Nov 17, 2017

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

by John Boyne

Another story that depicts a horrible situation through the eyes of a child. Bruno is upset that his father's job makes them move from their nice home in Berlin to what he at first assumes is the desolate countryside. He mispronounces the name of this new place as 'Out-With' but the reader can soon guess the real location. Also the identity of his father's seldom-seen boss, of whom everyone is very much afraid- 'the Fury'- is very clear to the reader, but then we are seeing it all through hindsight. In the middle of the story, nine-year-old Bruno is just angry and bored, squabbling with his sister, questioning the maid and finally wandering outdoors. Where after a very long walk he finds another boy sitting on the opposite side of a tall, barbed-wire fence. He slowly makes friends with this boy, all the time innocent of what is really going on. Who his father really works for, why are all those hundreds of people standing around on the other side of the fence, looking terribly thin and wearing the same clothes. There's a very real sense in this book, of how people- especially a child- could have been blind to what was going on during the Holocaust, how they started to deliberately not see- for fear of their own lives- when it became apparent what was really happening. Brutality. And this kid just wants a friend.

I read it in just two sittings. The ending is chilling.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5            216 pages, 2006

more opinions:
Vulpes Libris
Booknotes by Lisa
the Literary Omnivore
Parchment Girl
the Wertzone
Musings of a Bookish Kitty

Nov 16, 2017

Room

by Emma Donoghue

This is another book that was all over the blogs some years ago. I think I avoided it back then because I assumed the subject matter would be too harrowing: it's about a college student who was kidnapped and locked up in a storage shed refurbished into a dismal prison cell. Her captor kept her there seven years. While held prisoner, she bore a child. Keeping her son as healthy and safe as she could in such oppressive circumstances gave her a reason to live. She taught and entertained him. The eleven-foot space and his mother, were all that he knew. They had a television, a few books, a glimpse of the sky and occasional 'treats' brought at their captor's whim- that was about it. The story works because it is told through the boy's perspective, at the time just five years old. He thinks everything inside the television is pretend, and personifies all the objects in the room- Table, Rug, etc. At night he hides in Wardrobe when his mother is visited by their captor, dubbed Old Nick. His energy and questions start to stretch the limits of their world, and his desperate mother finally tells him the truth of their confinement and makes a move to break out.

I was glad that the story moved quickly, that the filter of a child's mind kept the worst of horrors from being too stark, that a lot of the book is about how the boy and his mother struggled to adjust when they finally escaped to freedom. A huge shock to the child, a different kind of stress for his mother. He had never felt rain, never played with other children, never seen a real dog. He was smart in the things his mother could teach him- math, spelling, literature even- but completely baffled by so many ordinary things. His close relationship with his mother strained by their suddenly expanded environment, by so many other people crowding around. There are, of course, a lot of really disturbing aspects to this story- but it is also a tender one of hope and resilience, in spite of the dark premise.

There's a lot more depth to this story- and many other readers have detailed it better- see some of the links below. It was a good read, very compelling. Hard to put down and a lot to think about afterwards.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5           321  pages, 2010

more opinions:
Farm Lane Books Blog
You've GOTTA Read This!
Rhapsody in Books
Love, Laughter and a Touch of Insanity
Write Meg!
Reading Through Life

Nov 14, 2017

Our Native Fishes

the Aquarium Hobbyist's Guide to Observing, Collecting and Keeping Them: North American Freshwater and Marine Fishes 
by John R. Quinn

This book on fishkeeping addresses a very specific aspect of the hobby: catching and keeping wild fish in the aquarium. I suppose it all started once when an angler or fisherman caught a particularly pretty specimen and decided to take it home alive as a pet or for study. The book is focused solely on fish species that can be found in North American waters. It details the best methods used to catch native fish- varying according to the habitat and the behavior of the species- and where they can usually be found (without naming exact locations). Also information on how the fish should be handled to avoid damage and stress, what they will eat and their husbandry needs. Only those suitable to be kept in a home aquarium are discussed- fishes too large or otherwise unable to survive in healthy condition are omitted; a few endangered and protected species are identified so the collector will know to release them if caught. Explanations of the laws regarding collection are detailed, although the book is more than twenty years old by now, so regulations may have changed. I like the way this author writes, the book has an engagingly friendly, matter-of-fact manner. He was formerly an editor of Tropical Fish Hobbyist magazine, one I happen to subscribe to.

I had only one small disappointment with the book- the inked illustrations identifying the many fishes in the species profiles are nicely done- but it would be lovely to have color plates. This was one of those books I read with a computer close at hand, so I could look up fish species I wanted a better visual of. Also, the author frequently advocated keeping certain fishes for a short time frame and then releasing them again in the location where they had been caught. Because some would outgrow a reasonable aquarium, thus only suitable to be kept as juveniles. However I thought this practice was generally frowned upon: a fish once kept in captivity should not be released into the wild again due to the risk of introducing pathogens into the wild population.

Aside from that, it's an excellent book regarding a very specific interest. I have never kept native fish and I don't know if I would ever collect on my own, but I found it pretty interesting reading.

Rating: 4/5                  242 pages, 1990

Nov 13, 2017

The Wild Robot

by Peter Brown

I've enjoyed quite a few of this author's picture books with my youngest, so when I saw he had written a chapter book (for middle grade readers) about a robot that interacts with wildlife, I was definitely intrigued. The story is fairly straightforward: a cargo ship wrecks in a storm, and of all the crates that wash up on the island, only one is intact. It contains a robot, packaged new from the factory. The robot's first awakening is when an animal accidentally turns her on. She has never known any other place- but the island is a hostile environment for sophisticated machinery. The robot (nicknamed 'Roz') has been programmed to assist humans, but must adjust to her life on the island. Roz has an acute sense of survival, and also the ability to learn from experience. The wild animals, for their part, have never seen anything like her. She is immediately labeled as a monster. It takes her some time to shake free of that stigma and integrate herself into the life of the island.

This book has a lot of great stuff going on. The contrast of technology and nature. The clever adaptability of the robot (whereas a lot of the animals are much slower to let go of their assumptions and trust Roz). The big question of what defines life. Roz can learn, she needs to take in energy and to rest, she can show compassion, she can be destroyed- but she's not alive. This baffles the animals. She even takes on motherhood, raising an orphaned gosling- you can imagine the awkwardness of some scenes- a goose raised by a robot who can't even get wet! By the end of the story, Roz has gained the admiration of the animals on the island, even the bears who at one point were her worst enemies. So when the company that lost the cargo ship discovers her location and comes to retrieve their property, the animals all rally in her defense.

I really liked reading this story, I just wish I loved it. The interplay of nature and the computer-brained robot is really cleverly done. It does a good job of showing how the lives of the different species on the island are dependent on each other, how the ecosystem is balanced and parts are thrown off by Roz's presence. I think the robot aspect would get a lot of kids reading this book who aren't necessarily interested in nature or animals- and it does teach a lot of facts about wildlife (although I was a bit irked that some were stereotypical assumptions- birds singing to greet the day, for example). The ending has a lot of heightened drama- which I'm sure will appeal to kids but I found it a bit tiresome. I really like Peter Brown's artwork in his picture books, and this one has plenty of interior illustrations, but they're all black-and-white which I found a tad disappointing. Just doesn't appeal to me as much, when it's monochrome.

There's a sequel; I'll be looking for that one. I borrowed this book from the public library.

Rating: 3/5               277 pages, 2016

more opinions:
James Reads Books
Jen Robinson's Book Page
Waking Brain Cells

Nov 12, 2017

My Sin

Poems on self-love and spiritual blackmail, vol. 2
by Angie Outis

Continuing from Sorry So Sorry, the author writes about her painful awakening to something very amiss both in her marriage and in the community of her church. With the conformity and expectations to always seem pleasant and content, while her frustrations grew. Instead of being supported and encouraged, the tiny snippets shared in these poems show that she felt belittled and criticized. I try to imagine how she must have felt- the overwhelming sense is one of being stepped on. Constant reiteration that men were superior, important, women a secondary role. Her husband sparked with anger at small things that were wrong, and hid the large ones. She tried to shield her young children, tried to pretend everything was okay. Until a missive arrived from her husband's employer, which obviously held a dirty secret. I have to admit I'm really curious to read what was revealed- maybe in the next chapbook of the series she opens the paperwork. Why do we always want to know each other's pain, to know how bad the worst of it was? I think it was very brave of her to write these poems about the disintegration of her relationship, all the little things that occurred in private to bring her down.The writing felt a lot more vivid to me in this volume. I was especially struck by the poem titled "Why I Write" that personifies her fear of emotion.

I received a copy of this book from the author.

Rating: 4/5            23 pages, 2017

Nov 8, 2017

Identification Guide to Freshwater Tropical Fish

by Frederick William Pitcher

This is an outdated aquarium book that I swapped for, sight unseen. It's old enough that it talks about angle-iron frame tanks with all-glass aquariums being the new thing. There is no mention of an actual cycle, although it recommends to 'age' the water. I was a bit shocked to find no warnings against ammonia poisoning and it said ok to introduce fish when nitrites test at three or four ppm. Wow. So the info in here about husbandry, growing plants and the like is fairly basic. I'm keeping the book because I like the illustrations. It's fun to look at the paintings in the guide that makes up most of the volume here. I amuse myself by guessing the species name before reading the text- some have them have changed in form and color over the years of selective breeding. There are a few- must have been popular or common for aquariums at the time- which I didn't recognize at all. I compare the notes on fishes with my own experience: this book says serpae tetras will only eat live foods and are difficult to breed. Not the case anymore. (Other old books I have on the subject note that serpaes are entirely peaceful: NO! and another that they are so prone to disease that not worth keeping. And in contrast I've often read they're supposed to be really hardy!) This book: nice for the pictures if you like art and fish, fun for a bit of comparison to how things used to be.

Rating: 2/5           60  pages, 1977

Nov 6, 2017

This I Believe

Personal Philosophies of Remarkable 7th Grade Students Vol. II

I feel a bit conflicted writing about this book. But I paid for it, so I wanted to actually read it, so I'm making notes about it. It's a collection of essays written by seventh-graders in my daughter's school. Printed near the end of last year and I have taken all this time to read it, dipping in and out of it now and then. The inspiration comes from an NPR program "This I Believe" which has now turned into a series of books, containing essays written by famous people, published authors, and everyday folks on their personal belief systems.

The students here- there are about 150 essays- write about what is important to them. You can tell for the most part, these are great kids. They have adults in their lives who care for them and teach them good things. They write about learning to appreciate family and friends, to value their time, to work hard for grades. They write about the grief of loosing pets and family members- so much pain! They write about sports: teamwork, practice and hard work pays off. (A lot of essays involving sports. This would have bored me after a while but I discovered many of them didn't mention what the particular sport was- so I would attempt to guess by the description of how the team worked and movments on the field, what they were playing). There were also a few essays about making and keeping friends, being true to yourself in the face of peer pressure, moving to a new house, or a new town- or country, dealing with bullies, discovering individual talents, attempting new skills, taking opportunities, staying positive in the face of failure, overcoming fears and learning to appreciate the beauty in life. A lot of wonderful messages. Some of them were even infused with a good sense of humor.

A few that stood out to me: several essays involving swim practice and meets. I've been there. There were two essays where the kids wrote about keeping fish, and the pain of loosing them to illness or due to a mistake- how I could relate to that. One wrote about his love of books. Another about learning from experience, to be careful when making online purchases. A girl wrote about trying to teach her hamster tricks after seeing a demo video online. She got frustrated her hamster wouldn't do what the hamster in the video did. Then realized her hamster had a different skill, and encouraged it to do that as a trick instead. I really liked this essay (and not just because it was about an animal). Another student wrote about sustaining an injury during sports practice and continuing to work through the pain- they found out the next day it was a broken foot. I was appalled that a student would feel pressured to continue practicing while in so much pain. There was another essay written from the perspective of a student who claims she was falsely accused of bullying. It was a very emotional and confusing piece of writing. Another very personal one was about overcoming the fear- as a second-grader- of using public restrooms (I know those self-flushing toilets are very loud- my youngest has always been terrified of them as well).

According to the forward in this book, the students had a required reading assignment Trash by Andy Muillgan (which I haven't read), which was inspired by a real dumpsite in Manila. Proceeds from the students' book "has allowed for them to donate to a charity that helps those whose lives and experiences inspired the writing of Trash." So it's for a good cause. And of course I was going to buy a copy: my daughter was ecstatic to tell me her essay was being printed. At first I was told only the best essays made it into the book though: later it sounded like all the essays from the class were included. There was no selection of the best? The writing quality was very uneven: that's to be expected and for the most part I tried to overlook it and enjoy the message the individual students had to share, and their voices.

But it was really hard to ignore the massive amount of errors, especially in the first two sections of the book. Typos, spelling mistakes, bad grammar, missing or wrongly used punctuation, sentences that made no sense. It has all the bad characteristics of self-published books. My kid told me that her teacher didn't correct the essays- the students proofread each other's work. Seems very sloppy. Some of them sound like they just poured out a bunch of unorganized thoughts and never went beyond a rough draft. I was really disappointed in that regard. I don't mind the exaggerated phrases and overused metaphors, after all these are young writers. I can tell when the writer's first language is not English, and the misuse of grammar in that case doesn't bother me. It's the pile of little things that should have been caught by an editor: in this case, the teacher. My guess is that the final section of the book did get correction from the instructor before printing: there were very few errors and even though a lot of the themes were still repetitive, I was able to finally enjoy the stories and think about what the students had to say, instead of getting jarred around by bad writing.

This is the type of book probably no one is going to read unless their kid is included in it. I wonder how many other parents and family members read all the essays, and not just those by students they know.

Rating: 2/5                 329 pages, 2017

Sorry So Sorry

Poems on self-love and spiritual blackmail, vol. 1
by Angie Outis

These very personal poems were written by a young mother of three during the time that her marriage fell apart. They revolve around a singular incident that opened her eyes to the violent nature in her husband's personality- something I gather she had been blind to for years, or unwilling to admit/confront, because of what it would mean to their relationship... It's also about a crumbling of her faith- all the rules she'd been taught to follow, the promises that things would work out, be okay, if she lived in a certain way.

Through the verses that relate conversations between friends and close family moments, I felt like I was peeking into someone's private slice of pain. Some of the lines are so precisely descriptive in a fresh, new way. When I find poetry that speaks to me, this is especially what I like about it. Of a neighbor's stunning beauty: her smile could eclipse the sun. Of her husband's sudden, shocking violence: His profanity was a jackhammer / that splintered my reality. 

It did not quite feel complete- but there are other volumes in this poetry series, so I have a sense that more is told, the story comes full circle with further reading. I'm not sure I understood what the 'spiritual blackmail' is referred to in the subtitle- but I guess that would become clear with further reading, too. I finished it in one sitting but went back to revisit twice, it had that much of a quiet impact.

I received a copy of this book from the author.

Rating: 3/5            24 pages, 2017

Nov 3, 2017

new books!

My box came from Powell's today, and a few other packages, results of birthday spending. As you can see, most of it is Gerald Durrell: I can't wait to read. Two are sequels to books that have long been favorites of mine: Ariel and Paddle to the Amazon. There's also an illustrated edition of All Quiet on the Western Front which I have wanted to own for a very long time. I think I first found this particular edition at a public library. Alongside the text it has actual photographs from WWI, which really helped bring the narrative to life for me.

I like Powell's because: they are a used bookstore that isn't amzn. Their used books are in good condition and they ship them securely- mine always come shrink-wrapped to a cardboard sheet on the bottom of the box, so nothing slides around and gets banged up. The price labels have low-tack glue, so they peel off easy without ripping the cover or leaving sticky residue. Small things, but they make a difference!
And because Bermudaonion asked, here's a little bit about The Book Thing. It's a place in Baltimore, MD. I found out about it when I lived there- years ago when we first moved to the east coast. Their mission is "to put unwanted books into the hands of those who want them." The story I heard is the founder is a bartender. It was known he liked books, so people kept giving him books. He noticed that college kids struggled to pay for textbooks, so he started collecting texts to give away to students. The donations increased to where at one point he was giving away books from a van. Then eventually got more space- the property has three rooms full of bookshelves (organized by subject) and a large area where donations are processed. As far as I understand it, a very small percentage of books and CDs they receive are sold to pay for the minimal overhead cost. All the people who work there sorting and shelving books are volunteers. There are some articles on their website that have more detail.

I love the place. I don't go very often any more because I now live further away, and when we do we are always sure to donate some books- it's only fair. The only condition to picking up free books is: you can't sell them. They are all stamped "NOT FOR RESALE This is a Free Book" on the inside cover or first page.

When we went a few weeks ago, it was the first time I'd taken my kids. My youngest was excited to go to "the book store where you don't have to pay for anything" as she kept saying. My older daughter laughed when we finally turned around the corner on Vineyard Land and saw the sign painted across the top of the building: "It's really called The Book Thing?" All this time she'd assumed I called it that because I couldn't remember the name of the place! The parking has improved since I was last there, and the rooms are nicely painted and cleaned up. I like there's a window through the wall from one room to another. There used to be a page on their site featuring odd things found in books, or strange, obscure titles. I miss that, it was kinda funny.

Nov 1, 2017

Marvels and Mysteries of Our Animal World

printed by Reader's Digest

Very much like a recent read, this oversize book is a collection of short articles about wildlife. It was a lot more satisfying, in fact I looked forward to reading each selection. More than just a recitation of facts, the writings include descriptions and real-life incidents. The articles seem to be extracted from a variety of periodicals and include such authors as Jean George, Alan Devoe, Roy Chapman Andrews, J.D. Ratcliff, Leicester Hemmingway, Donald and Louise Peattie, Max Eastman, Archibald Rutledge, Ivan T. Sanderson, etc. The variety of animals too great to list, but it seems to cover all the orders and classes of life- insects, birds and mammals, shrews to elephants, wolverines, camels and ground squirrels. The sociability of gulls. The baffling migration abilities of monarchs. Of course it is still an old book, so a few things that were unknown at the time, have now been puzzled out- how birds navigate, why female mosquitoes need blood. The only selection that I found disappointing was the one on horses. I was most fascinated to read about coelocanth- which prompted me to look up further information on this ancient fish. Sometimes it was a bit opinionated- a few of the authors liked to say one animal or another was very ugly- which I didn't always agree with. It tried to give a positive look at other animals I find repugnant- like the indestructible cockroach.

There was a piece near the end titled "Wildlife on the March" by Peter Finch which discussed how many species of bird and mammals seemed to be spreading into new territories over the proceeding forty or fifty years. Cattle egrets, cod, mockingbirds, coyotes, meadowlarks and possums are mentioned. The armadillo was once apparently rare outside of Texas, but at this writing it had expanded its range into Oaklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and some (escaped pets?) were living wild in Florida. Someday perhaps it will reach the southern areas of my state! The author said "Weather records from around the world indicate that temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere are rising at an average rate of three degrees a century.... The Gulf Stream along the U.S. coast has warmed up about five degrees in the last 60 years.... In eastern Canada the tree line, slow to react to climatic change, has nonetheless advanced northward two miles in the last 30 years." It was rather sobering to read that- written in the 1960's without a hint of alarm- it came across as just being a point of scientific interest.

I happen to really like this photograph featured on the back cover, by Russ Kinne

At the back there are several appendixes- including a chart detailing classification of the entire animal kingdom, and an A-to-Z presentation of animals with small tidbits of text, very nice illustrations by Lowell Hess. Index is thorough. The photos are a great improvement over my last read of this kind. I'm keeping this one.

Rating: 3/5               320 pages, 1964