Nov 30, 2010

Rescuing Sprite

by Mark Levin

Hm. Famous guy writes about his dog. I know his family loved the dog very much, and he was special to them, but I just didn't feel anything special about this book. There was nothing amazing about Sprite like, say, the feats of Moobli, nor was the book funny like Marley. It's not very well-written (in my opinion) so aside from that, just a nice (rather sad) story about a family dog. On the one hand, there are tons of families out there with beloved dogs who can relate to his story, on the other hand I'm not sure why the effort to write Rescuing Sprite. Half of it seems to be the author gushing about how wonderful and special his dog is, without making me understand why; and the other half he's just talking about himself and outpouring his guilt for not having prolonged the dog's life more. Sprite was an older dog adopted when he already had most of his life behind him and a plethora of health problems. Unfortunately by the time his new family figured out what was going on, it was pretty much too late to save him. They only owned him for two years. (All the more reason why I kept wanting to know what was so special about Sprite? He says the dog gave their family so much more than they ever did for him, and yet I didn't see it). The ending is really very sad, especially the months of grief and guilt he went through after the dog's death. So... I would say unless you are a dog-lover, or have owned and lost a dog, or don't mind crying at the end of a dog story, this book probably won't have much for you. It was merely an okay read for me. It's simply that I've read so many other dog stories that were much better told.

Rating: 2/5 ........ 216 pages, 2007

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Nov 29, 2010

Christmas Horse

by Glenn Balch

Another old but good horse story from Glenn Balch (but still doesn't live up to my favorite.) This one is about a teenage boy on a ranch who admires the wild horses that run in the hills. He feels certain there's some good blood in those wild horses, and has his eye on a particular black colt. But his father adamantly claims none of them are worth the effort to catch and train- they're just loco, or their spirits would break at being caught and tamed. Ben gets his wish however, when one Christmas he returns home from school (boarding in the city with his aunt to attend high school) and finds that the black colt was caught just for him and "green-broke" by the ranch hand.

Ecstatic at owning the black colt, Ben's joy soon turns to dismay when he realizes he won't be able to train the horse himself when he's away at school. Eventually he finds a solution in boarding his horse at a nearby riding stable in town, but that doesn't quite solve his problem. Ben has to work in the stables to pay for his horse's keep, and with schoolwork as well, there's little time left to ride his horse. Compounding the issue is his embarrassment when a girl he admires at school finds out he works mucking out stalls. At first she doesn't believe he has a wild horse, then she doesn't believe Ben can ride it. He's determined to prove himself to her as a horseman, and finally gets his chance in a spectacular way.

This book was a slow start. Nice enough, but not very interesting until it got to the part where he was trying to juggle school, work and horse-training, as well as impress the girl. Later in the story Ben takes his horse back to the ranch for the summer, where he moves on from just teaching it to be obedient to commands and introduces the horse to ropes and cattle, intending to make it a skilled cow pony. All the while he's anxious to show his father that this wild horse amounted to something good.

It's a pretty good story, if you like horses. I got a chuckle out of the horse's name: Inkpot. Ben's sister named it after it was caught, before he came home for Christmas and had a chance to name it himself. He didn't like the name at first, but it stuck. I thought it was funny.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 252 pages, 1949

Nov 28, 2010

The Coachman Rat

by David Henry Wilson

Yesterday I decided to pick up a familiar book and just enjoy it. One I read so long ago the ending was just a blur in my memory, so still a re-discovery of sorts. The Coachman Rat. You can read my previous thoughts about it here.

The Coachman Rat is, of course, a re-telling of Cinderella from the rat's point of view, who was turned into a coachman for one night. Robert the rat had always been fascinated with humans, to the point of being estranged from his rat family, so becoming a human, even momentarily, was like a dream come true for him. After the stroke of midnight made him a rat again (but retained his human speech), his life's mission became to find the "woman of light" (fairy godmother) who could change him back again. In the meantime he got snatched up by men fascinated by his ability to speak. First he was displayed in the market and forced to talk as a freak show to earn coins, then handed off to a scientists who wanted to study his abilities and find an explanation. Sadly, those who professed to be Robert's friends only had their own interests at heart and although his quest to find Amadea (Cinderella) lead him to her again, it also made the public believe she was consorting with witches and talking animals. In one of the most horrific scenes in the story, Amadea and her prince are killed by a mob, even as Robert gets his wish and becomes human again. Embittered against humans, he turns all his conniving rat's wits against the people, working his own scheme to not only get revenge on the mob leader now in power but to destroy the whole town as well. I liked that this story has elements of not just Cinderella but also of the Pied Piper. It's not a very pretty tale. After the mob scene all the events tend to go downhill, and the ending, while dark and violent, was also fitting- considering the historical role rats have played in connection with the Black Plague. All in all a very interesting read, if you like your fairy tales with a twist.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 171 pages, 1985

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Nov 27, 2010

Diary of a Pigeon Watcher

by Doris Schwerin

When I picked up this book at a used sale, I thought it looked familiar and perhaps I'd read it a long time ago. After getting fifty pages in I realized I tried it once from the library and never got far. This time I made myself finish, if only for the pigeons, but pretty quickly found why I gave up the first time.

Diary of a Pigeon Watcher isn't quite what the title implied to me. Yes, it's about a New York woman's observations of some pigeons that take up housekeeping on a ledge outside her window, but that's only a small part of the book. At first it was about the pigeons, her struggles dealing with breast cancer, and flashbacks to her childhood (most often triggered by things she observed in the pigeon family) but before I got halfway through it was mostly about her family, their history, and what it was like growing up Jewish (but non-practicing) in a very religious neighborhood that frowned on any professed atheists (such as her father, the town physician). So, I liked the pigeon parts. How they raised their chicks, how the young ones learned to fly, the strain of the parents in feeding them, attacks by more aggressive pigeons that coveted their ledge, etc. The parts about cancer were less interesting, mostly because I was confused by her rambling musings and didn't always quite get the allusions and metaphors she made. The family history parts were even less interesting; ie I couldn't connect and it wasn't written well enough to make me live a foreign experience. So I ended up skimming through to read about the pigeons and more immediate childhood memories, and left the rest. Rather a disappointing read.

Rating: 2/5 ........ 288 pages, 1976

Nov 26, 2010

The Secret Lives of Princesses

by Philippe Lechermeier

My daughter and I have been waiting and waiting to read this book. Ever since I read about it on Stephanie's Written Word and Bookfoolery and Babble, I knew I'd have to find this book for her. We've been on the waiting list at the library for what seems like ages, in the meantime playing a few puzzles on the princess site and wondering what all the secret princesses look like.

And now we know! The Secret Lives of Princesses is a beautiful, lavishly illustrated book featuring all the princesses you never hear about. The ones who like to sleep all day, or eat delicious goodies, or sneak around and spy on people. The ones who have rather ordinary tempers, get jealous or sad, are spoiled or even quite bratty- but have unique hobbies and beautiful bedrooms. It's easy to see yourself in one of these princesses, and the puns in their names made me giggle, even if my daughter didn't catch on to that part. Besides beautiful spreads illustrating each princess, there's a page showing the princesses' coat of arms, diagrams of castles, an extraordinary traveling elephant, descriptions of common princess pets, enchanted forests, gardens, and a mind-boggling map. This was my daughter's favorite page and she wanted to read every little description of every little dot but in the end we despaired of finding them all!

My favorite princess was the Eco Princess, who communes with birds, ties up her hair with tree vines, and like beetles. I also feel kin (of course) to Princess Paige who loves to read, but I'm not quite the writer she is! And I liked best the page about Princess Oblivia. Her face is so charming, and her plight so easy to sympathize with- I loose and forget things frequently, too. I also loved the illustration of the Princess-for-a-Day, a beautiful graceful one decked out like a dragonfly. My daughter's favorite princesses were Princess Oblivia ("she's the most beautiful") and Princess Quartermoon ("because her hair is so pretty").

Any little girl who likes princess is sure to fall in love with this book!

Rating: 4/5 ........ 92 pages, 2004

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Nov 24, 2010

book giveaway!

I have an extra copy of Gift from the Sea (in much better shape than the one I'm keeping!) so if someone else would like to read it, here's your chance. I'm including in this giveaway two of my scrap-made bookmarks. I didn't have any of seashells, but these seemed fitting with their seaside subjects. If you'd like to win the set, just leave a comment on this post.
I'll draw a winner's name at random the following weekend, Dec 4th. Happy reading, everyone!

Nov 23, 2010

Gift from the Sea

by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

This quiet, introspective little book surprised me with its candor and depth. I really didn't know what to expect when I picked it up. All I knew about Anne Morrow Lindbergh is that she was the wife of famed Charles Lindbergh who made the first solo flight across the Atlantic ocean. In art school I once did a painting of Lindbergh and thus read quite a few books about him.

Gift from the Sea reflects a period of time Anne spent alone at the seaside; a quiet vacation she used to reflect on her life and reconnect with her inner self. She walks the beaches collecting shells and contemplating their beautiful shapes, finding metaphors in the seashells for her musings on the need for simplicity in life, the renewal of solitude, and most of all how relationships change and grow over time. I read it in one sitting but found myself pausing frequently over the words. Even though her perspective on women's roles is a bit outdated, I still found it relevant and appreciated what she had to say about women as mothers, the nurturing core of the family who must always be giving, reaching outside of herself, but also needs to find time to be alone and regenerate. It's a peaceful, thoughtful kind of book that I feel almost anyone could find a treasure in. In a way its reflective tone and friendliness reminded me of Gladys Taber's Conversations with Amber.

A few short passages that stood out to me:

The most exhausting thing in life, I have discovered, is being insincere. That is why so much of social life is exhausting; one is wearing a mask. 


I find there is a quality to being alone that is incredibly precious. Life rushes back into the void, richer, more vivid, fuller than before. It is as if in parting one did actually loose an arm. And then, like the star-fish, one grows it anew; one is whole again, complete and round- more whole, even than before, when the other people had pieces of one.


When one is a stranger to oneself then one is estranged from others too. If one is out of touch with oneself, then one cannot touch others.... Only when one is connected to one's own core is one connected to others, I am beginning to discover. And for me, the core, the inner spring, can best be refound through solitude.

I'm curious now about Anne Morrow Lindbergh's other writings. I'm not too keen on poetry, but has anyone read her diaries or other works? Let me know what you thought of them, what I should try next.

My copy of Gift from the Sea is quite worn with tattered edges on the dust jacket as you can see here; so I'm counting it towards my Dogeared Challenge.
Rating: 3/5 ........ 127 pages, 1955

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Nov 22, 2010

Beautiful Swimmers

Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay
by William Warner

This book got boring. It's pretty much what the subtitle says: all about watermen, the crabs they catch and local history regarding crabbing on the Chesapeake Bay (also details on oysters, and the herring used for bait, waterbirds and a few other related things). I liked the parts about the life cycle and behavior of the crabs. They seem like fairly smart animals for a crustacean, and some of the details of their lives are pretty interesting. All the other stuff about exactly how the watermen go about catching crabs, whether by pots or trotline, with descriptions of every bit of equipment that left me just as unfamiliar with it as I was before I never knew it existed, started to really dull my brain. Then there's plethora of details on how crabs are processed, how restaurants serve them, how local people cook them in their own homes, etc etc. Really, if you're fascinated by crabbing or by the locale, I'm sure you'd like this book with all its minutiae. But it just lost me on page 187 (a shame, I got so far!). Beautiful Swimmers even won the Pulitzer Prize in 1977, so by no means take my abandonment of it as the last word. It's just not keeping the interest of this reader.

I've had this book on my TBR for ages; not quite sure how it got there. I tried to read it for my TBR challenge but guess I'm going to have to reach for another title.

Abandoned ......... 304 pages, 1976

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Nov 18, 2010

Three Cups of Tea

by David Oliver Relin

In 1993 mountain climber Greg Mortenson went to Pakistan to climb one of the world's most forbidding peaks, K2. His attempt failed, and during the descent he lost the trail and stumbled into a remote village. The villagers nursed him back to health, and during his stay Mortenson was moved by their compassion for a stranger, and also by their need. He saw children attempting to hold classes in the open air, scratching their lessons in the dirt, and promised the villagers to one day return and build them a school.

Back in America, Mortenson stumbled about attempting to raise money for the school, and when by a mixture of luck and determination he'd scraped together enough, he returned and made good his promise. A lot of the book seems to be about his mistakes. He had no experience fundraising, or constructing buildings, or running a non-profit organization, but the failures left him undaunted and he kept on until his goals were reached. After the first school he went on to build more across the region and into Afghanistan. With the help of donors and volunteers, his one-man effort grew into a charitable organization that not only built schools but also bridges and community centers, laid pipes to bring water into villages, paid teacher's salaries, established medical clinics and assisted refugees. I was amazed that he continued to travel through areas that were dangerous after war broke out, and how many times he got himself into frightening situations. His understanding of the local culture and aptitude for learning the language helped a lot. And the people overcame their suspicion of American foreigners when they saw that he simply wanted to help their children become educated. I think part of his rapport with the locals also came about because he didn't just bulldoze in and take over. He sat down to meet with tribal leaders, and got the communities involved- most of the villages donated land for their schools and supplied labor to do the construction themselves. Three Cups of Tea is a wonderfully inspiring story about how one man's dedication to help those in need. The latter part of the book was a bit harder for me to read; what with all the conflicts and bombings, but I did love seeing how near the end Mortenson returned to some of the villages where he'd first built schools and saw children who were ready to move on to a higher education, who wanted to become teachers or nurses themselves, who had already thanks to their schooling, been able to help their communities. It's amazing what a difference he made.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 349 pages, 2006

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Nov 17, 2010

taking stock

of my reading challenges. Because the end of the year is coming up quickly, and I'm not reading any faster lately. Of the three challenges I have left to complete, I've read half the books off my list for the TBR challenge, leaving me with six to go. I need to read nine more books for the New Authors, and two more for my Dogeared one. With only a month and a half I know I really can't hope to get through seventeen books, so I'm aspiring to just finish the TBR, and the Dogeared if I find a book or two that fits for both. How are your challenges going?

Nov 12, 2010

Gorillas in the Mist

by Dian Fossey

I feel like it's been a while since it took me so long to get through a book. And one I was looking so forward to reading, too! It became clear to me pretty quick that Gorillas in the Mist different in focus from most of the other non-fiction I've read about biology fieldwork; perhaps that's why I struggled through it. Or it could just be the distractions I've been facing lately, and the lack of reading time. But it felt like every time I picked up the book after a break, I had difficulty getting back into it again. Most books I read about biologists going out into the wild to study animals have a similar pattern. They describe how the person became interested in their particular subject, preparations required to get into the field, their frustrating and exciting first encounters with the wild animals, subsequent observations of the animal's habits and lives, and at the end usually concerns come up about conservation and efforts to protect the wildlife from threats by man.

It felt to me like this book was written in an entirely different manner. Nothing wrong with that, it was just hard for me to focus on. From the very start it seems like Fossey jumped right into her mission to protect the gorillas. I felt like I was reading details about her anti-poaching patrols and wranglings with local people long before she talked about observing the actual gorillas. In a way this makes sense; how could she study the animals if they were being killed? of course she immediately took action to keep them safe (this was not only by having poachers arrested, confiscating their tools and removing their traps, but also actively herding gorilla groups away from dangerous areas).

Result was that the actual animals themselves seemed to take second stage in her book. Most interesting I found were reading about the gorillas' family lives, group organization, what they ate, how they traveled, etc. I learned all sorts of things. I didn't know before that gorilla groups will shift, with individuals moving in and out of different families for various reasons. I didn't know gorillas eat mostly foliage (so ones in zoos fed lots of vegetables and fruit get obese!) and also sometimes their own dung (yes, even in the wild, so Fossey speculated it was to get more nutrients or organisms that aided digestion). I didn't know that to catch a gorilla infant (for illegal pet trade or zoos) often many members of a gorilla group will be destroyed because the adults will give their lives attempting to protect their babies. Very sad.

But all these facts I felt like I gleaned between reading about other stuff. The narrative also jumped around a bit, so sometimes I was reading about one animal as an adult, and then later on about its infancy. That was confusing. Also, when the book did discuss individual gorillas it did so in a broad sense, describing their relationships with other animals over a span of decades in just a few pages. So I never really got a sense of the gorillas as individuals (which is what I so love about Jane Goodall's books on the chimpanzees). It felt more like reading a scientific report interlaced with the story of Fossey's urgent anti-poaching campaign. Even when her beloved Digit died, I felt horrified and sad, but in a detached way. It didn't hit me with gut sorrow like reading about the deaths of animals in other books, who had become individuals with personalities to me.

I feel rather glum to say all this; overall it is an interesting book full of information and an amazing story about one woman's dedication and hard work to saving the endangered mountain gorilla. But it just wasn't the best read for me. I never felt entirely enthralled or involved in the narrative; and I missed that. (I know it sounds odd to be enthralled with non-fiction about wildlife; but I often am!)

Rating: 3/5 ........ 325 pages, 1983

You must read Nymeth's thoughtful review of this book on Things Mean a Lot. Has anyone else written a post about it? I couldn't find any others, as my search online kept just pulling up reviews of the recent movie production.

Nov 6, 2010

winner!

It's time for the close of my little halloweeny-bookmarks giveaway. I simply flipped a coin, and the winner is Anna from Diary of an Eccentric! Anna, just email me your address and I'll mail them along. Happy reading, everybody!

Nov 1, 2010

Reflections of Eden

My Years with the Orangutans of Borneo
by Birute Galdikas

As a teenager I discovered the books of Jane Goodall about chimpanzees in Gombe and was enthralled. I've heard quite a bit about Dian Fossey but never yet read her works (it's next on my plate!) But until I picked up this book I was unaware of the third woman primatologist the famous Louis Leakey supported- Birute Galdikas, who studied the wild orangutans. Her book was incredible. I was amazed at the depth of her dedication and patience. She not only managed to locate and follow wild orangutans in trackless forest, but to embrace the local culture, start a movement to protect the rainforests surrounding her camp and rehabilitate confiscated pet orangutans back into the wild. All while conducting her studies and learning more about the quiet red apes than anyone knew before (including McKinnon, to whom she gave a generous nod in her book- she even met him at a conference!)

I feel I can't really describe Reflections of Eden sufficiently; it is better in this case to let Galdikas' words speak for herself. She summed it all up so well here:
Journal articles and monographs on fieldwork talk about theory, techniques, and results. Popular books focus on the animals or on the adventure. One rarely hears how fieldwork changes people's lives. The living conditions, the funding difficulties, the practical problems, the highs of discovery, the false starts and dead ends, the drudgery of scientific record-keeping, the learning how to get along with people and societies initially very foreign to you, the learning how to get along with people, places and things you once took for granted, the feeling of suspension in time as the world spins on without you- all have an impact. Fieldwork forces you not only ton confront situations you could never have anticipated, but also to confront elements of your own character you might never have known. Every trip into the field is also a trip into yourself.
I really felt like I got that broad, yet detailed picture of her work and experiences. Not just the fascinating observations of the animals and insights into their behavior, but also the day to day efforts of conducting the field study and rehabilitating the once-captive orangutans, working with the local people, struggling with the poor living conditions, etc. It was all so vividly real and intellectually stimulating. It reminded me quite a bit of reading The Lion's Eye; the raw reality and wonder of it all.

Near the end of the book Galdikas speaks of the passing of Dian Fossey and her work with the mountain gorillas, it seemed such an appropriate segue into my next reading choice; I know I've had that one sitting on my shelf far too long!

Rating: 4/5 ........ 408 pages, 1995