Feb 28, 2009

reading frustrations

about my reading challenge
I'm not doing very well with the next two books I picked up for the 9 for '09 Challenge. The first one, Kon-Tiki, I've been enjoying very much. But my particular copy has a very bad smell. I usually avoid acquiring (or keeping, if they get into my house) books that have a cigarette or mildew odor, but this one got by me unnoticed. And it's different. It wasn't until I'd sat reading for about ten minutes that I had to ask those in the room: does someone have gas? because there was a subtle but awful stink arising. It gave me a headache and nausea. It came out when I fanned the pages (a habit, my hands can't sit still while I'm reading). I thought at first perhaps I felt ill for other reasons (our neighbor just got over the flu, so maybe I'd caught it?) but just in case I left the book alone until the next day. Then I read it outdoors, at the park. In the open air it took longer (twenty minutes) but the odor still made me feel sick again. Yesterday I didn't read it at all- and no headaches, no nausea. So I'm pretty sure it's the book. And this makes me upset, because I was enjoying it very much, and don't want to put it down! I guess I'm going to have to find another copy (it's one I want to add to my personal library) or try to build a stinky-book box and read it near the end of the challenge.

So while I was taking a break from Kon-Tiki's fumes, I started in on The Grail War. I know this book was a gamble for me, because I felt ambiguous about its predecessor, Parsival, or a Knight's Tale. For the first thirty pages the same thing kept me interested in this one- the vivid descriptions of time and place. But although Parsival himself has grown in character, there are still plenty of atrocious deeds done by others in these pages, and I'm getting tired of reading about them. Especially as the plot feels very meandering and new characters wander in and out without introduction. I just wrote yesterday about a book where a harsh setting and uncivil deeds didn't bother me, because they made sense in the context, and I could clearly see and sympathize with the characters' motives. But in this book that's all very muddled and I'm starting to feel like it's just a showcase for crudeness and brutality. Still, I don't want to give up on one of my challenge books, so I think I'm going to slog through it. Ugh. Maybe I'll speed read. Will that still count?

Feb 27, 2009

Dragon's Blood

by Jane Yolen

My first exposure to Jane Yolen was her Pit Dragon series, and these books have always remained my favorites of hers. They are set on an imaginary planet which was first seen as uninhabitable and used as a dumping ground for criminals. Some of them survived, and a rough civilization arose out of the extreme desert climate. Very few animals and plants on Austar IV were useful to humans, but the people managed to domesticate large winged lizards they called dragons. The society of Austar IV is based on a system of indentured servitude- masters and bondsmen- and full of gambling, drugs and prostitution. Betting is huge part of the economy, largely based on dragon fights in the "pits".

The main character in Dragon's Blood is a teenage boy, Jakkin, who is a bondsman on a large dragon farm. His days are full of drudgery- mucking out dragon stalls, grooming and feeding the beasts. But unlike most of his companions who loathe their occupation, Jakkin likes working with the dragons and wants to train his own. He plans to steal an egg from his master, then raise and train the dragon in secret in the desert, hoping to buy his freedom with money he can earn from pit fights. His plan is fraught with danger and unforseen difficulties, but he finds an unexpected ally in his master's daughter, Akki. She's one of the stronger characters in the book, which makes up a little bit for the fact that on Austar IV, it's an accepted fact that most women are in "baggeries" (this aspect of the society is not a major part of the story, but only hinted at).

Even though this book has a very uncouth society, I didn't find it objectionable because it fit with the harsh setting and history. And although Jakkin based his gamble for freedom on thievery, I still found his character sympathetic and even admirable at times. I really liked how the dragons were depicted. Like Anne McCaffrey's dragons, Yolen's are telepathic- but very few people actually communicate with them, and the dragons do not "speak" in words and sentences; instead they form mental pictures with colors and shapes. They are quite believable creatures with individual personalities that don't reach above their bestial nature. I will always picture them as I saw in the original illustrations, which graced the covers of the first paperbacks I picked up in this series. I've seen many new issues since then with different images, none as good as the first. Does anyone know the artist's name? I've been unable to find it (my own copy is a hardback, with a different cover).

Rating: 4/5 ........ 304 pages, 1982

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Feb 26, 2009

Lost Prince

the Unsolved Mystery of Kaspar Hauser
by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson

I came across this book when I was reading others about feral children. Unlike the stories of children abandoned in the forest or presumably raised by animals, Kaspar Hauser's neglect was intentionally inflicted upon him. He was a German boy who at the age of four was shut up in a castle dungeon, with very little human contact. When he was about sixteen, Kaspar was suddenly released and found wandering around the streets of Nuremberg, in 1828. At first he could barely speak and people assumed he was mentally impaired, but under the care of tutors Kaspar rapidly made progress and eventually gave his own account of being in the dungeon cell. A mere ten years after being found, he was suddenly murdered. The mystery behind Kaspar Hauser's identity, his imprisonment, and his death remained clouded. Lost Prince, a heavy but fascinating book, contains translations into English of an 1832 biography of Kaspar Hauser written by Anselm Ritter von Feuerbach (who investigated his case at the time); an account of the diary kept by Georg Friedrich Daumer, one of Kaspar's first tutors; and Masson's own essays and articles about the boy. Masson gives some analysis of Kaspar's dreams, reconstructs events in his life, compares his case to those of other feral children, and speculates that he was born of German nobility and heir to a throne. It was a bit difficult for me to get through this book- at times it almost felt like a homework assignment- and reading the details of the boy's suffering in the dungeon was very unpleasant. But I had never heard of his story before and was intrigued to the end. I looked up on wiki to find out more; apparently the idea that Kaspar was heir to a throne has been refuted, which makes his murder all the more mysterious.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 272 pages, 1996

Feb 25, 2009

My Beaver Colony

by Lars Wilsson
translated by Joan Bulman

At the time this book was written, little was known about beavers. I never read about these animals before, so even though the book is rather outdated it was still very interesting to me. My Beaver Colony is based on the work of two men in northern Sweden, who sought to rescue and study a population of beavers on the river near their farm. When the government began regulating water levels in the river via a hydroelectric dam, it disrupted the lives of beavers downstream so much that they were threatened with starvation. Rather than watch all the beavers die, Wilsson and his friend began trapping them, and ended up keeping many in captivity until they found suitable locations to set them free again, where they could study their behavior in a natural habitat. From observing the beavers' behavior in terrariums, Wilsson learned for the first time how much of their building work is instinctual. The young beavers who were caught before they had opportunity to observe adult beavers building went through the proper construction actions (even when they had no materials, or those at hand were unsuitable). When the beavers were set free outdoors, they successfully built their lodges and dams on the first try. It was amazing to read how the animals go about their building work, and how well their lodges are engineered- I never knew before how extensive their tunnels under a river bank can be, or that they build the lodge first, before making a dam. Wilsson conducted many experiments to find out exactly what conditions in the river or stream stimulated the beavers to build dams. It was interesting to read his speculations on how natural selection might have shaped the beavers' building behavior. Some things which at first I thought showed the animals' intelligence turned out to have other possible explanations. For example, when he first described how the back side of the lodge closest to the bank was left unplastered with mud, allowing airflow to ventilate the lodge and underground tunnels, I thought: wow, those animals are smart! But it turns out that carrying loads of mud across the shore to plaster the back of the lodge would expose the beavers to predators, so they probably avoid fnishing that side of the lodge just because it is too risky.

This is the first book I've finished reading for the 9 for 09 Challenge. It fit under the category of "book with the ugliest cover". Well, it's not terrible, but I thought it really tacky and there were some better photographs inside the book (although not in color).

Rating: 3/5 ........ 154 pages, 1964

Has anyone else read this book? I'll post a link to your blog review here.

wondrous words

new words!
I've recently enjoyed reading other bloggers' vocabulary discoveries with Wondrous Words Wednesdays, so I thought I'd share a new word I came across while reading My Beaver Colony:

Gimcrack- "The Indians had sold their daily bread and their souls for fire water and gimcracks." (I cringed a little reading the section that told about beavers in history).
Definition: a cheap and showy object of little or no use

I think I'm going to participate in Wondrous Words Wednesdays from now on, if I find enough new words per week to make a post about it.

Feb 24, 2009

The Screwtape Letters

by C.S. Lewis

I read Lewis' Narnia books over and over when I was young. It was years before I realized the stories were based on Christian theology, and I didn't read any of his nonfiction works until I was in college. This was the first one I opened. The Screwtape Letters is a collection of imagined epistles that a senior devil writes to his younger nephew, Wormwood. The letters include lots and lots of advice, but not from the usual perspective- in this case, Screwtape is coaching his nephew in the craft of tempting human souls into evil. Lewis has plenty to say about good and evil, flaws in human nature, and various moral issues. What makes it all so interesting is to examine this from such a backwards perspective, one that in encouraging evil, proposes to show the reader how to guard against it. There's also a sort of portrait of one ordinary man that Wormwood is focusing his efforts on. Through the young devil's appeals for advice and Screwtape's criticism of his technique, an vague picture is formed of this one man's life- how his soul alternately wavers and progresses in his journey through life. There really isn't much plot in this book, although I was surprised at how humorous it could be, and the two devils do develop a certain amount of character. I would say its main interest is in the theology, and the wry examination of human nature.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 209 pages, 1942

More opinions at:
It's All About Books
Black Sheep Books
The Wardrobe
The Church of No People
Music of the Night(engale)
Jon's Reflections

winner!

you won a book
The winner of my giveaway for The Dante Club is:

Josh!

Happy reader, send me your address and I'll put it in the mail. Come again next week!


Feb 23, 2009

Modoc

the True Story of the Greatest Elephant that Ever Lived
by Ralph Helfer

This is the story of a lifelong bond- between a boy and an elephant. Bram, son of an elephant trainer and Modoc, an asian elephant, were born on the same day in German circus. They grew up as constant companions. When the circus was sold and the animals shipped off to America, Bram went along as a stowaway. During the ocean crossing, Bram and half a dozen other people survived a shipwreck by clinging to the elephant, and washed ashore in India. Bram tried to hide Modoc so she wouldn't be taken away from him, and spent several years in India dodging revolutionaries and learning elephant wisdom from the forest mahouts. But eventually Modoc's American owner learned of their whereabouts, and Bram and his elephant ended up in New York. There Modoc eventually became a star performer, but sadly, this did not mean she was well-treated. The elephant suffered abuse from a drunken handler for years until she was sold again, this time separated from Bram. Helfer, an animal trainer in Hollywood, acquired her and was astonished at her range of performing skills. He nursed her back to health, while Bram and his friends continued searching for their "lost" elephant, hoping against all odds to be reunited again.

Modoc: the True Story of the Greatest Elephant that Ever Lived is a story that amazed me- simply because it is based on true events. It was very touching to read of all the hardships and adventures Bram and his elephant went through, to be together. The writing is very plain, and sometimes it gets melodramatic, but I enjoyed the story. I did like Helfer's book about the lion Zamba better. Perhaps because Helfer was writing from his own direct experience in that book, whereas in this one he only knew the elephant at the end of her life, and although the bulk of the story is based on fact, he had to fill in a lot of details with fictional conversations and such. If you liked Water for Elephants, you might enjoy Modoc as well. It gives a different perspective on circus life.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 325 pages, 1997

More opinions at:
books i done read
Under the Dresser
Outdoor Fan
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Feb 22, 2009

2009 TBR Challenge

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I'm also signing up for the 2009 TBR Challenge! For this one, you pick twelve books to read before 12/27/09, with twelve "alternates" in case one of the first ones just doesn't work for you. Here's my first list:

Adventures of a Zoologist by Victor Scheffer
Clay Walls by Kim Ronyoung
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
Dolphin Chronicles by Carol Howard
The Edge of Day by Laurie Lee
Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
My Orphans of the Wild by Rosemary Collett
A Paddling of Ducks by Dillon Ripley
Reindeer Moon by Elizabaeth Marshall Thomas
Sandy by Dayton O. Hyde
Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan
Vet on the Wild Side by David Taylor

My alternate list:

Anya by Susan F. Schaeffer
The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon
Dust Bowl Diary by Ann Marie Low
An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden
The Horse's Mouth by Joyce Cary
Ice Bound by Jerri Nielsen
No Room in the Ark by Alan Moorehead
Maggie-Now by Betty Smith
Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
The Peacock Spring by Rumer Godden
Psycho Kitty by Pam Johnson-Bennett
And Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

The best thing about all this? My husband saw me making my 9 for '09 list and he was intrigued by the categories. He decided to participate, too! He doesn't have a blog, but I'll post his list, and maybe he'll do guest review posts of his books here, as well.

Feb 21, 2009

the 9 for '09 Challenge

I'm joining a few challenges to help me get through my piles of books. Thanks for all the suggestions you made! Even though I'm a little late starting, I'm going to do the 9 for '09 Challenge hosted by Isabel who writes Books and Other Stuff. I've never done a reading challenge before, but this one looks like fun because you have to pick books off your shelf that fit into nine categories. Here are my choices:

1. Long- Quicksliver, by Neal Stephenson. This book has 944 pages. I haven't read anything that long since Moby Dick, which was ten years ago!

2. Free- Chalice, by Robin McKinley. I won this book from a giveaway at Presenting Lenore.

3. Dusty- Letters from a Nut by Ted Nancy. I've had this book since I was in college, at least five years.

4. Used- The Grail War by Richard Monaco. I bought this one at Hole in the Wall Books.

5. Letter- The Sheep Dog, by Tim Longton. This one a whole word matches my blog title!

6. Strange- Emma, by Jane Austen. I know reading Austen is not strange to many of you, but I've never read one of her books, and I keep looking at this one and feeling uneasy (afraid I won't like it).

7. Cover- My Beaver Colony by Lars Wilsson. This book definitely has the worst cover.

8. Live or Dead- Sand by Will James. Will James passed away in 1942. He won the Newbery Medal for children's literature in 1927

9. Distance- Kon-Tiki, by Thor Heyerdahl. The author was born in Norway- 3,880 miles from me. The book opens in Peru- 3,500 miles from me, and I think it ends in the Cook Islands- 6,780 miles from me. Quite a distance!

I'm also going to do the 2009 TBR Challenge, but I haven't yet decided on my list, so I'll post about that soon.

The Myth of Wild Africa

Conservation without Illusion
by Jonathan Adams and Thomas McShane

This book criticizes wildlife conservation and management in Africa. The first few chapters are built to show that the western ideal of Africa- a place where animals roam free in a last wilderness untouched by humans- is unrealistic, as African wildlife lived side by side with humans for hundreds of years before Europeans discovered the continent. The Myth of Wild Africa points out that conservation efforts which try to separate native Africans from sharing the land with wildlife often cause more problems than they solve. All the white men who have tried to exploit, use, study or save African wildlife- sport hunters, rich men on safari, behavioral scientists, conservationists, park rangers and tourists alike- have their own different agendas, but if they would work together, methods of conserving wildlife and at the same time allowing African nations room to grow and develop, could be found. But the very fact that this book is about how complicated and sticky the issues surrounding wildlife conservation are made it too tedious for me. The constant parade of facts, names, organizations, statistics, data, reports, etc (and details about how flawed they are) just wore my eyes out. It's not the type of book I can read right now. I do feel it has important information, and I'm curious to know how wildlife conservation has progressed since this book was written, but I'll have to come back to it later. I skipped ahead a bit and read a passage about the work of Mark and Delia Owens, whose book Cry of the Kalahari I've read, but in reality I quit reading this book on page 94.

Abandoned ... 0/5 ... 266 pages, 1992

Has anyone else read this book? Let me know and I'll add a link to your blog review.

Feb 20, 2009

reading goals

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I have a headache today so instead of posting about a book I'm just going to share some photos. Of (what else?) books in my house! There's too many. My heaps of yet-unread books are getting overwhelming, so I've decided to make a focused effort at reading those first- neglecting for even longer the TBR list I add to daily from all the wonderful book blogs, and resisting the urge to browse shelves at the library when I'm picking up books for my daughter.

These shelves are my permanent collection. They're not all books: the top of the bookcases has some stuff left over from when my husband built our last computer, and the bottom right-hand and middle shelves have games and some oversized picture books. I don't have many reader friends, so the most frequent comment I get when people visit our house is: have you actually read all these books? The answer is yes, except for the coffee-table ones (about a dozen) which I treasure for their gorgeous photos but haven't gotten around to reading yet.

Okay, just for fun I made a kind of map of the shelves. Hopefully if you click on it you can get a bigger image and read it!
These are the books in my bedroom, waiting to be read. The first pile is on top of my dresser:
The second pile is on the floor near my bed:
And then there's two shelves that serve as my bedside table:
Enough books for years! So I've made a goal to seriously diminish these piles, starting with the dresser heap, then the floor ones, and hopefully getting it down to a TBR load that my bedside shelf can contain, before I start picking books from my lists again. Maybe I ought to join a challenge to help me stay motivated with this- are there any going on currently about reading your own books, or tackling your TBR? I don't know how far I can get with this before I break down and pick up a book that doesn't already have physical presence in my house. Any guesses how long it will take me to work through those piles? (Keep in mind that I probably will taste just twenty pages or so and then set aside quite a few of these).

Feb 19, 2009

Chosen by a Horse

by Susan Richards

Richards already had three Morgan horses when she adopted Lay Me Down, an abused and injured racehorse, from a rescue operation. When all the other horses in the SPCA corral ran away in terror, this one calmly walked into her trailer on its own initiative. As she relates what it was like to bring her new horse home- integrating Lay Me Down gradually into the rest of the herd, tending to her injuries and illness, getting to know her personality- Richards also tells about how the horse helped her take a new step in her life. Slowly she unfolds her story of pain- her mother's death when she was only five years old, her unhappy childhood among abusive relatives, her lifelong struggle with alcoholism, the bitter ending of her marriage, her subsequent withdrawl from social circles, alone on her farm where she found peace with her horses. The calm, gentle spirit of Lay Me Down touched Richards' heart deeply, giving her the courage to reach out again and try dating, awkward as it was for her in middle-age. When she discovered that Lay Me Down had a debilitating illness, facing the possibility of loosing the horse she loved enabled her to finally come to terms with her mother's death, and heal from a grief she had carried for many, many years.

Chosen by a Horse is a touching memoir, a tender look at the relationship between a woman and her four horses. There were moments that almost brought me to tears (not many books make me cry!), and the ending is very emotional. In addition to a deep affection for horses, the author also loves books and writing. Book-love was only mentioned briefly here and there, not being the focal point of her story, but it was enough to make me feel like she was a kindred spirit. Susan Richards has an easy, conversational writing style that makes you feel like she's sitting right at your kitchen table, telling you her story. And it's definitely one worth hearing. Reading, I mean.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 248 pages, 2006

More opinions at:
The Symposium
Beautiful Mustang
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Feb 17, 2009

To Everything There is a Season

The Gardening Year
by Thalassa Cruso

The weather has warmed up here a bit last week, with mild sunny days that encouraged my bulbs to start growing, but cold frosty nights that I fear will harm them. My hands are itching to plant the garden, but I know it's still too early so the next best thing is reading gardening books!

To Everything There is a Season is one I found at a library sale. This is the first time I've "met" its author, Thalassa Cruso, an avid gardener who hosted a TV show about plant care in the sixties. At first I had doubts about how good a book based on a TV program could be, but first I read the introduction where Cruso discussed the differences between presenting her ideas to a television audience, through a magazine column, and writing them in a book. By the end of the first chapter I was hooked. She writes in a friendly, conversational style that drew me in immediately. This fat little volume spans an entire year of seasons in her country garden, drawing from more than twenty years of experience to share her knowledge (much of it self-taught) about plants. Cruso was never afraid try new things when traditional methods didn't work, and she carried out many experiments growing numbers of the same plant in different soil mixes and locations to see which worked best. She also sometimes tried exactly the opposite of recommended care, with surprising results. Her love of plants and nature shines through the pages, and it was really enjoyable to read. I kept a list of pages to turn back to for my own reference: how to grow healthy parsley, how to start tomatoes from seed (in eggshells!), how to mix your own insecticide from non-toxic things in your kitchen, how to plant "the three sisters" together- corn, beans and squash. I appreciated her chapter about how some sunflowers left to regenerate themselves grew in a few short seasons into crazy, wild, undesirable plants (a warning to know what you're doing when you try saving seed!). Most of the chapters are about horticulture, but two of my favorites were one where she described the gardening library she inherited with the house, and how she learned from its books about the previous generation's love of plants. The other described how she keeps an eye on the yards and gardens in her neighborhood, describing them with admiration or consternation, and offering gentle criticism of their owners' gardening methods!

This was a delightful book, and I can't wait to read more by the same author. The only thing I felt it lacked was illustrations of the plants she discussed, as I was unfamiliar with some and would have liked to see their faces. But that's a very small flaw, in my mind.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 300 pages, 1971

Have you written a blog review of this book? Let me know and I'll add your link here.

Book Giveaway!

Win a Free Book!

This week I'm giving away a copy of The Dante Club, by Matthew Pearl. If you'd like a chance to win, just leave a comment here. Leave your email address too, if I can't easily find it, so I can contact you if you win. A name will be drawn from the hat on tuesday 2/24. You can mention this on your blog and link back to this post for a second entry.

I haven't read this book myself, so here's what it says on the back cover:

Boston, 1865. A series of murders, all of them inspired by scenes in Dante's Inferno. Only an elite group of America's first Dante scholars- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and J.T. Fields- can solve the mystery. With the police baffled, more lives endangered, and Dante's literary future at state, the Dante Club must shed its sheltered literary existence and find the killer.

Sound interesting? Leave a comment for a chance to win!

Feb 16, 2009

Gay-Neck

the Story of Pigeon
by Dhan Gopal Mukerji

As you can gather from the title, this is about a pigeon. Gay-Neck (named for the iridescent feathers on his throat) was raised by a boy in India who kept pigeons as pets. The boy trained him until the pigeon was so skilled he was used in the army to carry messages. Gay-Neck has lots of adventures outflying predatory birds (a lot of other pigeons in the book get killed by owls, hawks, eagles, crows, etc), frequently gets lost, and the boy tramps all over trying to find him again. He passes through the hands of strangers a few times before being reunited with his owner. Some of his encounters with danger make the pigeon too fearful to fly again, so he and the boy seek healing from a holy man. Gay-Neck: the Story of a Pigeon has lots of descriptions of animals killing each other, and men killing each other in warfare. The author laments this brutal behavior, then exhorts the reader to find peace and courage in his own heart.

I wanted to really like this book, because it has so much lore about bird behavior, how pigeons are trained, and wildlife in India. But the prose is often awkward, the style feels very dated, and I found myself frequently bored, in spite of all the exciting events running through its pages. The narration frequently shifts from the boy's perspective to that of other minor characters, and sometimes the pigeon tell his own story as well. This was only midly confusing to me, but might make it more difficult for a child to follow (if the unfamiliar prose style and scenes of killing don't already put him off). But if you're interested in life in India during World War I, the role pigeons played in it, or aspects of their training (far beyond the life of a city-dwelling "rat with wings") this book might interest you.

A lot of other readers had praise for this book, so don't take my word for it, but check out some of the links included below.

Rating: 2/5 ........ 192 pages, 1927

More opinions at:
Rebecca Reads
Children's Lit and Other Bits
The Newbery Project
Semicolon
Shelly's Book Blog
My Life in Books

Feb 15, 2009

Word People

Being an Inquiry Into the Lives of Those Persons Who Have Lent Their Names to the English Language
by Nancy Caldwell Sorel

Word People contains snippets of stories about people whose names have become common nouns, and how that happened. Some of them I had always suspected came from a person's name, many more I had no idea they had such origins. It is fascinating, and written with plenty of humor as well. The text is accompanied by expressive pen and ink illustrations by Edward Sorel, which I found hilarious in and of themselves. The book got a little tedious in parts; it was one I had to read in small segments, over more than a weeks' time, but curiosity kept me continuing to the end. If you're interested in the history of language, or wonder about how people got their names worked into everyday usage (although quite a few have fallen out of use by now), I recommend this book. I'm sorry that I can't recall any of the particular words themselves; I'd love to share some examples! But this book doesn't reside at my public library, and it's been several years since I had it in hand. Still, I remember it fondly enough to want to mention it here.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 304 pages, 1970

Have you written a blog review of this book? Let me know, and I'll add your link here.

Feb 13, 2009

The Water Babies

by Charles Kinglsey

The protagonist of this book is Tom, a naughty young boy who works under a cruel master as a chimney sweep. One day he gets himself into trouble, runs away and falls into a river where he is transformed into a "water-baby", able to live among the fishes. Tom is anxious to meet other water babies, but first he has to learn to be nice and well-behaved. He meets a lot of underwater animals- otters, lobster, different kinds of fishes- and fairies. Through his interactions in the underwater world, Tom slowly learns his moral lessons, eventually going off to save his old master from punishment for wrongdoings, and making his way back to land. My main enjoyment of the story is in the unfolding of Tom's character- he's quite a cheeky boy, curious and unafraid to ask questions of anyone (although the answers often puzzle him at first). His transformation out of ignorance and selfishness is nicely done. I also like reading about all the different creatures Tom encounters- their personification mostly reflects the natural behavior of said animals, and it's not many books you come across that feature talking salmon, lobsters and dragonflies. A delightful book, but one that I think should be read with the outlook of its time well in mind.

For The Water Babies is a didatic tale, heavily reflecting the Victorian ideas of its time. It is full of stiff moral lessons, crammed with Christian perceptions of guilt and redemption, and spouts off a lot of prejudiced criticisms of different groups of people- including Jews, Catholics, Americans and the Irish (these parts have mostly been edited out of later versions). I am not sure if I have ever read an unabridged version. And although it is usually classed as a children's book, I don't know if I'd feel comfortable reading it to my daughter without verbally editing some of those heavily opinionated passages. It's very interesting to read the wiki article about this book, which tells me that among other things, Kingsley wrote The Water Babies as a piece of satire, much akin to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, although the flavor of this story feels more like Peter Pan to me. Moralism and satire aside, it's a tender and curious story, full of interesting characters and lively adventures.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 316 pages, 1863

More opinions at:
BookNAround
JSBlog
cucullus non facit monachum

Feb 12, 2009

Meme: Author Blogs

from Booking Through Thursday:

Do you read any author’s blogs? If so, are you looking for information on their next project? On the author personally? Something else?

Well, the answer is no. I don't read author blogs. It's hard enough to find time to keep up with my regular reading and the book blogs, I honestly can't squeeze another thing in. Occasionally I'll look up an author to answer a question I have about the background of their book, but this is more likely to be a wiki article or another blogger's interview with them. And I usually just visit once, not repeatedly. I did have Nick Hornby's blog on my reader for a while, but it got tiresome. I feel terrible saying that, because I love his bookish books, but the blog just wasn't doing it for me. And you can't leave comments there, so what's the fun in that? (Although if that option was open, I'd probably feel too intimidated to do so!)

I know some of the book bloggers I read are also writers, but somehow that feels different to me. They feel like my blogging friends, not a stranger I'm trying to scope out some information on. What about you? Do you read author's blogs?

Feb 11, 2009

Inventing Motherhood

the Consequences of an Ideal
by Ann Dally

This book examines the history of motherhood and how ideas about it have changed and evolved through the decades, how have societal standards and attitudes towards women influenced our perception of motherhood and what creates our ideal image of a good mother. Popular and professional opinions have shifted about nearly everything from what is better, constant cuddling or letting your child cry? bottle or breast feeding? to how to disciple children, or even how close they should bond with their mother. It was interesting to see the change in trends- some strong advice from decades past has been refuted today as ignorant and even harmful. I found it particularly applicable to read about how society has gradually made it more and more difficult to be a full-time mom while at the same time advocating that only a mother can provide the best childcare. Most of the book focuses on the idea that while society holds in mind an ideal image of motherhood, few of us are allowed, or capable of, fulfilling it. Some parts of Inventing Motherhood get really technical and dry, especially when it goes into more detail about sociological and psychological issues. I admit I didn't follow all of it well. And I don't agree with all of the author's conclusions, but it was a very educational read and made me think about what has shaped my own ideas about how to be the best mom.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 360 pages, 1982

Have you written a blog review about this book? Let me know and I'll add your link here.

Feb 10, 2009

A Year in the Maine Woods

by Bernd Heinrich

I know of Heinrich as a biologist who studies ravens. From this book I learned he's also a university professor, a runner and something of a recluse. A Year in the Maine Woods is a thoughtful, contemplative book of nature writing drawn from a season Heinrich spent living alone in his rustic cabin. My attention wavered a bit in the beginning of the book, particularly the chapter about all the different people who owned his land in the past, and another about the geological history of it, which was more interesting but still rather dry.

Before long I found myself more involved, as Heinrich shared his experiences, both the struggles- drawing water from a well, battling hordes of flies, feeling the bitter cold of winter storms; and the rewards- enjoying the peace of the woods, seeing wildlife up close, being able to carry out his experiments in leisurely fashion. Whenever he had a question about something he observed- how squirrels tap maple trees for sap, how color progresses through a tree's changing leaves in fall, what makes "helicopter" seeds spin and fly- he devised a method to find the answer and satisfy his curiosity. Like Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Wildlings, he focuses mostly on the plant life and smaller creatures- especially insects. The ravens are mostly background material in this book. A few chapters describe the behavior of a young raven he was raising, and the study ravens are mentioned briefly, but the reasons for his involvement with them is not really explained and if you don't already know about his research, it can be confusing. Heinrich also shares many of his opinions on how forestland should be managed, and why. I was most intrigued by his descriptions of plant life cycles and how the distribution of different trees in the forest shifts throughout the decades. More than anything, I felt totally immersed in a place: the boggy woods of backcountry Maine, dripping with humidity, swarming with insects, gleaming with jewels of flowers and sanctuary for myriad forms of life. The transformations that all the plants and animals undergo as the seasons change is vividly described. Caribousmom alerted me to a few other nature books Heinrich has written, and I'm eager to get my hands on them as well, now. Reading this was such a pleasure.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 258 pages, 1994

More opinions at:
Beth's Stories
Nature Writing

winners!

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Announcing the winners of my bookmarks giveaway:

Eva won the Dalmation
Kris won the Bulldog
Carolsnotebook won the orange one (french bulldog?)

Happy readers, send your address to jeanenevarez AT gmail DOT com and I'll send your bookmarks out. If you didn't win, there will be another giveaway next week!

Feb 9, 2009

Straydog

by Kathe Kjoa

My blog has been a bit neglected over the past few days; we went out of town for the weekend. My husband took my daughter with him to attend a sports event, and I sat in the hotel for several peaceful hours with a book and a steaming hot bath. I read most of A Year in the Maine Woods but not quite finished yet, so that one will get featured tomorrow.

Straydog is a novel I read several years back. It features an angry teen who tries to connect to an equally angry (and fearful) dog. Rachel feels like an outcast at school, and treats the world around her with bitter sarcasm. Her two main passions are animals and writing. She volunteers at the local animal shelter, and when a feral collie dog is brought in, Rachel finds herself attracted to its wildness. The shelter staff judge that the collie is too vicious, and will never be adoptable. Rachel is determined to try and tame it. Together with a boy she begins to find friendshp with, they make a plan to slowly gain the dog's confidence and build a cage for it behind the boy's house. During this project, Rachel funnels her experiences into her writing, creating essays from the dog's point of view. But as her work with the collie gets more and more frustrating, she has to re-evaluate her chances of success, and face a tough decision in the end. Straydog is a pretty good story. Full of teen angst and the slow unfolding of Rachel's trust in other people, reaching out for friendship as she tries to enlist others in her efforts to save the dog. In the end Rachel finds that more than anything else, she has tamed her own anger, and come closer to others around her.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 128 pages, 2004

More opinions at:
Blue Blazes Library
Littera Scripta

Feb 5, 2009

The Frankenstein Diaries

by Hubert Venables

This brief but intense book purports to shed light on the story of Frankenstein, claiming it is factual by presenting a collection of papers said to be Viktor Frankenstein's own diary pages, alongside numerous "scientific" drawings, engravings depicting key characters and equipment Viktor used, and studies of the monster itself. The pages are even tanned yellow in order to look aged, and there are images of hand-written diary pages included (in flowery German script). At the beginning the text is presented as being discovered and analyzed by one Reverend Hubert, eventually his voice drops out and it's just Viktor's diary entries. The end is wrapped up with observations by Eustace, Viktor's brother, who arrives at the castle too late to give assistance and pieces together what happened from the wreckage he finds. The style of language is close enough to Shelly's own that this easily feels like a companion piece, and the illustrations are interesting- many reminded me of anatomical studies done in life drawing classes at art school- but nowhere approach the mastery I appreciated in Bernie Wrightson's work.

It's been years since I read Shelly's Frankenstein, but I recall enough to realize that Venables has turned the story upon its head. In this version, Viktor marries his cousin before he creates the monster, and she dies in a suspicious accident. After that he retires alone to a deserted family castle in Bavaria, where he works in solitude (with Igor's help at first) to create the monster. The creature never roams further than the local village, is educated partially by Viktor himself, and attempts to create its own companion by crudely imitating Viktor's experiments. It eventually remains barricaded in the dilapidated castle with Viktor until the final struggle. In a way this version feels just as tragic as Shelly's. Viktor's internal dilemma is starkly portrayed: at first he is full of grandiose thoughts, certain his work is divinely inspired. Then he becomes tormented by nightmares and shifts his prespective entirely, believing that evil has infiltrated his mind for its own purposes. I am glad I was far enough removed from my reading of Shelly's work to not feel annoyed by how The Frankenstein Diaries deviates from the original; I enjoyed reading this strange, macabre and haunting story.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 120 pages, 1980

Other opinions at:
More Than Words

Feb 3, 2009

Giveaway

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This week instead of giving away a book, I'm holding a drawing for some of these bookmarks. A trio of puppy dogs! To get your name in the hat, leave a comment and tell me which breed of dog is your favorite. My daughter likes dalmations (they have spots!), my husband favors staffordshire bull terriers (the tough image) and toy poodles (they're smart, plus his grandma had one), and I've always liked basenjis. They are so cool looking, and they don't bark. But I had a childhood friend who had two, and said they were really good at howling. I don't know if I could ever live with one.... what about you?
The winner of these bookmarks will be chosen at random on 3/10/09. (Enter for one, two, or all three, just tell me which ones you'd like!)

Feb 2, 2009

How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found

by Sara Nickerson

I think this is the only graphic novel I've ever read. Well, it's not exactly a graphic novel, but the illustrations feature comics so heavily it felt like one. How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found is a convoluted little mystery. Its protagonist is twelve-year-old Margaret, whose family life is deteriorating. Her father's dead, her mother is seriously depressed and her annoying little sister is obsessed with jigsaw puzzles. When her mother drives them to a run-down mansion to stick a for-sale sign on the lawn, Margaret begins to solve a puzzle of her own. She comes across a package addressed to her mother containing an odd comic book, her father's championship swimming medal, and an old key. Together with a neighborhood boy who is a die-hard fan of the Ratt Man comics, she tries to unravel the mystery of her father's death and the story in the comics. The story jumps around a lot, switching viewpoints often, and the plot twists and turns so much I began to find it annoying, but it all wraps up in the end. Some aspects of the story were definitely strange- especially the bizarre library stocked only with hand-written books. There's also a ghost and a bit of a love story involved. A fun read, fast-paced and entertaining with lively descriptions, but I felt it was just a bit too complex given how short it is.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 288 pages, 2003

More opinions at:
desirous of everything at the same time