Dec 31, 2007

Here Keller, Train This

by George Keller

In the 1950s a college professor from Bloomsburg, PA decided to follow his childhood dream of working in a circus an a lion tamer. A friend delivered a mountain lion via train to his home and he put it in his garage, over his wife's protests. His kids were delighted. Over the years Keller taught at the university in the mornings, and trained his lion in the afternoon, to a watchful audience of local kids. Before long he had accumulated a variety of big cats in his backyard, which he wintered in a car dealership building in town. At first Keller took his act, "Keller's Jungle Killers" on the road to local fairs and attractions, but eventually he achieved his dream of working with the Ringling Brother Barnum and Bailey circus, and later in Disneyland as well. Keller developed his own methods of working with the big cats, which used hand signals and background music. He claimed to never enter the ring with a chair or gun for protection. He also created acts that included a variety of cats: tigers, lions, leopards, etc. instead of just one species, which is uncommon. Full of fascinating experiences, Here Keller, Train This! is very interesting and entertaining.

Rating: 4/5 ......... 246 pages, 1961

Dec 30, 2007

A Circle of Children

by Mary McCracken

I first read A Circle of Children over ten years ago, having picked it up at random off a shelf in a thrift store. It touched me deeply, and I have read it several times since. Mary McCracken was a volunteer visiting classrooms for learning disabled children when she decided she wanted to work there, despite her friends' protests. She started out as an aid, then substitute teacher, then worked her way up to run a classroom of her own. Her gentle and patient methods showed good results as she taught many of the children basic skills they did not have before, like using the toilet, eating a variety of healthy foods, dressing themselves, speaking to communicate. In cooperation with another special-education teacher, she took her class once a week on a mini field trip, to help the children gain experiences they would not otherwise be exposed to. This book is inspirational, funny and well written. It is still one of my old favorites. Even though it may be a little outdated now, I think it still gives a good picture of what difficulties learning-disabled children have, and what it is like to teach them.

Rating: 4/5 ......... 239 pages, 1974

Dec 29, 2007

Mormon Country

by Walace Stegner

This was one of the books quoted in Into the Wild so when I found it on my father's shelf I picked it up to read. My father said he's a great writer, Stegner. But I just couldn't get into it. Physical descriptions of the land, and organization of the early Latter-Day Saint settlers who cultivated the desert. I flipped ahead and found much of the same; I think it was the writing style that bored me, for now.

Abandoned ....0/5... 362 pages, 1981

The Cat in the Dryer

and 222 Other Urban Legends
by Thomas J. Craughwell

This amusing book contains over 200 stories that spread rapidly by word of mouth in spite of being rather fabricated or outrageous simply because they are just enough believable that we want to share them with everyone. The kind of stories that happened to a friend of a friend of a friend. Craughwell starts out the book by defining what an "urban legend" is, then launches into a handful of stories that cropped up just after 9/11. The rest of the volume is chock full of mishaps, pranks, common sense blunders, the doings of celebrities and minor disasters to unfortunate pets. The common thread is that they are all, however much we want to believe them, untrue. Craughwell tracks down the origins of many of the stories (which are only a page or two in length), lists numerous variations of each tale, and explores what made them intriguing enough to become the little legends they are. The Cat in the Dryer is great light reading material, that will make you laugh a lot and think again about the stories you hear.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 256 pages, 2002

Dec 28, 2007

Into the Wild

by Jon Krakauer

I was fascinated to discover at the end of the film Into the Wild that it is based on a true story, so when my sister loaned me the book to read while visiting, I gobbled it up. In a journalistic, not narrative style, Into the Wild looks at the life of Christopher McCandless, a young man from an affluent family who spent years after college graduation hitchhiking around the country, tramping through remote areas and planning for an Alaskan adventure. Krakauer not only examines what forces in McCandless' life and personality prompted him to seek out solitary wilderness adventures, but describes a period in his own life where he did the same thing, and compares McCandless to other young men who also adventured and died in the wilderness before him. A combination of youthful idealism and desire to live off the land on his own ability lead McCandless off "into the wild" from which he attempted, but could not return due to several mistakes and errors in judgement. Full of quotes from books McCandless drew inspiration from, and interviews with people he met during his travels (and left strong impressions upon) this is a fascinating look at one young man's yearning for pure wilderness experience. Whether you think of him as a foolhardy kid who took unreasonable risks or an admirable bold adventurer, there is something to be learned from reading his story. (Don't go off in the woods alone without a map, for starters). I enjoyed it very much, in spite of the unfavorable reviews it has received elsewhere.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 207 pages, 1996

More opinions at:
Musings of a Bookish Kitty
Desert Reader

Love, Laughter and a Touch of Insanity

Dec 26, 2007

Thoughts While Tending Sheep

by W. G. Ilefeldt

This inspirational memoir is a quick and comfortable read. Thoughts While Tending Sheep is from the perspective of a retired man looking back on his life. The author discusses his many life challenges, describing how he overcame obstacles and grew from a frustrated dyslexic child, barely able to read and write, into the published author he is today. Living in California with his wife and a border collie named Maxie, Ilefeldt is now occupied in raising sheep. He describes helping the sheep give birth, treating them for disease, protecting them from predators and parting with them at market time. Among the descriptions of daily chores with the sheep, he reflects on the beauty of the countryside, muses on life lessons the animals teach him and shares his insights on the wandering paths our lives take, tying a lot of it into God. I liked this book a lot the first time I read it, but at the second reading it did not hold as much interest for me.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 229 pages, 1988

Dec 25, 2007

The Lions of Living Free

by Jack Couffer

I picked up The Lions of Living Free with a mixture of curiosity and desperation during a holiday visit to a house unpopulated by books. I found it in a used bookstore on Ocean Street in San Francisco, back in a corner mixed up with history volumes. I instantly recognized the title and quality of photographs as belonging to that series of stories about a lioness named Elsa raised by a game warden's wife and released into the African wild in the 1960's. I read the books about Elsa long ago: Born Free, Living Free and Forever Free. This slim volume is written by the filmmaker who created a movie of the second book, which is about Elsa's three wild-born cubs becoming orphaned, being captured and relocated into the Serengeti. I didn't quite know what to expect of the book. It doesn't tell much about the storyline of the film, but all about the production: how they worked with the lions, difficulties making a film while isolated in the bush, relations with the local Masai tribesmen, encounters with various wild animals, and reflections on conservation as the African beauty sank into the heart of this filmmaker. There's plenty of photographs. Told in a journalistic style, it can be a somewhat dry read but I did learn a few interesting things. If it had just been more detailed or focused more on the actual lions, I believe I would have been quite pleased.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 96 pages, 1972

Dec 22, 2007

The Tipping Point

How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
by Malcolm Gladwell

This book is all about how ideas and behavior spread through society. Gladwell explores and analyzes in detail what exactly are the factors that cause something to suddenly become widely popular or effective. Challenging our normal assumptions that things spread in a gradual way, he show us that instead most epidemics (of any sort) reach a certain point at which they "tip" or suddenly grow at exponential rates. The Tipping Point looks at precisely what causes this to happen, and how people can manipulate the spread of ideas or information by making small changes that have large results. It discusses this in such varied contexts as the spread of syphilis, the popularity of a brand of shoes, what makes people heavy smokers, how to most effectively teach a poor community about diabetes, what made Paul Revere's midnight ride so monumental, how New York City fights crime in the subways, what makes the educational tv program Blue's Clues so riveting for children, and much more. Really a fascinating and thought-provoking book.

Rating: 4/5........ 301 pages, 2000

Dec 16, 2007

Meme: Cataloguing

Do you use any of the online book-cataloguing sites, like Library Thing or Shelfari? Why or why not?

If not an online catalog, do you use any other method to catalog your book collection? Excel spreadsheets, index cards, a notebook, anything?


I joined Library Thing a few months ago and have been very pleased with it! My previous method of keeping track of my books was a simple spreadsheet list that was never up to date or sufficient. I like the online site so much better. It's easy to use, it's fun to see other libraries that are similar to mine, you can put up book cover images as well, and do all kinds of sorting. Sometimes I just go there to play with the sorting features, browse other peoples' libraries, and read the Library Thing forums.

Question from Booking Through Thursday

Dec 11, 2007

When I Was Puerto Rican

by Esmeralda Santiago

I was disappointed in When I Was Puerto Rican. It is about a young girl whose mother moves with her and several siblings to the United States when she is thirteen. I liked the beginning well enough, but I was expecting most of the book to be about her experiences in the new country, after establishing the cultural norms and what life was like for her back in Puerto Rico. But the part in New York doesn't happen until page 213, when the book is almost over. I felt like it really could have gone more in depth about the confusion of cultural identity she felt among the Blacks, Latinos and Italians in Brooklyn. A quote on the flyleaf compared this book to Call It Sleep and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, two of my favorite books ever. When I Was Puerto Rican really pales by comparison. It is a rather sad story about a large, poor family whose parents no longer love each other, and a young girl who gets uprooted from her culture. But it doesn't have the depth of Call It Sleep or the rich descriptions and vivid characterization of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 274 pages, 1993

Dec 8, 2007

Divine Canine

the Monks' Way to a Happy, Obedient Dog
by the Monks of New Skete

If I owned a dog, I would definitely want this book. It is an excellent volume on how to train your dog using the methods of the Monks of New Skete, who breed, train and sell german shepherds. They also have a program where an owner can drop off their dog for four weeks of obedience training. Here are the stories of nine dogs with different needs and problems who come to the monastery. There are dogs who ignore commands, lunge at cars, act amorous to people's legs, nip children, mouth arms and leashes, jump up on people, and are aggressive to other dogs.Each chapter shows how the monks understand and address the dog's problem; always it is resolved via the five basic obedience skills: heel, sit, stay, down and come. They profess that most behavior problems come from the dog holding (or wanting to hold) a dominant position in the "family pack." Obedience training teaches the dog his place, asserts human leadership, and gives the dog correction when he misbehaves, replaced by a command he can follow. It appears to be extremely effective. At the end of the book is an in-depth explanation of how to methodically teach your dog the five basic skills. Interspersed between the chapters on obedience are small Q&A pages addressing such questions as how much exercise your dog needs, how to choose a vet, types of training collars to use, introducing a new puppy to an older dog, etc. Divine Canine is very practical, informative and user-friendly. It is illustrated with many beautiful color photographs.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 256 pages, 2007

Read more reviews at: SMS Book Reviews

Dec 5, 2007

Lying Awake

by Mark Salzman

Lying Awake reads like a poem. It is about a middle-aged nun who after years of struggling to feel more spiritual, begins to have intense visions that bring her closer to God in a mystical way. Unfortunately, they're accompanied by terrible headaches that cause her to black out. Her doctor informs her that she's having mild epileptic seizures, a condition easily treatable with surgery. Are her visions a gift from God, or just a symptom of disease? She doesn't want to loose her visions, and foregos surgery to live with the suffering and euphoria of the seizures. But when they begin to be debilitating, the other nuns question her choice and the source of her spiritual inspiration. This is a beautiful and thought-provoking novel, permeated with the quiet scenes of life in a cloistered monastery.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 192 pages, 2001

Read another review: Puss Reboots

Dec 4, 2007

Kavik the Wolf Dog

by Walt Morey

Kavik the Wolf Dog is a great adventure story. Kavik (meaning "wolverine") is the leader of a winning sled dog team in Alaska. A rich man in California purchases him, but before leaving Alaska the plane carrying Kavik crashes. A young teenager finds him trapped in a cage in the snow, and determines to nurse him back to health. Then the rich man finds out where Kavik is, and claims him back. But Kavik has other plans, and makes the journey from California to Alaska to reunite with the boy who saved his life. Along the way he has to rediscover the courage he lost in the plane crash, or he'll never survive the rigors of the wild he must traverse, especially when he runs into wild wolves... Most of the story is focused on Kavik's journey back to Alaska. I first read this book when my grandparents gave it to me as a kid. It was and still is a favorite. Written for a juvenile audience.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 192 pages, 1968

Dec 3, 2007

Wind, Sand and Stars

by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Lyrical writing, philosophical reflections and the adventures of an early aviator make Wind, Sand and Stars a treasure. I've always loved Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince, and was interested in trying another book by the same author. In 1926, he got a job working as an airplane pilot for the Latecoere Company, an early precursor of what is now Air France. Early planes were unpredictable in nature, often "falling apart in midair," needing constant repairs. Crashes were common. Pilots would sometimes cover their few dashboard lights at night to navigate by the stars. Saint-Exupery recounts many adventures flying through storms, getting lost, surviving wrecks. In one notable incident, he crashed in the Sahara Desert. Along with his navigator Paul, he struggled through the dessert in search of water before being rescued by Bedouin people. Interspersed with the stories of his adventures are the author's philosophical musings on life and death, what we should aspire to, what makes mankind noble... a bit romantic, but well written. In reading this memoir, the reader can find many incidents and ideas the author incorporated into The Little Prince. I really enjoyed it.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 240 pages, 1939

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A Work in Progress