Nov 29, 2008

Through Wolf's Eyes

by Jane Lindskold

I thought I would enjoy this fantasy novel about a feral child who winds up in the middle of court intrigue. In this alternate universe, "Firekeeper" is a woman who was raised in the wild by extra-large, super-smart wolves. She's discovered by a group of men from the King's court, searching for remains of a lost expedition into the wilderness. Instead they find her- and guess that they might have found an heir to the throne. Firekeeper goes back with them, accompanied by one of the wolves. Once at court, she sets herself to learn how to act more human, making friends and enemies along the way. She has an uncanny understanding of court politics, facilitated by her life with the wolf pack. The first part of the book was pretty good, I liked reading about her experiences in the wilderness and wolfish interpretations of human behavior. But once the story got into schemes for the throne and headed towards warfare, I lost interest. So many new characters were introduced, it became difficult to keep track of them all (in spite of the book including both a family tree and a glossary of characters). Too many side plots added more confusion and bulk. I would have kept reading if the focus remained on Firekeeper, but it didn't. I quit Through Wolf's Eyes about halfway through.

Abandoned ...0/5..594 pages, 2001

Nov 28, 2008

Holes

by Louis Sachar

Holes is about a kid named Stanley who mistakenly gets accused of a crime and ends up at a reformative camp for delinquent youth. A camp in the middle of a dried- up desert lake. Where the boys have to dig five-foot deep holes every day. It's supposed to be character-building. Even though he's not guilty, Stanley doesn't protest much when he's sent to the camp, because his family has suffered a long series of misfortunes they attribute to a "dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather" who brought a curse upon them. At first the story is just about Stanley's efforts to learn the rules of camp, survive the desert heat and make his way among the other boys. But before long he realizes there's more than just character-building behind all the holes: the camp director is looking for something. Something which is connected to his own family history, which is revealed bit by bit in alternating chapters. The whole thing about the pig-stealing grandfather was a bit ridiculous, but woven in well, the two storylines unfolding side by side until at the end you learn the mystery behind the grandfather's curse, what's hidden under the dead lake and how Stanley aims to solve it all. I never really expected to read a book that had prison life, a hidden treasure, an ancestral love story and desert survival. It's pretty entertaining.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 233 pages, 1998

Read more reviews at:
Book Addiction
Book Therapy
Books and Movies

Nov 27, 2008

Ratha's Creature

by Clare Bell

I've just finished reading this book for the umpteenth time. Several years have passed since the last re-reading, and the story has not lost it vivid impact for me. Ratha's Creature is a fantasy novel featuring prehistoric big cats who speak and have an organized society. The main character is Ratha, young female of a clan called the Named, who herd primitive deer and horses for their livelihood. They are constantly at odds with the less-organized but more numerous Un-Named. Ratha has always thought (as her clan teaches) that the Un-Named lack intelligence and the ability to speak. But sudden events precipitate her out into the world beyond Clan territory, to face a revolution of her beliefs and assumptions. Her doubts begin with unsettling encounters with an Un-Named raider during clan skirmishes. Then a forest fire rages across the land and instead of being terrified, Ratha is fascinated by patches of flame she finds in the remains of trees. She figures out how to control and handle fire and bears it back triumphantly to share with her people- only to be perceived as a threat and thrown into exile. Having been taught herding skills exclusively, Ratha struggles to survive as a solitary hunter until she falls in with the Un-Named themselves...

Ratha's Creature is such a moving story. Every chapter runs high with emotion and pivotal events, firmly rooted in rich descriptions of the environment and the characters' perceptions. One of the things I love most about this book is how it puts the reader inside the feline mind. Rather than relying solely on dialog, the characters communicate a lot via body language, gestures, scents and sounds. Instinct often vies with reason in Ratha's mind. Despite being a cat, she's a very believable character- struggling with feelings of pride and hate, bold and daring one moment, cringing from her own mistakes the next. Her world is one full of savage brutality, and she faces its challenges with a curious, questioning mind, searching for hope and friendship amid moments of betrayal and despair.

Rating: 5/5 ........ 259 pages, 1983

More opinions at:
Into the Wardrobe
Things Mean a Lot
Words by Annie

Nov 25, 2008

The Ghost with Trembling Wings

Science, Wishful Thinking, and the Search for Lost Species
by Scott Weidensaul

I saw this book mentioned on Vulpes Libris a few months ago. It is based on several years the author spent traveling around the globe in search of extinct and seriously endangered species. In The Ghost with Trembling Wings, Weidensaul discusses why and how many species have disappeared, describes some which were thought lost forever but found again, and looks at errors and misguiding information that kept them in obscurity. He also examines many of the controversial issues surrounding efforts to recover those species teetering on the brink of disappearance.

The first few chapters of the book are full of birds, but after ninety pages the subject shifts to black-footed ferrets, and then deals with the Eastern cougar, some unlikely black leopard sightings in Great Britian, and an exploration of cryptozology (particularly Nessie of Loch Ness). The second half of the book interested me more, especially the part that describes some projects attempting to breed the likeness of extinct species out of their descendents who still retain genes for primitive characteristics, re-creating (in a sense) the aurochs, European forest horse and quagga from modern cattle, tarpan horses and zebras. Then there are descriptions of a trek through Tasmania in search of the thylacine- which reminded me of Carnivorous Nights, although this book is far more serious about it. The book closes with a chapter about the author's own search in Brazil for a bird that was seen by one man in the 1930's- and never since. A lot of the information in this book is dismaying, but it is also imbued with hope and persistent desires to discover some unknown and wondrous creatures lurking out there in the wild, still hidden somewhere in a pocket of virgin forest from the presence of mankind.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 341 pages, 2002

winner

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I used the same toss-papers-into-air method of picking a winner for this giveaway, but am in the middle of thanksgiving preparations and didn't have time to take photos. One name landed on the book at the first try.

Darbyscloset, you're a winner! Send your postal address to jeanenevarez AT gmail DOT com and I'll mail your prize today or tomorrow. Congratulations!

Nov 24, 2008

Learning Joy from Dogs without Collars

by Lauralee Summer

This is the memoir of a college student with an uncommon background. Summer spent most of her childhood homeless. Her father was absent, her mother usually jobless. They rarely had money for food or clothes, much less to rent an apartment or own a car. They moved frequently, and spent time in homeless shelters and welfare offices. Summer's mother taught her to read and write and fed her hunger for knowledge. In Learning Joy from Dogs Without Collars, Summer talks about how much she loved her mother while at the same time often feeling ashamed of her circumstances. She found mentors in high school who encouraged her to strive for a higher education, and ended up getting accepted to Harvard- via the unexpected route of a wrestling scholarship. She became the only woman on the Harvard wrestling team. It was very interesting to read about her joining the wrestling team, and how classroom lectures about sociology- in particular discussing welfare and single mothers- contrasted with Summer's own experiences. This is an inspiring and thoughtful book. I did keep expecting to find a dog in it somewhere, because of the title. It comes from a line in a poem written by a homeless youth, quoted on the frontispiece.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 351 pages, 2003

more opinions at:
Shannon's Book Bag

Book Recommendations

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Looking for a good book to buy, for yourself or as a gift? I've set up a page of recommendations on one of my favorite sites, Powell's Books. There you can find a great selection of titles I've featured on this blog and rated highly.

A very small percentage of the sales generated by my bookshelf on Powell's goes to support this blog and my reading habits.

Edited on 2/4/09: I have discontinued using this feature.

Nov 23, 2008

Man's Search for Meaning

by Viktor Frankl
translated by Ilse Lasch

I don't remember how I first heard of this book, but I know I read it twice in high school. The author is a psychiatrist who had survived the Holocaust- three years spent in four different concentration camps. The major portion of the book describes his personal experiences in the camps, full of introspective musings on the meaning of life, observations on how the horrors and degredations there affected the mentality of the prisoners, and his theories on why some survived and others (including his own family) didn't. The main message I got out of Man's Search for Meaning is that in the face of suffering, we can choose our response to it, and that the greatest factor of a person's will to live is their inner purpose.

This first part of the book was the easiest to understand. While it's never easy for me to read stories of Holocaust experiences, Frankl's descriptions are less about the brutality of it all, and more focused on the people themselves. He was particularly interested in what caused prisoners to respond differently to camp life- some gave up all hope. Others lost their sense of civility and acted in self-interest for personal survival, often to the detriment of their companions. And some retained their dignity and compassion, helping their fellow-prisoners when they could. I did find that at times Frankl came across as being condescending to his fellow prisoners. There were also incidents where he took credit for completely changing another's attitude, via one or two sentences of advice. It struck me as a bit conceited.

The last seventy-five pages describe Frankl's theory of "logotherapy" and how it was based on his experiences in the camps. I admit I didn't understand most of this. It is very dry reading. In fact, a lot of the first part of the book can also be rather technical, hung up with psychiatric terms. I often felt like I was wading through that material to read the more personal anecdotes. But maybe this book just wasn't written for a layperson like me.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 165 pages, 1946

More opinions at:
Books n' Border Collies
You GOTTA Read This!
anyone else?

Nov 21, 2008

White Fang

by Jack London

Another old favorite of mine, White Fang is almost a mirror image of London's other dog book, Call of the Wild. That one is about a pet dog named Buck from California who adapts to a harsh life in Alaska, eventually running off with the wolves. White Fang, in contrast, is about a wolfish dog born in the wild who eventually comes home to man- back to an estate in California that feels, in fact, very like the one Buck left. Reading the two stories back to back feels like traveling a complete circle.

White Fang begins with a few chapters describing two men traveling through a desloate Arctic wilderness, striving to reach the safety of a fort before the famished wolves get them. Then the storyline pivots and follows the wolf pack on its journey through the forest. It isn't until chapter eight that the real protagonist of the book comes in- a little puppy whose mother is hybrid wolf-dog that had run off with the pack. As the wolfish puppy grows up, the reader gets to experience the world through his eyes and see how his development and temperament is shaped both by instinct and environmental pressures. The young wolf-dog learns harsh survival lessons in the wild before following his mother back to the Indian camp of her origins, where he submits under the dominion of man and acquires his name, White Fang. Life in this camp isn't any easier for him, and by the time a brutal white man named Beauty Smith finds him, White Fang has a reputation for ferocity and killing other dogs. Smith encourages White Fang's belligerence, using him in numerous dog-fights until at last he is rescued by a kind-hearted man who tames his wild spirit and shows White Fang for the first time what love is. Then he has to learn new laws of conduct all over again so he can live peacefully in "sun-kissed California."

To me, this book feels more savage than Call of the Wild. Mostly because there are pages upon pages of violence and fighting. This is usually between the animals, but there are also scenes of people abusing them. Reading this story as a youth, I was captivated by the viewpoint; I'd never read a book before that portrayed so vividly the consciousness of an animal's (albeit limited) reason and intelligence. As an adult, I find the incessant fighting a bit unrealistic and disturbing. I'm also unsure how likely it is that White Fang could be tamed after a lifetime of bad treatment. But it's still a thrilling story nonetheless.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 272 pages, 1906

Nov 20, 2008

Winnie the Pooh

by A. A. Milne

This book doesn't really need much introduction, but I'll describe it to you anyway. My mother read it to me when I was young, and I was delighted to share it with my own daughter now. It took us about a week to get through, reading a chapter every night or so. I don't recall if there were Winnie the Pooh cartoons when I was small, but for my daughter her first introduction to the characters has been stuffed toys, cartoons and picture books from the library. It took a bit of convincing to get her to sit down and listen to the original story. Once we finished the first chapter she was hooked and wanted to hear more and more.

Winnie the Pooh is a collection of stories based on stuffed animals the author's son had, and imaginary adventures he made up about them. The introduction tells me that the artist, Ernest H. Shepard, visited the author's home and sketched the real Christopher Robin and his toys for his illustrations. The main characters are Pooh (of course) a "Bear of Very Little Brain" who loves honey, the shy and endearing Piglet, Owl who likes to feel important and use Big Words, the busy Rabbit and grumpy donkey Eeyore. Later in the book a sixth character is introduced, the practical Kanga and her baby Roo.

There are ten stories in the book. The humor in them is mostly based on the characters being confused about something the reader can clearly see (if there's a literary term for this, please let me know, I can't think of it). Some of the adventures include Pooh disguising himself as a cloud to try and get honey from some bees, Eeyore loosing his tail and Pooh finding it, Pooh getting stuck in Rabbit's doorway (from eating too much honey), Piglet needing rescue from a flood, and Rabbit hatching a plan to get rid of the newcomer Kanga, by stealing baby Roo (and putting Piglet in his place). They're all amusing and charming tales, with the characters expressing desires and concerns young children can easily relate to like feeling safe, helping someone who's made a mistake, trying to get something you really want, feeling important, and valuing friendship. I really like this book. Reading it to a child brought out all the wonder for me again.

Rating: 5/5 ........ 176 pages, 1926

Read another review at:
Things Mean A Lot

Nov 19, 2008

The Last American Man

by Elizabeth Gilbert

This is the story of Eustace Conway. A man who wanted to live entirely self-sufficiently, and be a part of nature. He grew up in a comfortable suburban home, but spent most of his time in the woods behind his house. He learned woods skills as a child from both parents and could accurately use a bow and arrow by the age of ten. At twelve he spent a week alone in the woods, just to prove he could do it and survive. At seventeen he moved out of his parents' house to live in a tipi he built himself in the mountains, catching his own game for food and making clothes out of their skins. In the years that followed, Conway (among other adventures) traveled the Mississippi in a wooden canoe, hiked the Appalachian trail, kayaked across Alaska and crossed America coast to coast on horseback. But what he really wanted to do was own a piece of land, where he could work out his ideas and methods of living close to nature in his own way. Eventually he managed to do so, and set up a ranch called Turtle Island where he not only lived his dream but tried to spread his vision to others, running summer camps which immersed children in nature.

The Last American Man is a fascinating book. Not only for its many passages describing how Conway did everything by hand- weaving baskets, starting fires without matches, stitching his own clothes, etc. but also showing how frustrating it was for Conway when he couldn't entirely escape modern society. He continually had conflicts with other people, particularly over his land ownership. His summer camps were a bit controversial- in return for their nature lessons, the children had to work on Conway's own projects, which included hard physical labor. He was always trying to think up schemes to fund his projects and promote his ideals, and comes across as a rather arrogant perfectionist. He had a very difficult relationship with his father, which shadowed his entire life.

I cannot say that I found Conway to be a likeable person, but reading about his efforts to live entirely detached from modern conveniences is very interesting. Did any of you daydream as a kid of going off and living in the woods by your own skills? I know I did at one time. Conway's experience breaks the illusion of nature survival being at all idyllic or easy- but it's intriguing to read how very seriously he tried.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 271 pages, 2002

Nov 18, 2008

book giveaway!

Win a free book and two handmade bookmarks!
This week's giveaway includes a copy of Kuki Gallmann's memoir I Dreamed of Africa and two bookmarks I made from my magazine scrap file, featuring lions and baobab trees in the sunset. This is a used book. It does have some wear from being read several times, and the front cover was creased when I acquired it. It's still in quite good shape, the pages inside are all clean. It's wonderfully illustrated by many plates of photographs, both color and black-and-white. While I've read this book and enjoyed it, I haven't written about it yet, so here's an excerpt from the editorial review that serves as its description on Amazon:

This work by a native Italian woman who gave up a comfortable life in her homeland to pursue a dream to live in Kenya should appeal to readers who were enthralled with Isak Dinesen, Elspeth Huxley, and Beryl Markham... Gallman describes her move to Africa at the age of 25 with her husband Paolo and son Emanuele. Both Paolo and Emanuele meet violent deaths, but Gallmann is determined to stay with her newborn daughter in Kenya. She starts a ranch and a foundation to preserve African wildlife from poachers...

You can enter to win by leaving a comment here, until tuesday 11/25, when the winner will be chosen and announced. For an extra entry, blog about this giveaway and link back to this post (please let me know if you do so). If there's just three or four entrants, I'll pick a name out of a hat. If there's more, my daughter will throw them in the air like last time. Open to residents of US and Canada.

Nov 17, 2008

The Iceberg Hermit

by Arthur Roth

About two hundred and fifty years ago, a young man named Allan Gordon quit his job as assistant in a tailor's shop and left Aberdeen, Scotland to go on a whaling voyage. He went on a few voyages, first as cabin boy then working as a sailor on the Anne Forbes, before the fateful accident in 1757. Allan was only seventeen when the ship struck an iceberg in the Arctic and overturned, becoming frozen into the ice. Allan was the only survivor.

He faced freezing temperatures, injuries, starvation and overwhelming loneliness. The mental strain alone must have been incredible, and several times Allan almost lost his will to continue struggling to live. When he adopted an orphaned polar bear cub (having killed its mother for meat), caring for it gave him a feeling of purpose and companionship. Resourceful and determined, Allan shouldered aside his fears and found ways to survive on his floating iceberg prison. After several years the iceberg finally neared land and Allan began trekking across the frozen landscape. He encountered a tribe of Eskimos who he thought were descendents of Vikings, and lived with them for some time. Seven years after disappearance of the Anne Forbes, Allan Gordon finally returned to Aberdeen. Hardly anyone believed his story. Many of the details Allan gave of his experience contradicted popular beliefs of the time about the Arctic. Yet as the author points out in his final chapter, when more was learned about those regions, a lot of the things Allan described were later proven to be quite possibly true.

Based on a true incident, The Iceberg Hermit is a fine adventure story describing survival against all odds, the growth of a young man into adulthood, and the friendship of a tame polar bear. The writing is more often than not simple, and I do wish more time had been spend describing Allan's period with the Eskimos (most of it is about the time on the iceberg) but it's a pretty good book.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 219 pages, 1974

Nov 16, 2008

Bookmarks!

Buy my handmade bookmarks!
I just finished creating my first set of bookmarks, using artwork from my old sketchbooks. Drop by my Etsy shop and take a look! It's funny, I don't actually use bookmarks myself, preferring scraps of paper for taking notes to hold my place. But I love looking at beautiful bookmarks, and really enjoyed making these. So I'm hoping someone else will want to own a few of these bookmarks, and in doing so help support my blog.

Now, what to do with all these magazine-scrap ones I made earlier? I'm going to be including them in my giveaways soon. The first one goes up this tuesday (maybe even in combination with a book)!

Meme- Title ABC's

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Why am I awake and blogging at four am? Good question. My daughter is sick and I had to get up at three to check on her. Now I can't get back to sleep (husband snores pretty loud). So here we are. Well, KittyCat from Right Reads tagged me a few days ago for this alphabet meme I've seen floating around forever. I was surprised how easy it was to come up with these titles! For every book listed here I easily thought of a few more, so maybe I'll do a second alphabet meme in the future. These are mostly old favorites (except for maybe Up the Down Staircase. It was good, but I wouldn't really call it a favorite. I couldn't think of another U title, though).

Amy's Eyes- Richard Kennedy
Bone People, The- Keri Hulme
Call It Sleep- Henry Roth
Dogsbody- Diana Wynne Jones
Edge of the Forest- Agnes Smith
Flowers for Algernon- Daniel Keyes
Grendel- John Gardner
Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The- Carson McCullers
I Will Call It Georgie's Blues- Suzanne Newton
Julie of the Wolves- Jean Craighead Geroge
Karen- Marie Killilea
Lastborn of Elvinwood, The- Linda Haldeman
My Friend Flicka- Mary O'Hara
Neverending Story- Michael Ende
Once and Future King, The- T.H. White
Poisonwood Bible, The- Barbara Kingsolver
Q -?
Ratha's Creature- Clare Bell
Secret Garden, The- Frances Hodgson Burnett
Tam Lin- Pamela Dean
Up the Down Staircase- Bel Kaufman
Very Far Away From Anywhere Else- LeGuin
Wind in the Willows, The- Kenneth Graham
X - ?
Yearling, The- Marjorie Kinnea Rawlings
Zoo Where You're Fed to God, The- Michael Ventura

Nov 14, 2008

Seabiscuit

An American Legend
by Laura Hillenbrand

Although I'm fond of animals- horses among my favorites- I've never been one to follow horse racing. I did love The Black Stallion film as a child, and enjoyed watching Seabiscuit on the big screen back when I lived in San Francisco. I had my doubts about actually reading the book (because seeing the movie first can ruin it for me), but Hillenbrand's direct writing style makes lively subject that could easily be dry and boring (and I've tried and discarded several other books on horse racing). Seabiscuit: An American Legend tells the full story of how a little horse who didn't look like much became famous and inspired thousands of Americans during the 1930's. The book describes Seabiscuit's startling rise to fame: how he was trained, his quirks on the field, strengths and weaknesses, failures, injuries, medical treatments, and eventually his great success. Much more than just a story about a horse, it tells about the people who worked with Seabiscuit, what transpired to bring them together, and how avidly the public responded to him. At times the amount of names and facts could make my attention falter, but the story kept moving- interesting and full of details about the ractrack. I think besides learning about Seabiscuit's personality, I mostly enjoyed this plunge into the heart of the racing world. I also appreciated the afterward, in which the author describes her personal struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome, and how the work of this book gave her contact with the world.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 399 pages, 2001

Nov 13, 2008

The House of Sixty Fathers

by Meindert DeJong

This is one of those books I always heard the title of, when young, but never got around to reading until I was older. College, I think. I had no idea what I'd find when I opened it. The House of Sixty Fathers is about a young Chinese boy named Tien Pao who lives in Hengyang during Japanese occupation in the late 1930's. While fleeing the Japanese army by boat, Tien Pao becomes separated from his family and ends up back behind enemy lines. His only companion is a pet pig (ridiculously named Glory of the Republic) who he has to keep from becoming someone's dinner (food being scarce) as well as trying to stay out of danger himself. Tien Pao goes through many adventures and frightfully close calls before finding a safe haven- with a bomb squad of American pilots (the sixty fathers of the title). While being nursed back to health in the American camp, Tien Pao hopes to find his family again, even though it seems utterly impossible...

The House of Sixty Fathers is a moving portrayal of a child's experience of wartime. It has plenty of historical information, presented in an unobtrusive manner which makes it easier to absorb. In spite of its many suspenseful moments, it still feels like a "quiet" book to me. The dialog flows easily, the prose is often lyrical, the illustrations by Maurice Sendak are lovely.

Rating: 3/5 ....... 189 pages, 1956

Nov 12, 2008

Nuts About Squirrels

A Guide to Co-Existing with- and Even Appreciating- Your Bushy-Tailed Friends
by Richard E. Mallery

When I first started reading this book, the constant humor really annoyed me and I thought I might not finish it. But then I picked up Solving Squirrel Problems, and some things in that book were even more irritating. So I came back to Nuts About Squirrels with a more open mind. This little volume is absolutely packed with information about squirrels. Mostly it talks about the hundreds of ways in which people try to stop squirrels from raiding birdfeeders (and pointing out why they all fail) but there's also info on squirrels in history, hilarious accidents squirrels have caused, anecdotes about people who become obsessed with chasing off squirrels, facts about different kinds of squirrels, instructions on how to feed squirrels (instead of persecute them) and a plethora of jokes featuring squirrels. In fact, the jokes are scattered so liberally throughout the book sometimes it was difficult to tell where the author was sharing factual tidbits or exaggerating for humor. In spite of how tedious it became to wade through the hyperboles and puns, I did learn a lot about squirrels. Some of the more interesting bits: early American colonists used to pay taxes with red squirrel tails, some squirrels gnaw on headstones, and there are a number of logging terms named after squirrels. If you're interested in squirrels at all, and want some laughs, this is a nice little book.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 168 pages, 2000

feedback

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I have hardly read a book or blogged in several days, and this is why. I've begun a new project. My husband has started bugging me lately about spending a few hours daily blogging when it doesn't bring any income. But I hate putting ads on my sidebar, so I've decided to try something else. I'm making bookmarks out of magazine clippings from my scrap file, and hope to sell them for few dollars each, to support my blog. Maybe make custom book covers, too. Only I don't know if anyone will be interested in purchasing such items. Do any of you sell handmade items on Etsy? I've set up a simple shop but could really use some feedback or pointers. Thanks!

Here's a sample of what I've made:


Nov 11, 2008

Briar Rose

by Jane Yolen

Jane Yolen's Briar Rose intertwines the story of Sleeping Beauty with that of the Holocaust. Its main character is Rebecca, who as a child always wanted to hear her grandmother's retellings of the fairy tale. On her deathbed, Gemma made a statement "I am Briar Rose" that haunts Rebecca. She's convinced that the story was not just a fairy tale, but a complex metaphor keeping alive the truth of her grandmother's past while masking its horror- that she was a Holocaust survivor. Rebecca sets off on a journey to Poland, seeking to uncover the secrets of Gemma's history- and finds out more than she ever expected.

Briar Rose is different than other Holocaust stories I've read. Besides the fact that it is wrapped up in a fairy tale and rooted in a modern setting that pivots back into the past, it also tells of one of the less famous concentration camps- Chelmno (a short afterward explains the facts behind the story, particularly about Chelmno). Gemma is Jewish, but the book also features other groups of people who suffered from the Holocaust, namely homosexuals. I wish this book had been more memorable for me. There are other books by Jane Yolen which I read more than four years ago and still recall the storyline and characters clearly. This one is rather blurry in my mind. I remember mostly that it was very sad. Looking it over again today, I almost want to set down what I'm currently reading and open Briar Rose. It's a book I really need to revisit for myself. I think this is one I would appreciate better as an adult.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 241 pages, 1992

Read more opinions at:
Melody's Reading Corner
Maw Books Blog
Small World Reads

Nov 7, 2008

Gingerbread

by Rachel Cohn

This is one of those books I picked up thinking it was something else. The title gave me the idea it was a fairytale in a modern setting, Hansel and Gretel perhaps. Nope. Gingerbread is about a spoiled, rebellious teen named Cyd from a wealthy family. She gets herself kicked out of boarding school and goes home to her mom, stepfather and half-siblings in San Francisco. They can't stand her sarcasm, tantrums and constant rule-breaking, so she gets sent to New York to her biological father. Cyd has been longing to meet him again. She still hangs onto a doll he gave her, which she named Gingerbread and has conversations with. Only of course, when she gets to New York, Cyd discovers her father isn't everything she remembers or expected. She has to do some growing up and realize that both sides of her family have their flaws and admirable qualities.

The dialog and slang in this book is sharp and quick-moving. Cyd's sarcastic observations on everything is pretty amusing. She thinks she's cooler than everybody. She wants to push people's buttons, do forbidden things and flaunt her bad-girl persona. What I really didn't get was that after getting pregnant and secretly having an abortion (which I would think is a traumatic experience) she doesn't wise up at all but keeps messing around with boys. I was a bit surprised at some of Cyd's attitudes, but maybe that's the whole point. It's a good, quick read if you want to get inside the head of a conflicted teenager who feels vulnerable but doesn't want to admit it.

Rating: 3/5 ......... 172 pages, 2002

Nov 6, 2008

Meme: Seven Random

Facts about me and books

I was tagged for this by Leah from The Octogon. It took me a while to think of answers, as I did a similar meme a while back; and I'm not sure they've very random, but here you go:

- My father used to say that I ought to run a used bookstore. This back in high school when half of one wall in my bedroom was just books. I always thought in return: why? I want to keep my books, not sell them. But now I do so much online swapping, constantly wrapping books to ship, I almost feel like I am.

- Every year or so I rearrange all the books on my shelves. Sometimes I want to see everything an author has written side by side (fiction and non-), other times I like the books to be organized by subject (even down to what kind of fantasy it is). Right now the books are just split into three groups: nonfic by subject, children's fiction by title (I'm going through them with my daughter) and all the rest of the fiction by author.

- I never know what to do when someone gives me a book I already own. I love getting books, but this makes me feel awkward. I have duplicate copies of several books in my collection because someone gave me a lovely new copy, but for various reasons I want to hold onto the old ones as well.

- I don't use bookmarks anymore. I used to have a little collection, but I've lost them all. When I started taking notes about my reading I'd have a bookmark and a piece of notepaper floating around to jot things on. So I started just keeping the notepaper in the book instead of bookmarks.

- I have a huge scrap file of pictures from magazines, that I collected back when I wanted to be a children's book illustrator. I thought it would be useful: what if one day I needed to know what sailboat rigging looked like, or an exotic costume, or a hummingbird in flight? (this before internet was at my fingertips). Now I just use the scrap file occasionally to make custom book jacket covers, and I've been thinking lately of making booksmarks. But then I don't know what I'd do with them!

- I always have the intention of keeping business cards from all the used bookstores I visit, especially those I know I probably won't be to again (on travels). But then I forget, or loose them, or feel like it would be an incomplete collection since I haven't always done it. So I hardly have any. Silly.

- I have, however, saved every public library card. Except for the one I used the longest- from the King County Public Library system, where I grew up in Seattle. I don't know what happened to that one. Here's all the rest, indicating other places I've lived: Madison County (Rexburg, ID); San Francisco; Sonoma County (Petaluma, CA); Baltimore, MD; Fairfax, VA and currently, Loudon County (Sterling, VA). I could easily describe all the library branches I used in these various systems, their different policies and programs, layout of the bookshelves, which new books I discovered there, etc- but that's for another post someday.


The rules of this meme are pretty standard: link to who tagged you, post the rules, share seven random facts about yourself (bookish, in this case), tag seven new people and give links to their blogs, visit the people you've tagged and leave them a comment to tell them about it.

I'm tagging Raych of books i done read, Trish the Hey, Lady! Whatcha Readin'?, Petunia of Educating Petunia, Jessica at Both Eyes Book Blog, Chris of Stuff as Dreams are Made On, Steph who writes The Kea and the Literary Wombat. And anyone else who wants to just join in.

Nov 5, 2008

I Love Gymnastics

or, Gymnastics School
by Naia Bray-Moffatt

This is a lovely book. It's a bit too advanced for my four-year-old, she lost interest after fifteen pages. But the photographs are so beautiful I finished reading it on my own. I Love Gymnastics follows a young girl named Jessica and her classmates through a beginning class at a gymnastics club. Through a series of images and descriptive captions, it describes all the work that goes into learning gymnastic skills. First are stretches, warm-up and conditioning exercises. Then the children learn basic moves like splits, forward rolls, headstands and cartwheels. Each spread describes a move and the steps involved in learning it, emphasizing flexibility, good posture, and forming graceful shapes with the body. Next the girls do some basic vaulting, learn to balance on the beam, and try the uneven bars. It's informative to see the progression: a move is first learned on the floor, then practiced on a low apparatus or with a spotter before the child performs it solo. Also clearly shown is how the skills of basics are used in more complex moves. Near the end of the book a few more advanced students visit the class to demonstrate floor routines and help the younger girls practice. A few pages show the different kinds of body conditioning and apparatus the boys use, and then all the children show off their skills in an end-of-class competition.

For anyone's little girl interested in doing gymnastics, this is a great book. The only odd thing about it is the title. The cover (board, jacket and flaps) says I Love Gymnastics. But the title page says Gymnastics School. Upon doing searches, I found the book listed with both titles (and the exact same cover image). It's a little puzzling.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 48 pages, 2005

Nov 4, 2008

Solving Squirrel Problems

How to Keep This Ubiquitous Pest Out of Home and Garden
by Monte Burch

No, I don't have a squirrel problem. But I saw two books about squirrels at the library sale on the final day, and picked them up out of idle curiosity. I thought at least I'll learn a bit about squirrels, and maybe how to deal with any problems I might have someday.

This book wasn't quite what I expected. The first part has an overview of different squirrels species. There is information on squirrels' natural ranges, what they eat, and basic habits. The next chapter talks about dealing with squirrel pests which steal birdseed and destroy birdfeeders. After some info on how to discourage squirrels from raiding birdfeeders by your own devices, I suddenly found myself reading what appeared to be advertisements for commercially made bird feeders. Manufacturer's names, websites and prices included. Maybe this is standard information to include in this kind of book, but I found it annoying. Then lists of what kinds of seed attract which kinds of birds (wasn't the book about squirrels?) and how to build birdhouses that deter predatory squirrels (oh, there they are!) who like to eat eggs and baby birds. Next comes a useful chapter about how to keep squirrels from ruining your lawn and garden, and how to keep them out of your house. Then it veers again into discussing other types of rodent pests, especially rats. At this point I realized I really don't have the issues this book is dealing with, so why am I still reading it? I started flipping pages and got surprised at the end, which tells how to get rid of squirrels- by live-trapping, using traps that kill them (one by electrocution!) and shooting them. In fact, the final third of Solving Squirrel Problems is all about hunting squirrels.

This is where the book shines. There is so much information, detailed descriptions and personal anecdotes about squirrel hunting, you can tell the author enjoys it. He explains techniques for stalking or attracting squirrels, different methods to use in various seasons, what kinds of guns and ammunition are best, and how to skin, gut and cook squirrels. There are twelve recipes (and two for groundhogs) including squirrel vegetable-noodle soup, fried squirrel, barbecued squirrel and squirrel casserole. I can't say that any of them appear appetizing to me. I also learned that there's a market for squirrel tails. The hair is used to make flies for fishing.

The final chapter of the book is about being nice to squirrels: putting out food especially for them (which distracts them from the birdseed) building nest boxes for them, and managing habitats that favor them. The book also cautions handling squirrels (or any wild animal), and lists all the parasites and diseases squirrels can pass to people I wish I'd read that before my kid rescued a young squirrel from one of our cats and handed it to me! Finally, I have to call this book abandoned just because I skipped so many passages I didn't read it completely. Interesting in some parts, dull and annoying in others.

Abandoned ... 0/5 ... 248 pages, 2003

winner

Book giveaway winner
My daughter was delighted to help pick the winner of this giveaway. I wrote the names on strips of paper, she folded them all up tight.


They barely fit in her hands.

It took five throws to get one name to land on the book. First toss: zero. Second toss: two. Third toss: three. Fourth toss: seven! Fifth toss: one name. Wow, that was fun!


And the winner is

Ruby(mouth) ! Ruby, send your mailing address to jeanenevarez AT gmail DOT com and I'll mail your book soon!

Nov 3, 2008

Gymnastics in Action

by Bobbie Kalman

This is another book for kids on gymnastics that I read to my daughter. It's more detailed than the last book, and a bit advanced for a four-year-old, so we read it in stages, with lots of discussion when she had questions about things. Gymnastics in Action explains the basics: what are gymnastics, the importance of warm-ups, basic moves and positions, why you need a good coach, which events boys and girls do, types of eqipment and gear used, how gymnasts progress in their skills and learn routines, and how the gymnast's body works. The last spread describes rhythmic gymnastics (which I didn't see in the other books we read). The pictures are all bright and very clear, and the descriptions easy to understand. It's a good, informative book for children about the basics of the sport.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 32 pages, 2003

Nov 2, 2008

The Call of the Wild

by Jack London

I have to think this is the most famous of Jack London's stories. I can't count how many times I've read it since high school. It's the story of a mixed breed dog named Buck, a shepherd-Saint Bernard cross, who was stolen from his California home and sold in Alaska during the Gold Rush, for use as a sled dog. Buck quickly learns to master his new hostile environment, learning the "law of club and fang" and fighting others dogs in the team for supremacy. He passes through the hands of several different owners, some reasonable and kind, others outright ignorant and cruel. (In this the story reminded me of Black Beauty). Eventually Buck and his team end up with irresponsible owners who nearly starve them to death, and he's rescued just in time by John Thornton. There follows a period where Buck shows his devotion to Thornton by performing heroics and awesome feats of obedience, before harking to the irresistible call of the wolves in the forest and running off to live with them.

I just had to open this book again after recently reading Coppingers' criticism in Dogs: A New Understanding:

"I can't think of a single trait possessed by wolves that I'd want on a dog team.... Jack London's fictitious lead dog, Buck, dreamed about being a real wolf, and in the end left the world of man and reverted to the wild to lead a wolf pack. To me, this kind of imagery is not just fiction, but awful fiction. It seems to me there should be a touch of reality to a romance. London's story does no favors for dogs, or for wolves."

I had in mind to read the book more critically this time, looking for how it was unrealistic, according to what I read in Coppingers' work about sled dogs. At first I started jotting down a list, which things felt true: the team's eagerness to run, their tendency to fight with each other, an individual dog's distress at being left behind when the team ran. But the list of unrealistic depictions was far greater. I'll point out a few: dogs would not work after being injured. I don't know how many times in this book I read about a dog being "slashed to the bone" in a dog fight, then pulling the sled the next day! And if the dogs fought so regularly, why wouldn't the drivers tie them up out of each others' reach? The idea that Buck could learn new predatory behaviors solely by instinctual memory seems pretty ludicrous. He went from being a pampered pet in California, to working on a sled team- okay, feasible. He toughened up to the work. Also believable. Then his senses grew sharper, he ran off to hunt and kill prey by himself, and even brought down a moose! Seeking out the largest one he could find out of pride, no less. I find it hard to believe a lone dog could ever kill a bull moose. Aside from this fabulous feat he also, on a bet Thornton placed, broke out of the ice and pulled for a hundred yards a sled loaded with a thousand pounds, all by himself. I just don't think a hundred-fifty pound dog could do that. (Please correct me if I'm wrong!) And then there's the whole concept of Buck having dreams about his ancestors and "remembering" wolfish instincts. It struck me just as ludicorous as what I read simlilar in Nop's Trials.

The strange thing is, even though I discovered that this book is full of overblown romanticism about Nature (harsh and brutal), I still find it a great story. After a while I put aside my notes and just enjoyed it again. I think if I hadn't been enthralled by The Call of the Wild when younger, I would have found some of its portrayals laughable, and others very disturbing (especially the mistreatment of animals). So I'm glad I read this first of all in youthful ignorance, because that has allowed me to continue to appreciate Jack London's wonderful storytelling, even if I can see some flaws now.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 88 pages, 1903

Read more reviews at:
An Adventure in Reading
A Work in Progress

Nov 1, 2008

Dogs: A New Understanding

of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution
by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger

This book is fascinating. It challenges so many widely held popular beliefs about dogs. With careful logic, the Coppingers examine what dogs are and how they got to be that way, from a biologist's understanding. They pick apart the idea that dogs are descendents of wolves deliberately tamed and bred by early humans, explaining why it would have been nearly impossible for that to happen. Instead their hypothesis is that dogs actually domesticated themselves, adapting to a new niche- scavenging at Neolithic rubbish heaps. According to Dogs: A New Understanding, this means that even though dogs and wolves share a common ancestor, dogs don't behave like wolves and shouldn't be treated like they do. It's very complicated. Sometimes the explanations get quite technical, but the authors always bring it back down to layman's terms.

Presenting a new idea about how dogs evolved is only a small part of this book. It covers many other topics. Why are there so many different dog breeds? How is it possible that dogs can take so many diverse shapes and sizes, yet still be the same species? How much of canine behavior is intelligence, and how much genetic or instinctual? The Coppingers go into a lot of detail about several working breeds: sled dogs, livestock guarding dogs, and sheep herding dogs in particular. I was intrigued by the chapter about sled dogs, which describes how physical attributes -size, body shape, gait- are what make the best sled dog. (It also criticizes Jack London's books which dramatize the life of working dogs in Alaska, making me curious to read them again). There is heavy criticism in this book about how working breeds have now become household pets, and the breeding of dogs for show. The Coppingers aver, like Jon Katz in The New Work of Dogs, that many current relationships between dogs and humans (including, to my surprise, service dogs) are not mutually beneficial and probably bad for the dogs. We "need to think harder about how dogs intersect with people," they say. This book held my attention all the way to the end. (Except for one boring chapter about the scientific nomenclature of canine species.)

I just have to mention one of my favorite parts of the book. It describes an experiment where Dmitri Belyaev, a geneticist, tried breeding for tamer silver foxes at a fur farm in Russia. He eventually got foxes that acted like dogs- begging for attention from humans, taking food from their hands, etc. But they also started to look like dogs: floppy ears, spotted coats, upturned tails. You have to see this for yourself.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 352 pages, 2001