Nov 4, 2019

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

by Mildred D. Taylor

This is a book that has been on my TBR a very long time- and before that I had definitely heard of it. It won a Newbery in 1977. I think I may have seen a film version when I was a kid- one of the scenes where the family and their neighbors fight a fire in the cotton field at night, beating the flames with dampened grain sacks, was suddenly visually familiar to me. It's about the Logans- a black family living in Mississippi during the thirties. Cassie's family owns their land, but is surrounded by black families who are sharecropping, barely able to make ends meet. The nine-year-old narrator tells about all the inequalities she experiences and witnesses- from sub-par segregated schooling to suffering insults and snubs in public, to watching her family struggle to hold onto their land as white people in positions of influence and means make life hard for them. At first this is subtle, and Cassie's parents resist by equally subtle means- encouraging the black community to boycott the local white-owned grocery store, for example. But gradually things escalate into violence- beatings, theft, shooting, threats of lynching. Even the kids get involved, trying to sabotage the school bus (I thought this was funny) and Cassie cleverly (but in a rather backhanded way) gets even with a white girl who once forced her off the sidewalk and humiliates her in school. While the racism and violence is disturbing to read about, Cassie's family bonds tighter through their troubles- the kids definitely stick up for each other- and the parents share wise words to counsel their children. I can see why this book is taught in schools and considered a classic, but somehow I did not really feel invested in the characters. Might just be the other distractions around me IRL right now. Actually the two characters that interested me most were outside the main family- one a black boy who has a cocky attitude and winds up in bad company- a gradual thing but you see it coming. The other a white kid who is something of a loner and walks with Cassie and her siblings to and from school- he tries to befriend them but they are wary. I liked this kid, wish he'd been more a part of the story. The book is part of a series about the Logan family- but unfortunately I don't really feel interested in seeking out any of the other volumes.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                276 pages, 1976

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Oct 31, 2019

Books

by Larry McMurtry

Brief memoir by a writer who is also known for his movies but his real passion was dealing in used books. Especially high end collectibles and rare editions. So of course he tells how he came to be a reader, and his love of books which any bibliophile would enjoy absorbing in these pages. However this volume felt a bit choppy to me, as he tells about part of his childhood, then where that led to or some related aspect of his adult life, then drops back into the chronological narrative again. Every other page nearly, as the chapters are mostly only one or two in length. It didn't bother me too much, though. I've liked before many memoirs written by readers or writers, but this one is really about being a dealer. A book scout. Mingling with wealthy and monied people (they have the best private libraries) and what finds he had (or missed out on). How some copies resurfaced years later, or were re-bought and sold when you wouldn't expect them to be. Lots of titles I recognized fondly, and many many more I didn't (my reading tastes are not quite the same). Loads of name dropping which did nothing for me, but I skimmed through that, interested regardless. Plenty of interesting snippets of stories about curious customers or individuals met while seeking out fine book collections. He tells about when secondhand bookshops were thriving, and how he watched them slowly begin to decline in the seventies. This account wraps up just when online selling was becoming a thing, in fact the last chapter is a sort of obituary list of defunct bookshops- many of which he'd acquired the complete stock when they went under. He also noted how computers are gradually taking over space in public libraries, saying though Book selling will never quite expire unless reading expires first... Civilization can probably adjust to the loss of the secondhand book trade, though I don't think it's really likely to have to. Can it, though, survive the loss of reading? That's a tougher question, but a very important one.

Aside from the bookishness, I also enjoyed reading about places- I've lived briefly in San Francisco and Baltimore, and now am near Washington, D.C.- all locations McMurtry tells about thick with book dealing and bookshop visits. Made me want to visit more of them, before they disappear. (McMurtry says of D.C: What depressed me most in D.C. was that the various great houses I was invited to contained so few books.) !

I haven't read any of McMurtry's novels yet, but have wanted to try Lonesome Dove. Which he says he wrote as a western version of Gone with the Wind. Another one that's on my list!

My favorite quote: Very quickly.... I realized that reading was probably the cheapest and most stable pleasure of life. Sometimes books excite me, sometimes they sustain me, but rarely do they disappoint me- as books that is, if not necessarily the poetry, history, or fiction that they contain.

This amused and saddened me: I'm proud of my carefully selected twenty-eight-thousand-volume library and am not joking when I say that I regard its formation as one of my most notable achievements. Yet, when I walk along the rows of bookshelves now, I feel that a distance has opened between me and my books.... I think sometimes that I'm angry with my library because I know that I can't reread it all. I would like to, but the time is not there. It is this, I think, that produces the slight sense of alientation that I feel when I'm together with my books now. They need to find other readers soon- ideally they will be my son and grandson, but if not them, other book lovers.

Rating: 3/5                   259 pages, 2008

Oct 28, 2019

Jaguar

One Man's Struggle to Establish the World's First Jaguar Preserve
by Alan Rabinowitz

I'd heard of Alan Rabinowitz before, a leading scientist in big cat conservation, but this is the first time I read one of his books. After university he studied black bears in the states, then met George Schaller who asked him to go to Belize and do a survey of jaguar numbers. Rabinowitz spent two years in the Cockscomb basin in Belize trapping and tracking jaguars while living with the Maya people. It was extremely difficult work in rough conditions, frequent misunderstandings with the locals, terrible diseases, parasites, bad or non-existent roads, deadly snakes (encountered many times) and so on. The study site was a logging area, so there were conflicts there to deal with as well. One time he survived a plane crash, and had to deal with the PTSD of that in order to continue working- as it was often only possible to locate the jaguars' tracking signals through the air.

In spite of all the hardships and suffering, the author fell in love with the place, especially the jaguars. The people did not understand this. He tried to work closely with them- lived alongside them, learned some of their language, ran a small clinic out of his house providing medicine for common illnesses they had no access to otherwise- and hiring men to help him maintain roads, trap the animals and track them through the forest, but they still didn't get it when he got upset that one of his study animals had been killed. He took every opportunity to educate the people about wildlife- showing them sedated ocelots up closer, for example- but it took a long time for this to make an impression, the people had deep-seated beliefs and fears about the animals. Reading about their traditions, lore and native remedies was interesting too. He also shares some Maya history and while tracking jaguars through the jungle sometimes came across ancient ruins. Discovered the site called Kuchil Balum which sounds very impressive in scope (he contacted an archeologist to come and survey the ruin). So the book is just as much about the place and the locals as it is about the wildlife, a full picture of what the work was like, and I enjoyed it very much. Rabinowitz doesn't shy away from sharing his own frustrations and failures. When he left the area after two years, he wondered if all the effort had been worth it; it's hard to enforce laws protecting animals when the local policeman brags about killing a jaguar with his car! But the afterword, very much appreciated, shows that it did work after all. He returned years later to find the preserve intact, wildlife abundant and the attitudes of the people markedly changed. Great read.

This quote from the book sums up the author's work and urgency very well:
We sit by and allow massive destruction of the jagura's habitat, forcing it into situations where death is the inevitable conclusion. Yet even as we are destroying it, we admire the animal - in zoos, on television, in books- and we wonder how it lives, what it eats, not even stopping to think it might soon no longer be living or eating at all. Then when the jaguar's gone from the wild, we'll carve its image in stone and speculate about how magnificent it must have been. Is there hope for animals like the jaguar? In our greed and fear we are destroying them, as the ancient Maya were subjugated and destroyed. 
Though remnants of the spirit of both the jaguar and the old Maya still survive in isolated pockets, how long can they last? . . . When the jaguar no longer walks the forests, there will never be anything like it on earth again.
Just have to say, this kind of book is a big step up from Pink Boots and a Machete. While the former is probably accessible to a lot more readers who wouldn't normally be interested in depictions of scientific fieldwork, this one is a lot more satisfying to me.

Rating: 4/5              378 pages, 2000

Oct 24, 2019

Bats

Revised Edition
by M. Brock Fenton

I've been reading this one off and on since Darkwing. It's a hefty coffee-table sized book with loads of great photographs and tons of interesting data. My copy came from a library sale and I can see why it was discarded- heavy water damage with warped pages which made handling it feel off- reading books can be such a tactile experience for me- and the page numbers don't match the index or cross-references- but that didn't dampen my enjoyment too much.

I did not realize how numerous and varied bats are until I read this book- over 900 species! Aside from all the basics like flight mechanism, diet, roosting habits, reproduction, conflicts with mankind and so forth, this book details the many differences and curiosities in the bat species. I always thought that most bats eat either insects or fruit, but it turns out that some eat leaves, or nectar, or small mammals, even other bats. There's a species that specializes in catching fish. And they're not all restricted to one type of food item, either- a few have a more varied diet, eating plant material and insects. There's the famous vampire bats too- only three species but how large in the human imagination- that chapter was pretty interesting. A lot of the information about how bats navigate and echolocate was fascinating, too. They use different frequencies to avoid interfering with each other's signals, or their own hearing. Some are actually audible to humans. Many bats make vocal noises too- squeaking at each other. While most are strictly nocturnal, lots of them have very good eyesight and use it. Their faces are so curious- flying foxes are my favorite, they look very endearing and familiar- but many have huge ears or fleshy flaps and extensions on their noses, or odd wrinkles that make them appear very alien. One that's really strange-looking is the ghost-faced bat. I think my favorite section was one of the last chapters in the book, about how different cultures perceive bats, with examples from ancient art and legends. Not all fear bats- Chinese symbols use bats to represent happiness and joy, and have names for them like "embracing wings" or "fairy rat." A lot of this book is focused on providing information to show how intriguing, well-adapted and even vulnerable bats are, dispelling many myths people have of them so they can become protected instead of mistreated. It certainly taught me many new things. Don't ever handle a bat- yes the risk of rabies from a bite is real- but they needn't be feared and loathed as much as they are.

Rating: 4/5             224 pages, 1992 and 2001

Oct 17, 2019

Green Hills of Africa

by Ernest Hemingway

I could not like this one. I tried really hard- read a third of it. It's about a safari trip Hemingway made to East Africa with his wife (referred to in the book only as P.O.M. - Poor Old Mama- took me a while to figure that out) and a few friends, to hunt big game. Their goal was to get as many large animals as their license permitted during the allotted timeframe- rhino, lions, kudu, giraffe, zebra for their hides, etc. Hemingway was obsessed with getting a larger rhino than his companion, a kudu with bigger horns, etc. He took pride in making a good, clean shot- and while I can admire the skill- I found the attitudes overall very distasteful. Even though he describes in one passage having suffered a terrible war wound in the past, so he knows what it feels like to have been shot- and thus is determined to always make a clean kill so the animals don't suffer long. Yet he describes in detail how one of his companions always laughed hilariously at the sudden contortions animals made when hit hard from a far distance- stunned, in shock and agony, flipping head over heels or spinning in circles- I didn't find that funny at all. I've read other hunting accounts that were interesting and showed enough respect for the animals, enjoyment of the challenge that I was okay with it. Yes, these were different times and attitudes but still. It was too crass for me. The descriptive writing of the landscape, environment and native peoples did not make up for that. The cursory manner Hemingway used to refer to his companions- barely describing them at all so I rarely knew who was who- and half the time had no idea what their conversations were about- didn't redeem it for me either. I did like reading his opinions on other writers- in the evening, after stalking and shooting at animals all day, Hemingway and his companions would sit around the camp getting drunk, reading books and discussing literature. Really full of their own opinions. Some great thoughts in there and pointed observations, but if I wanted to read literary criticism I'd much rather have a book about just that, without all the amusement on the part of animals dying with their hides blasted open so he and his friends could get all the trophies they'd paid for. I'm feeling sore about this, as you can tell. Don't care for Hemingway now.

Abandoned                  207 pages, 1935

Oct 16, 2019

Pink Boots and a Machete

My Journey from NFL Cheerleader to National Geographic Explorer
by Mireya Mayor

Daughter of Cuban immigrants, Mireya Mayor was raised by three strong women and it's really admirable how she lived her own life- outside of all expectations and stereotypes. She professes to being a "girly girl" but also had a strong love for wildlife and adventure, even as a child. She was a professional cheerleader (that practice regimen sounds demanding, let me tell you) but then took an anthropology course to fill a credit in college, and realized she really wanted to go to exotic places and study primates. So she did. Without giving up her designer labels or beauty products. She talks about how hard it was to break into the field due to her different background, and "not looking like a scientist", how her feminine products came in handy on exploring treks in unexpected ways, how she worked for her PhD while being a mother. There's chapters about many different expeditions- to Madagascar to study lemurs, the Congo in search of gorillas, diving with sharks, hiking through deserts, travelling on food to the very spot where Livingston was once found (and nearly starving en route). Lots about the difficulties and hardships in remote locations, the tedium and logistics nightmares. The writing is light and conversational, a bit short on the kind of details I usually appreciate, but quick to get through and probably appeals to a broader audience, too. I did start to get tired of one final chapter where she went with a small team that was being filmed- a kind of explorer's survival reality show- and most of it was about their constant disagreements. I would have liked to know more about the actual research done on the various trips, and more description of the animals encountered. But that's just me. This book is a great inspiration for any young woman, to just go for your dreams, no matter how they match up with anyone else's ideas.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                   304 pages, 2011

Oct 10, 2019

White Dog Fell From the Sky

by Eleanor Morse

It's the 1970's and South Africa is deep under apartheid. One of the main characters, Isaac, witnesses the death of his activist friend- shoved in front of a train by members of the South African Defense Force- and flees the country, terrified the repercussions of his presence at the scene will cost him his life. He is smuggled across the border into Botswana and finds the relative peace there surreal. He finds work as a gardener for a white woman, even though he has no experience (was previously a medical student) but an old man who works at another household gives him some tips. Later he's left in charge of the house when the woman goes on a research trip to the Okavango Delta- and when she returns he's suddenly gone missing. Alice has been facing the disintegration of her marriage, is feeling unsettled from an unplanned tryst she had with a colleague on the trip, and is baffled at Isaac's unexplained absence- she hadn't known him long but it's very out of character. Especially because the white dog who had attached herself to him is still at the house, half-starved, waiting his return. Although acquaintances around her caution Alice to forget Isaac and not get involved, she can't let it be and tries to find out what happened to him. Meanwhile her new love interest has also gotten himself into trouble, returning alone to take personal action against what he sees as an outrageous atrocity- the stock fence put up to supposedly prevent hoof and mouth disease from spreading to cattle, blocking a migration route and causing thousands of wild animals to die of thirst. This man's impulsive actions, spurred by anger, reminded me of Mark Owens- probably not coincidentally, as the debacle of the fence was actually discovered by the Owenses when they were in the Kalahari. The details of Alice's ex-pat life was like Rules of the Wild, but more serious here. I didn't find her story quite as interesting as Isaac's, and the romance in the middle of everything seemed a bit- unrealistic? but not enough so to bother me. It was a slow one for me to get into, but once I did I found this story, these lives weaving together in subtle ways that gradually intertwine stronger, very compelling. Part of the story takes place in a Jo'burg prison- it is atrocious and horrific, but thankfully there are not too many details of the suffering, more about how it affected someone very long-term. Honestly, I don't often get emotional reading a book but this one moved me to tears at least twice. There's also parts in it about the native San people, which I liked very much- I kind of wish there had been more about them. The heat is consistently oppressive and palpable, the landscape very real in all its emptiness, wildness and fierce kind of beauty. I would definitely like to read more by this author.

Rating: 4/5                 368 pages, 2013

Oct 3, 2019

Secrets of the Savannah

by Mark and Delia Owens

This one picks up where Eye of the Elephant left off. Most of the previous book was about their efforts to stop poaching; while they had made great strides it was not wiped out completely. So this book continues to tell about the conflicts with poachers and govenment corruption- although on a lesser scale, it did ultimately prevent them from returning to Africa. It's also more about the animals- lions, baboons and wildebeest but mostly of course the elephants. How the years of poaching had decimated the population, removing adult breeding males and females alike- and what effects that had on their social structure. Also that they saw increasing number of tuskless elephants born in the population because of the poaching. I remember just recently reading about this happening in Mozambique; the Owenses saw it in Zambia in the early nineties. This book also tells a lot about the continued programs that supported village industries and also has chapters about each of the author's childhoods. So I have mixed feelings about it. I found most of the book interesting- in some ways I actually liked it better than Eye of the Elephant. It was good to learn about the author's backgrounds- what led a farm boy from Ohio and a girl from South Georgia to spend decades of their adult lives fighting for elephants in Africa. But I can see how other readers found this book disjointed- it not only switches POV every chapter, but also veers from telling about the anti-poaching work, village life and wildlife studies in Africa to relating childhood memories. Pertinent, yes- but also a bit abrupt. Also, I found the title and jacket blurbs a bit misleading. The back cover would make you think this book is all focused on the wild animals, but it's not. And I didn't find the data they gathered about how elephant populations rebound from poaching (or natural disasters) so big as to be considered a 'secret' revealed. Title had me expecting a lot of details about the private lives of the animals, and I just didn't get that.

There's also, in hindsight, all the stuff they left out. Which I discovered upon reading more about the Owenses online- this article in particular is disturbing. I wasn't even aware that Mark had a son, you'd never know it from the book- but it appears he was heavily involved in the anti-poaching efforts too, which were far more volatile than the books let on. And that's the least of it.

Rating: 3/5                230 pages, 2006

Sep 27, 2019

Darkwing

by Kenneth Oppel

I don't remember where I first heard about this book- it's been on my TBR list since 2010! I'm glad I finally got hold of a copy to read, it really had me turning the pages. Darkwing is set far back in prehistory, when the dinosaurs are dying out and mammals are starting to fill the gaps in the ecosystem. The main character, Dusk, belongs to a colony of 'chiropters'- an imagined species that precluded the bats (all the other prehistoric animals in this book are based on real species). Dusk is different from his companions- he has weak, stunted hind legs and a stronger chest and forelimbs as compensation. The chiropters cannot truly fly- they glide between trees and then climb the trunks to a higher vantage point again. But Dusk- also born with near-naked wings (the chiropters call them 'sails') and larger ears- feels a strange urge to try flapping his forelimbs. He is fascinated by the birds that fly above- the upper reaches of the trees are forbidden territory, belonging to the birds. He also discovers later in the story that he can use his echolocation not only to hone in on insect prey, but to 'see' in the dark. Needless to say, Dusk does not quite fit in, and his community finds his differences at first suspicious, then later on an outright threat. Now there are more beasts stalking the land, as the dinosaur species die out- and when some felids (weasel-like precursors to cats) that have developed a new taste for flesh find their colony, the chiropters might need Dusk to help them escape to safety and find a new home.

Even though some aspects of this story felt a bit simplistic- how convenient was it that Dusk had not one unusual characteristic, but all three making him one of the first true bats- I found it really intriguing. The world of the batlike chiropters is pretty believable, and their conversations didn't upset my suspension of belief too much. The idea that the dinosaurs died out not only from sudden climate change upsetting their world- too cold for their bodies that can't regulate temperature, lack of food sources weakens them and disease becomes widespread- but also because of actions taken by the smaller, weaker mammals- was a new one. The parallel storyline from the viewpoint of a felid that moved beyond their normal died of insects, larvae and eggs to eating other animals and got exiled by his fellow felids who were horrified by his new cravings, was just as interesting to me. Eventually the paths of the chiropters and felids intersect, as Dusk's colony set out on a journey, encountering all kinds of dangers and new strange animals. Really, the conflicts piled on thick and fast near the end, but it wrapped up pretty tidy.

This book reminded me of so many others. I'm not alone comparing it to Watership Down. I couldn't help but think of Ratha's Creature- prehistoric talking animals, one has a new ability that threatens the established way of the group. And even oddly enough, Stellaluna came to mind- the bat that interacted so much with birds, struggling with self-identity. As Dusk is seeking his own way- can he suppress his desire to fly in order to fit in? why is he so different? - he's torn by loyalty to his family and deeply troubled at growing friction within his colony as he learns more about their past and the group disagrees on how to face their future when all the dangers seem overwhelming. Darkwing is shelved among juvenile fiction, but I would say it's for older, mature readers in the age range. There's some brutality, descriptions of animals attacking tearing apart and eating each other, and other frightful scenes. Also really serious stuff about loosing family members, challenging the status quo and more. Oh- and reminding me of Bannertail, there's one scene where Dusk eats a psychoactive mushroom, and another where the young bats eat tea leaves enjoying the jittery feeling (which their parents frown upon). Ha.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5            422 pages, 2007

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