman who raised her and taught her healing skills, has been denounced as a witch and put to death. In fear for her own life, Mary flees England to cross the ocean with a group of Puritans who are also seeking to escape persecution. The journey is long and difficult; they finally arrive to discover their companions who had gone ahead are no longer in the original settlement, but have moved deep into the forest. Mary goes along with trepidation- she has no friends in this new land, but doesn't really fit in with the Puritans either. She is constantly afraid of coming under suspicion. Her behavior doesn't fall under their strict code of living, and when she wanders into the forest to collect herbs, cautiously befriending a native american boy, the colony begins to suspect her. It's obvious they want a scapegoat to blame for their troubles, but it disgusted me how the other young women in the colony tried to manipulate the villagers' fear against her for their own gain. I found this story riveting and succinctly told; was a bit curious about the sequel but the opening passage from it included at the rear of the book dissuaded me of that- it appears to go in a different direction I'm not much interested in. I do really like the cover image of this book- it's such a simple yet compelling image.

Rating: 3/5      261 pages, 2000

more opinions:
Darque Reviews
Silly Little Mischief
Katrina's Reads
Stella Matutina

Nov 18, 2014

The Bird Book

edited by Richard Shaw

Simple little book, very appealing. It's a collection of short stories, poems and fables about birds, illustrated with drawings and paintings in varied styles. The authors include William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Kenneth Grahame, Alfred Tennyson, Robert Louis Stevenson, Aesop and many others. Robins are featured prominently- I suppose because they're popular and familiar. My favorite was the old English folktale about the magpie showing the other birds how to build nests- she went through a complicated series of steps but the others did not wait to see the whole process, each leaving when they saw something they liked or recognized, and thus they all made different kind of nests.

There are several other collections of poetry and art about foxes, owls, cats and frogs compiled by the same author. I'd like to see those books too, I think I'd enjoy them.

Rating: 3/5    48 pages, 1974

Nov 17, 2014

The Thinking Dog's Man

by Ted Patrick

Another book of dog stories I picked up at a used sale. This one is a bit more focused- it contains the author's personal take on various subjects surrounding dogs: their loyalty, devotion to man, perceptive senses, training and so forth. In most cases he points out how common perceptions (of his time) are flawed and what a dog is really doing has a matter-of-fact explanation- such as that dogs are not psychic but know when you're coming home because they actually hear your vehicle when its still two miles from the house, or how easily they can find their way home when lost or moved (without their consent) because they can remember landmarks, scents, and have a directional sense. He also discusses dog breeding and shows, what makes a champion (how easily a good handler can turn any well-bred dog into a champion by strategic entries), how certain breeds have been degraded by their popularity, how to properly choose a dog etc etc. It's written in an amiable, somewhat amusing style that makes for easy reading, but nothing in here really stands out compared to other dog books I've read. In fact probably the most interesting sections are the forward written by John Steinbeck (on why he doesn't want to write an introduction, and tossing in a few brief stories of his own as if he can't help himself) and the last few chapters which tell of the author's own dogs- all of them Airedales.

Rating: 3/5      150 pages, 1964

Nov 16, 2014

Cats and Dogs

Woofs and Purrs, Spits and Grrrs
edited by Claire Necker

A bit similar to the last book, this one is a collection of sayings, stories, fables and other material comparing cats to dogs, or at least including them together. There are poems, entries from old bestiaries, proverbs, old charms and cures that used cat and dog hair together (to drive couples apart, most of them). Most of it is just various thoughts and observations on the nature of cats versus dogs, why certain people like one or the other, and how they most often fight but can also be good companions in the household. The cat's nature was most often compared to women, and the dog touted as a man's companion. It was curious to see the two sides of every opinion- cats both praised for their independence and vilified for being indifferent and self-centered; dogs lauded for their loyalty and faithfulness, but by others scorned for their servility. It's interesting reading to a point- the rather archaic attitudes become tiresome, the material is repetitive, but there are a few delightful stories and curious tales about cats and dogs co-existing, highlighting their differences. I thought I was familiar with some folktales regarding cats and dogs for instance, but all the ones about "why cats and dogs fight" included here were new to me!

Rating: 2/5        306 pages, 1969

Nov 14, 2014

The Tiger in the House

A Cultural History of the Cat
by Carl Van Vechten

A wonderful compilation of all things relating to cats. In particular their history- how they have been treated by mankind throughout the ages in different cultures. The author is obviously very fond of cats and points out all their endearing traits throughout the book. Then mentions all the references he can think of from literature, art, poetry and even music that include cats. It is quite a jumble of observations and quotes, but very intriguing to read through. The chapter about ailurophobes, which describes how certain people loathed cats so much it was like a disease- they would physically suffer if one was in the room even unseen- made me wonder if this was simply a case of severe allergic reactions. The portion titled "Cats and the Occult" was rather horrific in describing all the ways cats have been tortured to death, thrown off towers, sacrificed for various reasons, their body parts ground up and skins used as cures, and one which I had never hear of and now wish I never had- the cat organ. Gah. Who ever thought such a thing was amusing? Then there are mentions of cats that lived in theaters and inspired (or hindered) the performers, cats that inspired musical compositions (some written to mimic the sound a cat makes walking across piano keys!) cats featured in poetry, and cats beloved by famed authors. There are a number of plates showing artwork and photographs of cats, but so many paintings were referenced in the book I wished to see more. And my only disappointment is that so very many quotes regarding cats were shared in French, with no translation provided. I could look up a few sayings and short poems, but entire passages nearly filling a page defeat me.

Rating: 3/5       425 pages, 1921

Nov 9, 2014

The Dark Horse

by Marcus Sedgwick

In a small, struggling coastal settlement during ancient times, life is difficult and getting harder every year. Crops are failing, the fish no longer abundant, winters cold and long. The people are barely surviving. Then they discover a small ragged girl in a wolf cave, and bring her home. She has an uncanny ability to communicate with animals which they mistrust and fear, even as it could save them from starvation. But there is more to her obscure past. While scavenging for food on the shoreline, the wolf girl and her adopted brother find a mysterious, beautiful wooden box among the flotsam. They take it home, but the girl is plagued with a deep fear of it. Then a stranger comes among them, asking for the box. At the same time, rumors are arising of a warring tribe descending from the north, and the tribe is in turmoil as their leadership falters. All these events are in some way connected to the wolf girl, and as they try to first deal with then flee their oncoming fate, she might be their entire undoing. This is a fast-paced story. Well told, with sparse yet vivid language. It definitely kept my attention. Even to the very end, I was never quite anticipating where the story would turn next.

Rating: 3/5       224 pages, 2003

more opinions:
My Favorite Book
Bart's Bookshelf

Nov 4, 2014

Our Precarious Habitat

by Melvin A. Benarde

Sometimes I pick up old books on subjects that have advanced so much there's a risk of misinformation. I feel like there's a threshold here: if the book is old enough, I'm liable to just be amused at the different viewpoint it presents; if it's closer in time and sounds sensible, I can't always pick apart what's irrelevant information according to newer findings. Such is the case with this volume. A book that attempts to inform the public about our interrelationship with the environment- how things we do on a large scale alter the environment and how that in turn adversely affects humanity. It covers topics such as air and water pollution, pesticide use, food contamination, diseases that cross from animals to humans, waste disposal, occupational hazards, population growth and so on. I read the chapter about food poisoning and it did give me a clear picture of what causes the risks and how food should be handled safely, although the stories of food recalls were mild cases compared to what I've seen in the news in recent years!

But an earlier section in the book baffled me and raised doubts to the veracity of its content. The page begins thus: By 1975 construction is expected to begin on a sea-level canal across the Isthmus of Panama, linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It goes on to caution that further environmental studies should be done, that the spread of species from one ocean into the other could be detrimental in ways we can't yet imagine. True, but wasn't the Panama Canal finished in 1914? Is this a serious typo or what? I felt pretty dubious about the rest of the book after this. When I got to a later chapter extolling the use of DDT for the great good it could do in reducing mosquito populations and thus malaria epidemics- I had to stop. Silent Spring was published in 1962. I'm pretty sure DDT was banned in the early 70's, why would this book be praising such a deadly pesticide. Its horrific effects were already known at the time. Both these reading incidents made me wonder if the original version of the book (I had a revised edition in hand) was actually written a decade earlier, but I could find no earlier publication date, and searches online did not turn up an earlier first edition either. So I quit it. Needless to say, this book is not staying on my shelf.

It appears to have been used as a university text in the past; I sincerely hope that's no longer the case. Or at least that whoever uses it can point out its errors. I wish they could be explained to me!

Abandoned        448 pages, 1970

Nov 3, 2014

The Snake

by John Godey

It's a pretty simple story: a dangerously large and poisonous snake gets accidentally released in New York's Central Park by a drunken sailor just ashore from the tropics. Of course it bites some people, and the first few cases baffle doctors. Once they realize a deadly snake is on the loose, pandemonium breaks out. Everyone is rushing to the scene- the police force, news reporters, anxious citizens. Most want to just find the snake and get rid of it, but there's also a herpetologist who would prefer to catch it and a strange religious faction that views the snake as an incarnation of evil they alone are destined to deal with. I was a bit intrigued with the descriptions from the snake's point of view- how it moved, what motivated it, why it went where it did- but that is only a small part of the novel. Most of it is about the uproar in the city, an outbreak of snake-related pranks and crimes, the refusal of most residents to stay out of the park, a ridiculous scene when six hundred people release their dogs at the same time- hoping they will locate and drive out the snake. It doesn't happen. The final scene is a chaotic fire and riot caused by the religious group, and the snake meets a brutal end at the hands of furious and idiotic people. I don't feel bad about giving it away because I doubt any of you will read this book- it's an amusing thing you can practically read in one sitting, cringing at the older stereotypes all the while. It has a tidy ending with an obvious lead for a sequel- if this was a scary movie (which I pictured the entire time) I'm sure one would be made.

Rating: 2/5       183 pages, 1978

Nov 2, 2014


the Art of Birds
by Janine Burke

This is a quiet little book, and not exactly what I expected. From the little information able to glean from the front and rear covers, I assumed the book would be about the skill birds put into building their nests (I was hoping for something rather like Secrets of the Nest). While it does cover that topic, the book also ranges into art and poetry. The author shares her love of birds, her fascination with their nest-building skills and beauty, their secrecy and devotion. She describes both her own experiences discovering and observing bird life, and those of other people, including the famed Attenborough. While I have long admired Attenborough, I never fantasized about meeting him on a safari trek like she did! Being an Australian native, Burke discusses many Autstralian birds and habitats, which was interesting to me, but other than that I did not learn much new about the birds. Then there's the human connection- how birds have inspired certain poets and how the poets felt an affinity to avian creatures.The poets and authors she mentioned were mostly familiar to me- Virginia Woolf, William Wordsworth, Hans Christian Anderson, Karen Blixen, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Mary Shelley- their connection to birds less so, their personal tragedies previously unknown (to me) and sad to read of. She also delves into the question of art- are bird nests purely utilitarian, or do they themselves have an appreciation of the beauty they create? this is particularly apt when you consider the bower bird.

All in all, the book is a pleasant jumble of thoughts, one that I enjoyed reading but do not really expect to revisit- after closing the covers last night, nothing much stands out to me now.

Rating: 3/5      182 pages, 2012