Dec 20, 2014

The Devious Book for Cats

a parody
by Joe Garden, Janet Ginsburg, Chris Pauls, Anita Serwacki, Scott Sherman

Funny book about why cats do what they do, written as if it's one cat giving instructions to another. From how to wake your human, napping styles, methods to employ in a cat fight, planning secret missions (against humans in the household of course) to the horrors of the crazy cat lady, waging war against the vacuum cleaner and more. Dogs are absolutely dismissed. There's also, interestingly, notes on how to handle the indignity of being declawed (an enterprising cat can still disembowel an armchair to launch a sneak attack). And notes on what kinds of dead prey make the best gifts to a human provider. Also some kitty viewpoints on famous cats in history, wild feline relatives, cats from comic strips and online personas. If this book had been published some years later, I'm sure it would have featured Maru, Grumpy Cat or (one of my favorites) Simon's Cat. As is, I learned about the origins of the lucky Japanese Maneki Neko cat figurines. It's an amusing book, and pretty true to the character of cats, but not one I'll actually keep on my shelf. Because I've seen it done better, in a book called The Silent Meow- which this one only made me want to go read all over again.

Rating: 3/5       213 pages, 2008

Dec 16, 2014

The Big New Yorker Book of Cats

forward by Anthony Lane

I don't read the New Yorker, and now I know why. It's obviously not for me. You'd think an animal lover who admires cats would enjoy this book, but no. It was really uneven. Certainly an eclectic collection of stories. There are stories about family pet cats, exotic wildcat crosses, and even a lady who hordes tigers (reminded me of some episodes from a tv program Fatal Attractions I used to watch). There are articles about cat fanciers and breeders, cat rescuers, cats who live in shops, cats that perform in tv commercials. One very dull piece was all about the work a man does in a cat welfare organization, dictated from his desk. Many others I either disliked or could not comprehend well enough to finish reading- the writing was just too sophisticated for my taste, I suppose. I simply was not interested in what the people in them were doing, or thinking, or talking about. And too often the cat was simply an article in the background, not a focus of the story at all. So out of all fifty-seven short stories and articles, only a dozen will I mention here:

"The Cats" by John Updike- when a man's elderly mother dies, he must figure out what to do with the forty stray cats she's been feeding in her backyard. (The end solution is to either let them starve, or ask a neighbor to shoot them all).

"Town of Cats" by Haruki Murakami- a boy and his father have difficulty understand and relating to each other, until the boy shares with his father a story from a book he read on the train- about a secret town inhabited solely by cats. This is one that kept me thinking- I'd like to revisit it to understand better.

"Lady of the Cats" by Wolcott Gibbs and E. F. Kinkead- article about a woman in the city who makes it her personal duty to catch stray cats. To the extent of overwhelming animal shelters and taking people to court over mistreatment of animals.

"A Dull, Ordinary, Normal Life in Manhattan" by Bernard Taper- amusing little story about a family that spends all day trying to find their missing cat, which they can hear crying. Finally the husband follows the cat through an open window into a neighbor's apartment, just as they arrive home from vacation.

"Tiger in the Snow" by Peter Matthiessen- I have a full-length book of the same title by this author. I've tried to read it once and found the writing style rather dry (which disappointed me, as I've often come across the author's name- he writes many books about wildlife fieldwork, a subject I usually enjoy). This excerpt was still dry reading, but at least I made it through. About a study done on tigers in Siberia.

"The Last Meow" by Burkhard Bilger- true story about a beloved pet cat that receives a kidney transplant. Part of it is the story of this one cat's treatment, the rest looks at how the veterinary scene is changing- how increasingly sophisticated medical procedures are available for pets and the owners that are willing to pay for them. Very interesting.

"The Lady and the Tigers" by Susan Orlean- about a woman in New Jersey who kept over a dozen tigers on her property in arguably deplorable conditions.

"Living Room Leopards" by Ariel Levy- article on the growing number of breeders crossing domestic cats with wild species in attempt to get something really exotic-looking. It discusses the Bengal, Savannah and in particular the toyger- how breeders are trying to make it look more like a tiger- not just the rounded ears and distinct stripes but down to the skeletal proportions that make it pace and move like a big cat.

"Edward the Conqueror" by Roald Dahl- it surprised me to see who wrote this story! Curious tale of a woman who becomes convinced that a cat which shows up in their yard is in fact, a reincarnation of Franz Liszt. This because of how the cat reacts when she plays certain piano pieces. Her husband thinks she's going crazy.

"Tooth and Claw" by T. Coraghessan Boyle- rather disturbing story about a guy who looses a bet in a bar, and winds up possessing an African serval. A girl from the bar goes home with him, convinces him to lock the wildcat in his bedroom and insists on helping care for it, but abandons him when things get increasingly dangerous and difficult to manage.

"Where I Live" by Amy Ozols- amusing narration by someone inviting another into their home, giving a little tour as it were of the small studio apartment and making increasing excuses and explanations as it becomes alarmingly apparent how many cats live there!

"Cat 'N' Mouse" by Steven Millhauser- this one reads like a script of old Tom and Jerry cartoons- complete with anvils falling, heads getting cut off, sticks of dynamite exploding in the hand (or paw, actually). But interspersed with the slapstick action are segments which narrate what the cat and mouse are thinking, respectively- one driven to catch the other, one certain to die if he ever fails- each wondering if they could ever put their differences aside and be friends- frustrated and bored beyond belief by the constant conflict they are in.

There is also a piece by Vicki Hearne, which was the final chapter of this book- and I had just as much difficulty reading it the second time around. The best part of the entire volume was the poetry, cover artwork and cartoons interspersed throughout. I really did like most of those! But not enough that I'd probably ever want to own this book.

Rating: 2/5        329 pages, 2013

Dec 12, 2014

Where the Blind Horse Sings

by Kathy Stevens

This book is about an animal sanctuary which focuses on rescuing mistreated and abandoned farm animals. Via her work, Stevens educates the public about how poorly livestock is treated when used for food production by big industries, the depth of emotional feeling these animals can have, that they deserve better from our hands. Her book is all about the animals- where they have come from and how they recover (or sometimes don't). She doesn't focus a lot on the horrors they have escaped, but on their healing process and the personalities that unfold as these terrified, ill and pain-wracked animals find kindness for the first time in their lives. Out of the hundreds of animals that have come to her sanctuary, she shares the stories of a mere handful: some very assertive pigs, a duck that has never seen water, an ex-fighting rooster- said to be vicious, but it wanted to sleep on her bed, and was passionate about car rides! This rooster became the only animal Stevens took out on public visits, because most animals found travel away from their new safe home too stressful. She tells of her beloved dog who is always in the midst of things helping out, and a belligerent sheep who becomes a self-appointed guardian to the other animals. There are many more. My favorite story is also one that threads constantly through the book- about a blind horse who arrived at the sanctuary frightened to take a single step forward- he had spent weeks prior standing motionless to avoid barbed wire in a small pen. With immense patience, Stevens instilled trust and confidence in this horse- she taught him simple verbal directions and eventually was able to not only take the horse on trail rides, but to ride him across flat fields - at a run. The joy this horse felt at being able to really move again was unmistakable. This is a very accessible book full of compassion for the animals. While the author doesn't go into a lot of detail about what the various animals have suffered in their past, she provides an extensive list of titles for those who want to know. I've read a few of those books, have others on my list.

I borrowed this one from the library. First heard of it on Opinions of a Wolf

Rating: 3/5         204 pages, 2007

Dec 9, 2014

more TBR

bloggers duly noted below are guilty of adding to my future reading pleasure!
Lives in Ruins by Marilyn Johnson- Sophisticated Dorkiness
The Hills is Lonely by Lillian Beckworth- Read Warbler
Tracks by Robyn Davidson- Caroline Bookbinder
The Guest Cat by Takashi Hirade- Farm Lane Books Blog
The Republic of Imagination by Azar Nafisi- At Home with Books
Spoiled Brats by Simon Rich- Bermudaonion's Weblog
Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer- So Many Books
The Writer's Garden by Jackie Bennett- So Many Books
Getting Life by Michael Morton- Shannon's Book Bag
Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz- So Many Books
Bad Elephant Far Stream by Samuel Hawley- Opinions of a Wolf

Through the Eyes of the Condor

An Aerial Vision of Latin America
by Robert B. Haas

I picked this book up from the library at the same time of Through the Eyes of the Gods. It's a similar tome featuring aerial photography- in this case crossing the rivers, deltas, mountains, jungles, cities and deserts of South America. I was a bit disappointed- for some reason I did not find the imagery as compelling as the prior book, although in this case the writing wherein Haas describes his work and vision (the technical aspects, travel difficulties, thrill of discovery, art of working with the camera from diverse angles created by banking aircraft) was more interesting. The forward was lovely, very poetic writing. My favorite photograph is one showing an expanse of giant lily pads- the kind that can support a person! If you look very closely you can tell that this isn't a pond like a Monet painting- on one lily pad a caiman rests, looking small as a salamander from the distance. I also really liked a particular photo showing salt pits just off a coastline- making a curious abstract pattern against blue waters- and one of crops, the tight circular heads of cabbage in straight geometric rows, bold green on reddish soil. Other images sent me to look for more information- lithium fields, the Huayllay "rock forest". Things I'd never seen before.

Rating: 3/5    232 pages, 2007

Dec 8, 2014

The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter

by Holly Robinson

A lively read- it's amusing and interesting, reminded me of many things and taught me others. It's another memoir, about growing up in a family with a very curious secret: her father raised gerbils. By the thousands. Some were sold to pet shops, but most were to supply medical and scientific research. The author's father was in the miliary, and for the longest time kept his gerbil hobby a secret, because it wouldn't look proper. Later when he had his own gerbil farm instead of a basement or garage setup, he just let neighbors in the rural community assume they bred rats. His efforts to produce animals with certain traits needed in research led to her father becoming famous among certain circles, but it wasn't until Holly grew up and took her own children to a gerbil show that she discovered another side: gerbil fanciers. Actually though, most of the story isn't about gerbils. It's about growing up: dealing with siblings, parents, moving, going through a horse craze, first boyfriends and so on. The chapters about her sister who had cystic fibrosis reminded me acutely of a book I read decades ago called Alex: the Life of a Child. I like the way this book is written- it has a very engaging style that reminded me of Betty MacDonald.

Rating: 3/5        288 pages, 2009

Dec 6, 2014

Comet's Tale

How the Dog I Rescued Saved My Life
by Steven D. Wolf with Lynette Padwa

Memoir of a man and his dog. Steve, more often called Wolf, had recently separated from his family to live in a warmer climate during winter months, due to a debilitating back condition. He encountered a group that rescued abandoned racing greyhounds, and was captivated by a particular dog, Comet. Even though he had trouble taking care of himself, Wolf adopted Comet and helped her learn about daily life: raised pretty much as livestock, she had never been inside a house, never encountered stairs, tile floors, dog treats, children, crowds of shoppers and the like. As Wolf learned to understand Comet, she gradually lost her nervousness, gained confidence, and became devoted to him. When his health and mobility seriously deteriorated, he decided to train Comet as an assistance dog. Trainers he consulted had never heard of a greyhound being an assistance animal, none of them would take her on. So Wolf taught her himself, through trial-and-error, how to help him perform daily tasks that had become difficult or impossible- from opening doors and picking up dropped objects to navigating stairs and shopping malls. It's amazing to see how Comet stepped into her new role and learned what was expected of her. But it's not just a story of this man and his dog. It's also about living with disability, the strain it puts on his family relationships, what it's like to deal with decades of chronic pain (I thought about The Camera My Mother Gave Me more than once while reading this book). Not without its serious and funny moments, this is overall an inspiring and touching story.

Rating: 3/5        257 pages, 2012

more opinions:
Linus's Blanket

Dec 5, 2014

I'm signing up

for the Dare again. Read the details here. I'm glad it's being held one more time! I always enjoy participating. I've slowly been working towards a goal of getting through enough TBR shelves in my home that unread material will fit in one bookcase. I'd like to shuffle a hundred not-to-be-kept books out the door (total unread pile is still near two hundred). So this will help me get closer to the goal.

I don't know why I always mistakenly think that vacation means more reading time, it usually doesn't. My own kids were gone for more than a week over thanksgiving, but my time was spent at my boyfriend's house with folks visiting, cooking and cleaning, good conversations, raking leaves off the yard, throwing leaves onto children (my boyfriend's son and niece), raking them up again, working on some creative projects for christmas gifts, working on the computer and so on. I had checked out a pile of tempting books from the library in anticipation of extra reading time, but then realized the Dare was upcoming. I kept the three I was in the middle of, two more that are actually on my TBR list, and returned the rest.

So let's see how many more volumes I can pile onto that out-the-door heap, or fall in love with and reshelve with my keepers.

Dec 2, 2014

Through the Eyes of the Gods

by Robert B. Haas
An Aerial View of Africa

Photography from the air. Stunning spreads of imagery captured from a small low-flying aircraft. Revealing patterns of the landscape, wrinkles in rolling hills and sand dunes, spreading fingers from volcanic islands, weaving threads of ancient animal trails and pathways. The sinuous lines of riverbeds, the undulating shapes of coral reefs, the movement of herds. Human activity is pictured here too- scattering of huts, pockmarks of dying pits at a riverside, lines of fruit trays or conical heaps of salt dotting an area, snaky curves of fish traps- but mostly it is an image of the soul of the land, of its soil and flora, of the animal life moving in and out of view. I particularly noted the description of how a hunt is viewed so different from the air than from the ground- instead of a close focus on individuals you get a picture of the herd movement responding to the pressure of the predator. The author's musings on the land and its wildlife make for thoughtful, poetic reading. My favorite passage was about how deeply mesmerizing it can be to sit and watch the ocean waves or a flickering fire. There are also some writings on the conundrum of dealing with officials in Africa (moving through airports, trying to extend his stay, avoiding exploitation from pilots and so on) and the technical challenges involved in aerial photography.

I've had my eye on this volume for a long time. It has been high up on a display shelf behind the information counter at my public library for ages. Every time I walked by, I glanced at it and wondered what it contained. Now I know. It's the kind of book you really want to linger over.

Rating: 4/5          208 pages, 2005

Nov 30, 2014

Beautiful Joe

by Marshall Saunders

Joe was not beautiful by any means. He was a mixed-breed dog (a "cur") owned by an abusive man who starved his mother, killed his unwanted littermates, and brutally chopped off his ears and tail. The dog was rescued by passerby who heard his screams, and taken into a home full of kind people obsessed with animals. The mother in this family believed her sons would grow up to be kind, considerate people if they had animals to care for, so she gave each of them specific charges. One boy kept goldfish and canaries, another fed and cared for the dogs in the household and so on. The book is not really a story of Joe's life, but a collection of tales about animals as they are related by various human characters in the book. Joe listens to a lot of conversations, and reports on them. The stories all press morals about being kind to animals (including wildlife), about training them properly and shunning abusive methods. Quite a number of people in the book take it upon themselves to succor animals in need wherever they find them, to punish people who abuse animals, and to correct and teach them if they've been neglecting them in ignorance. There are lots of short tales about dogs, horses, cattle, sheep, pigs and other livestock- how they respond to kindness and suffer from poor use. There's a story about a travelling Italian with a group of trained animals that perform (these are treated kindly), another about a man who abandons his livestock to starve (the description of their deplorable conditions reminded me of Animal Cops episodes). There are related incidents of how cruelly wild animals are trapped or killed, and quite a few passages about how animals that are raised for food should be treated well and humanely killed. It's also pointed out how keeping animals in poor condition can pass diseases on to people- for example, a slovenly milkman causes other people to become ill from the contaminated milk he sells. It is pretty sentimental overall, and the book tells its age- women are not yet able to vote in this story, anyone who doesn't attend church is considered "awfully wicked", Pasteur is alive and well in France- people travel to him to be cured of disease. There's also a focus on birds- how many thousands die to provide decoration for ladies' hats, and how the countryside suffers from overpopulation of insect pests as a result. On the whole, the city is shunned as an evil, dirty place and the countryside and farm life extolled throughout. A large portion of the book describes one young lady's visit to a relative's farm for the summer. I thought it rather laughable when a man tells some younger people that he doesn't worry about his sheep falling prey to dogs because Beautiful Joe would protect them- when in fact it seemed that Joe was always in the house at his mistress' side, or travelling with her- he never let her out of his sight. Not guarding the sheep. But that's a small point. It was an interesting read. Surprising how much- and how little- has changed. Animals raised for food still suffer for profit, though in a different fashion...

A few other things I recall now, looking at notes I made while reading- the stories warn against overfeeding and indulging animals just as much as neglecting them. At one point the family has a pet parrot and I was both surprised at its use of language (far more sophisticated than I think even a parrot would know to use) and that its diet included coffee grounds! I liked once scene where a girl breaks up a dogfight by throwing ground pepper in the dogs' faces (great use for pepper spray!) I appreciated the point the author made that dogs must be well-trained, but the way she described a puppy's training seemeed a bit ludicrous to me; did not sound like a method that would really work.

It is clear from the introduction to this book that it was written in response to the overwhelming popularity of Black Beauty, in the hopes of raising awareness to the suffering of other animal species and extending goodwill to all. And the author was a woman, but used a pseudonym because she feared not being taken seriously. I read this one as an ebook, from Project Gutenberg (what a wealth that site is!)

Rating: 3/5       1893, 256 pages