Apr 16, 2015

Bad Elephant Far Stream

by Samuel Hawley

The life of a circus elephant. Far Stream, given many different names later in life, was captured and taken by force from her forest home in Asia. Separated from her family, shipped across the ocean, she spent thirty years learning routines and performing for peoples' amusement. This sad and disturbing book details what it might be like to lead such a life- from the elephant's viewpoint. The confusing lessons on unnatural dancing and balancing acts- beaten into them by force. The long hours standing in confinement, in chains, in railway cars, in stables. Being teased and poked and stared at by thousands of strangers. Expected to accept everything mutely and submit endlessly. It's no wonder some of them "went bad", and this particular elephant, called Topsy near the end of her shortened life, did just that. Simmering resentment built up during long years of bad treatment and idle torment lashed out just a few times, and she was sentenced to death, deemed too dangerous to keep. Done by triple means- poison, hanging and electrocution with over six thousand volts, orchestrated by Thomas Eddison himself (who probably wanted the publicity), her death was a spectacle in itself.

Distressing as all this is, for me the most poignant parts of the book were reading about her distant memories of the forest, the physical sensations she would dream away into, removing herself from current boredom and misery. Or the one moment she actually escaped and roamed the countryside for a week, finally realizing she couldn't find enough food to keep alive, she missed the company of other circus elephants, even the reassurance of familiar routine and human direction. It was a sad reminder of how used to this travelling life she had become, how dependent on the people who enslaved her. There's so much more to this book- the way circuses were run, the constant changing hands, being rented out for events and such. The danger of male elephants- eventually Far Stream saw most of them disappear from the circus tents, as people realized they were just too much liability. How things changed over the decades- the first few troupes she was with journeyed by horse-pulled wagons, later it was all by rail. She survived quite a few derailments, witnessed or experienced many kinds of accidents as well.

It's all based on actual accounts of circus elephants, most of the incidents in the book are purportedly true although of course the details have been re-imagined. They feel very authentic- the author's notes at end of the book list numerous sources that I bet are rich reading in themselves. Even the way the author chose to portray how the elephants communicated among themselves with contact calls, reassurances or moments of humor, how they felt each others' emotions and shared memories, didn't feel contrived to me (as it did to some extent in The White Bone). It felt like the way things could be. Most of all I felt sad at the complexity, intelligence and patience of these great animals that were often treated so inhumanely, for so long.

I received a copy of this book from the author, via a giveaway at Opinions of a Wolf. Thanks to them.

Rating: 4/5      263 pages, 2013

Apr 9, 2015

Bird Brainteasers

by Patrick Merrell

Curious and interesting facts about birds, lovely quotes and myriad games and puzzles pack this short volume. The illustrations, done in an ink style reminiscent of old woodcuts, is quite lovely, and I really like the inclusion of a page of dodo sketches, from a 1601 journal kept aboard the ship De Gelderland. I enjoyed working through the crosswords, searches and other word puzzles that all feature bird names. This little book is a quick, fun read (probably would make a great gift for any bird-lover).

Some of the more interesting tidbits I read: when the James Bond character was created, author Ian Flemmings was looking for a very ordinary name and glanced at the cover of his favorite bird book- by James Bond, an ornithologist. Cassowaries are the most dangerous bird- in some zoos they are considered the most dangerous animal. It was also interesting to read about all the different presidents who have kept pet birds, and of many musicians throughout history who have incorporated specific birdsongs in their melodies. Mozart kept a starling, Charles Darwin had a pet crow, Picasso was fond of pigeons. Audubon killed hundreds of birds for collections and to study their anatomy for his paintings. There is a bird I never heard of before, the hooded pitohui, which has poisonous feathers and skin!

My favorite quote, by Henry Ward Beecher: If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows.

Rating: 3/5      324 pages, 2008

Apr 8, 2015

People of the Sea

by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear

I can't remember the last time a stranger approached me in public because of a book I was reading! But it happened just a few days ago in the park while my kids were playing- this guy came up to me surprised and delighted to see I was reading a book from his favorite series. He (and his dad) like the books so much they wait anxiously every few years for the next one to be published. The First North American series is written by a husband-wife team, one is an anthropologist, the other a historian and archaeologist. As far as I understand it, each book is set deep in pre-history, based on archaeological findings and ancient native legends from different areas of the continent.

This one is set in the region that became California, some eleven thousand years ago, in a time of glaciers and great change. It pitches into the storyline abruptly with people facing epidemics of illness while the megafauna around them is disappearing, especially the great mammoth herds. The focus is on two characters- a spiritual leader struggling to understand the changes and upheaval his people face, and a young woman fleeing her irate husband when he discovers she's committed adultery. I'm pretty sure their paths intersected, but I didn't get that far. I just couldn't stay interested. I think because the story was told too quickly, it's an easy enough read but it was all about what happened among the people and I wished for a bit more description of the land and the animals... Disappointed I couldn't get into this one after the glowing personal recommendation I received, but the series as a whole has a lot of positive reviews online. Some people mention this one in particular is their least-favorite. I have another on my shelf, I'll give it a try instead.

Abandoned        425 pages, 1993

Apr 6, 2015

Through the Eyes of a Young Naturalist

by William S. Sipple

I thought I would love this book. Maybe it was just hard to appreciate, right on the heels of My Family and Other Animals. It's an autobiographical work, the author describing how he explored the woods as a boy, his fishing trips and trapping exploits, his later bird-watching activities and work in local conservation efforts (Maryland wetlands). Unfortunately, it's not very engaging. The writing is very straightforward, descriptive but in a flat style that was frankly rather boring- we saw this bird, we hiking up this hill, we visited this pond, we wondered whose tracks those were oh and now I know they were this animal etc etc. It's the kind of book you might like if you knew the author personally, but otherwise not really. There are a few awkward aspects to it that make me wonder if it's self-published. Although the physical book itself is of good quality paper and materials, the illustrations are unpolished and look copied straight from photographs- then reading the flyleaf I learned (not too surprised) they were done by a student. The flyleaf doesn't tell you what the book is about in an interesting manner, but instead lists the author's credentials. And through the entire book, words which I'd expect to see in italics, are instead all underlined- book and article titles, species names, birdcalls written phonetically. It made the reading a bit jarring. I ended up skimming a lot, to see if the actual incidents described (instead of just mentioning all the animals he saw and places he went) were worth reading, but they weren't enough to keep me going so I didn't finish the book.

Abandoned     204 pages, 1991

Apr 5, 2015

My Family and Other Animals

by Gerald Durrell

Durrell describes his childhood on the Greek island of Corfu, with his interesting family. Each of his siblings had their passion. One of his older brothers was into literature and art, the other guns and hunting. The author himself was, of course, fascinated by wildlife and as he was often left to his own devices all day long, he spent his time prowling the island observing myriad insects and small animals, catching them when he could. He brought home a wide variety of small creatures- turtles, birds, fish, lizards and so on- continually upsetting his family when they found scorpions in the matchbox or snakes in the bathtub. Finally they realized he wasn't going to abandon his interests, and gave him a room of his own to dedicate to his nature studies and growing collection. He was also blessed to have a series of personal tutors who recognized and shared, each in their own way, his passion for nature. One was as happy to spend afternoons catching insects and wading through marshes as Durrell himself, another later on had his own attic full of bird cages and a balcony converted into aviaries. Aside from the descriptions of animals and his minor adventures with his dogs finding, watching and catching things, there's also plenty of hilarious stories about incidents in his family. Even in the midst of an argument, trying to rescue a dinner party ruined by a pair of magpies or put out a fire in someone's bedroom, they have the funniest exchanges ever. It's a delightful book, one of the best Durrell I've read so far. I often fail to find other reviews on his animal-collecting books, but this one seems more popular and I can see why.

The opening passage alone cracked me up: It was originally intended to be a mildly nostalgic account of the natural history of the island, but I made a grave mistake by introducing my family into the book in the first few pages. Having got themselves on paper, they then proceeded to establish themselves and invite friends to share the chapters. It was only with the greatest difficulty, and by exercising considerable cunning, that I managed to retain a few pages here and there which I could devote exclusively to animals. Well yes, but the animals and descriptions of the countryside definitely stand out to me. His observations of male tortoises wrestling during the mating season and of a large preying mantis battling with a gecko on his bedroom ceiling were the best parts of the book.

Rating: 4/5       319 pages, 1956

more opinions:
Read Warbler
Rivers I Have Known
Valentina's Room
Shiny New Books

Apr 1, 2015

another Dare completed

Yesterday was the end of the TBR Double Dog Dare! hosted yearly by C.B. James.

If I count up how many book posts I've done since the Dare started, I read 22 books and abandoned one. There were a lot more I shuffled onto the discard pile, where I sampled twenty pages or so and then just realized I didn't want to continue, and the book didn't merit a post- I didn't get far enough into it to say much about it. My "unread" tag on LibraryThing now has 174 books remaining (down from 190-something three months ago), I don't have exact numbers because several times lately when going to mark a book off the unread list I realized it wasn't on there to begin with. I usually try to put books into the catalog when they come into my house, but I've missed some.

My TBR shelves are now down to eight and a half- it feels a lot more tidy and manageable. I no longer have stacks of unread books on the floor (except for one of cookbooks) or across the tops of shelves. Feels like I'm getting somewhere!

I only brought a few new books in during the Dare- one about an elephant that I won from Wolfshowl, and a lovely illustrated version of Pinocchio I just found at an antique store yesterday. I had one little lapse early on in the Dare, when I came home after a long day with a bag full of books a friend had given me for the kids. Including a cute little series about a hamster, and I sat down and read the first one on the spot. Then realized I broke the Dare! I've since held off reading the rest of the Freddy books... So I didn't really stick to it 100%. But I feel like I accomplished a lot on the TBR pile, and that's something.

Mar 31, 2015

Three Singles to Adventure

by Gerald Durrell

The book starts abruptly, without much introduction or explanation. It was the early 1950's, when Durrell (looks to be in his twenties, from a photo in the book) and a few companions set off for Guiana, on a trip to collect wild animals for zoos. (He seems already experienced at this venture- I wonder as I read more of his books, if I'd find one that describes his initial attempts. I bet that's hilarious). The title comes from a phrase referencing the tickets bought, with end destination a small village called Adventure. Through scenery strikingly reminiscent of the last book I read (but much briefer!) they travel into South America and visit a number of small villages and settlements, seeking a variety of specimens to take home. Sometimes he made short forays into the forest with his companions, but more often than not they simply asked the locals to show them animals- purchasing those the natives kept as pets or animals that hunters caught for them. He mentions quite a few curious creatures. Snakes, monkeys, lizards and caiman were common. More interesting to me was reading about the capybara, agouti, tree porcupine and an anteater they tried to catch by chasing it down on horseback and lassoing it! I was surprised at the final count: he had more than five hundred animals (of a variety of species) collected when it was time to board ship and home. Then describes the difficulties in keeping the animals clean and fed, and the inevitable losses (but doesn't say how many- I wonder how high the toll really was). The author's admiration for wildlife really shines through the pages, in spite of the fact that he was pulling them out of their native habitat to cart home for display and scientific study. It really seems he did the best he could by them. As well as delight in reading about the animals, there are lots of different characters here in the people met on their travels. One in particular that kept me laughing was a man eager to guide them, who continually had to impress and "one-up" with a better story, every time something happened. There are also lots of amusingly awkward incidents when animals nearly get away, and misunderstandings when communication was difficult.

It was sometimes a puzzle to read and try to picture the wildlife- they did not have the same common names I know, as Durrell often referred to them by local names- "pimpla hog" was a tree porcupine, "pipa toad" the surinam toad (I myself only first heard of this animal a year ago!), "sakiwinki" were the squirrel monkeys, and so on. The "crab dog" a type of raccoon- it amused me that this was such a strange animal to Durrell, until I remembered he was from England (raccoons are so familiar to me, but then they're native to the Americas. In his time perhaps he had never seen one before). I kept forgetting that "uwarie" was a possum- despised by the locals because it was a scavenging pest- they were astonished and delighted that Durrell's team eagerly bought these animals- I imagine it would be like someone coming here asking around to buy rats or cockroaches for their curiosity.

Rating: 3/5       191 pages, 1954

Mar 30, 2015

The Sea and the Jungle

by H.M. Tomlinson

I didn't know what this book was about at first, but I found the cover intriguing- it looks like woodcut panels. (They follow the timeline of the journey in the book, but the two on the back cover are first, chronologically). The first line definitely caught me: Everyone knows that the purpose of a travel book is to make the reader miserably envious of the author. It's a travel book unlike any other I've read. It describes the route of a cargo ship, a steamer that in 1909 carried a load of Welsh coal from Swansea to ParĂ¡, Brazil and then up the Amazon river and a small tributary to a site near the San Antonio Falls where it sat "in port" for a month while inspections were made and cargo unloaded. The return trip went via Barbados, past Jamaica and landed at Tampa, FL from where our narrator caught a train to New York and made his final way home.

I haven't spoken of him. He's actually not much of a figure in the story itself- mostly an observer. It begins rather abruptly when Tomlinson is on his way to work, feeling bitterly oppressed by the daily grind, and stops to have conversation with a sailor on the street. This man invites him to take passage on the cargo steamer (it being short a few hands) and our narrator pretty much ditches his job, family and responsibilities in an instant to go along. (If you read the forward it becomes apparent the sailor was his brother, but still it seems very impulsive!) From there the book is all about the journey. I liked reading it, but the descriptions can be so dense it's hard to keep track of what you're reading about sometimes. The author has interesting insights and musing to share about everything he witnesses. The few momentous events seem to occur to other people, and there are a number of tall tales and travel stories told by other people met along the way. Tomlinson went aboard the ship in role of purser, which I understand means his job was to keep track of accounts, so he doesn't seem to do much but sit around chatting with people and watching everyone else work. It really does give you a vivid sense of place, the pitch and roll of the ocean, smothering heat inside the belly of the ship, characters of the deckhands (most did not speak English), the changes of weather, the sudden wall of greenery of South American jungle, glimpses of native people, birds and astonishingly gorgeous butterflies (never any wildlife larger than a peccary or anaconda), fears of mosquitoes and disease, and a crazy story about this railroad being built deep in the rain forest headed who knows where.

Certain aspects of the book reminded me vividly of The Lord of the Flies, Mister Johnson by Joyce Cary and State of Wonder but it's hard to put my finger on exactly why.

Rating: 3/5     302 pages, 1912

Mar 29, 2015

The Dangerous Book for Dogs

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

Just the kind of light-hearted, amusing read I needed. A book of instructions pitched to dogs themselves, it includes advice on things like how to defend territory from the mailman, drive dinner guests from the house (with great subtlery), select the best shoes for chewing, get out of and destroy stupid costumes and train the owner to feed you when you want. The dogs' viewpoint on sharing a household with cats and the inevitability of bathtime (horrible but still vastly preferrable to visiting the groomer) were hilarious. Also pretty amusing were the doggy advice on how to woo a female in heat and why humans disdain the lovely odors of fresh dead carcasses and feces, but won't share drinks from their toilet bowl. In between the advice and instructions, there are tidbits on famous dogs in history and literature, most of which I found rather inane. But the one about the dog fighting a toaster was pretty funny.

Rating: 3/5         192 pages, 2007