Oct 29, 2011

The Year of the Seal

by Victor Scheffer

A companion book to The Year of the Whale, The Year of the Seal describes the life of an Alaskan fur-seal and its companions. I found it more interesting than the whale book, probably because seals are a bit easier to relate to, but also more disturbing in some ways. Most of the book tells about one female seal, and what she does from day to day in the different seasons; she comes to land to breed and raise a pup, leaves it periodically to go fishing in the ocean, then roams widely through the seas but returns again to land the following year. The story also follows the doings of one of her pups, and a little bit of the adult male or bull seal as well, to show how their habits differ. Interwoven with the seals' lives are the activities of men, and this is where it gets troublesome. There are hunters who "harvest" the seals' skins for their thick warm fur, and biologists who count their numbers and study their behavior. Their main motive for doing so is to determine how many seals can be taken each year without decimating the population. But they also do some studies just (it seems) for knowledge' sake. Things like chopping the ears off a hundred seals to mark them and see if they come back the next year to the same spot. Killing a bunch of seals by different methods just to see which is more efficient. The worst, I felt, was when they had caught a few pups for a study and in order to keep them alive, every day would go out to the seal rookery, find a pup that had just been fed by its mother, kill it and feed the milk from its stomach to the captive pup. It seemed such a waste.

Of course, the seals suffered and died of natural causes, too. Orcas and parasitic worms, stormy weather and fights among themselves. The huge bulls often trampled pups that got in their way, or attacked them to vent frustration. Some pups' mothers never returned from the sea and these slowly wasted away. It's all quite brutal. And yet the seals are full of life, apparently vigorous and healthy, and there are many passages beautifully describing their grace in the water, their speed and agility chasing fish, the quiet and tender moments between mother and pup, etc. All the misery seemed to jump out at me, though. Maybe that's why this book has gone unread for so many years (the last time its due date was stamped is 1995).

Still, I liked this one better than the whale book. Bought at a library sale.

rating: 3/5 ........ 205 pages, 1970

Oct 24, 2011

Wicked Plants

by Amy Stewart

Wicked Plants is a little book stuffed full of data on plants that do harm to people. Whether by poisoning, causing rashes and itching, intoxicating or overwhelming the environment- noxious weeds are a real headache! It was curious to see how many plants nowadays considered very dangerous were used in times past as medical remedies (often with very bad results for the patients). And I'm no longer surprised at how new arrivals in the Americas ages ago were afraid to eat tomatoes; related plants in their family are poisonous (such as deadly nightshade). I was surprised to find how many other plants commonly grown in gardens can be toxic: sweet peas, rhododendrons, azalea, certain kinds of lawn grass, celery! Of course, you'd have to eat a ton to come to harm, and quite a few I can't see why anyone would ingest it at all- azalea leaves, really? but lots of other plants that resemble edibles or have attractive-looking berries it's easy to understand why kids put them in their mouths, or even hikers who think they know what plants are safe. There's also info in here about mushrooms. And did you know olive trees can cause terrible allergic reactions? even lime peel! I could go on and on but you should just read the book and save me the trouble. Incidentally, the part about Lincoln's mother mentioned in the subtitle (The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities) doesn't appear until near the end, so you have to read the entire book to get to that part. It's all worth it, though!

Also this book sent me googling about ten different plants to see what they look like, in spite of the delightful illustrations. Which is always a good sign of how much it triggered my curiosity, sending me online to learn more. Borrowed this one from the public library.

rating: 3/5 ........ 233 pages, 2009

more opinions:
I know a lot of you have read this book but my google reader returns nothing I can pin down and searches online yield so much stuff which aren't book reviews that I have no time to wade through. So if you're a book blogger and you've read and posted about this book let me know and I'll add a link to you here!

Oct 22, 2011

Relentless Enemies

by Dereck and Beverly Joubert

I've been eying this book on its display shelf every visit to the library for the past few weeks, and finally I just gave in and brought it home, even though it's big and heavy (we were walking). And I'm glad I did; it was a wonderful book.

Relentless Enemies is one of those large-format coffee-table books full of gorgeous photos of wildlife. It's based on three years the authors spent living among lions and buffalo in the Okavango Delta of Botswana, studying their interactions and filming. (I really want to see the film they produced now; I really loved their film Eye of the Leopard so I'm sure I'd like this one as well). The unique thing about this area, besides that no people are allowed there (no tourists, nada) is that most of it is swampy. The lions wade and hunt and travel through water day after day. What fascinated me most was to read about how the three lion prides they studied each had their own different strategies of hunting buffalo in the water. While the pictures dominate the book, the writing is beautiful, thoughtful, even poetic and so it was just as much a delight to read through as to enjoy visually.

Rating: 4/5 ....... 175 pages, 2006

Oct 20, 2011

Demon Fish

by Juliet Eilperin

Sharks, one of the creatures most widely feared and loathed by humanity, kill less people a year than accidents with toasters or chairs! (How someone dies from a toaster encounter I don't know). Our fear of sharks has led us to ignore what's been happening to them, but as Juliet Eilperin succinctly describes in her book Demon Fish, their numbers are rapidly plummenting. They've been killed because we fear them, killed because they get caught in equipment set to catch other fish, killed because we want to eat them to show off (the shark components of shark's-fin soup add nothing to the flavor of the dish) and killed as their habitats are destroyed. Some say: who cares? they eat us. Let them die. But as top predators in the ocean, sharks fill a very important role of keeping other species in check. Not to mention that they are beautiful in their own right, unique creatures we are just beginning to understand.

Some of the amazing things I learned about sharks in this book (I'd heard of some of these things before, but never read about them in detail)

Sharks are ancient. They predate the dinosaurs!
Shark skin is very tough, made out of the same material as teeth.
Some sharks lay eggs, others give live birth.
A few sharks even give virgin birth. That's right: no dad.
Some baby sharks eat their siblings in utero.
There are about five hundred known species of shark.
Most sharks are small, and many of them have beautiful patterns. Look at this one.

So I learned a lot about sharks, what makes them different, how scientists study them, how our actions are pushing many of them towards extinction and why we should care. And of course, take steps to halt their demise.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 295 pages, 2011

more opinions:
We Loved DC
All Fins Attached
Booked Up

Oct 18, 2011

an aside

For the first in a long time, I have been inspired by something I read to make a purchase. Thus the presence of this post, about a food item, on my book blog!

It was from reading Honeybee, which first sparked my interest in local, or monofloral honey. So for the first time ever, I have bought some special honeys, and they do have very different flavors.
The first one I got was an orange-blossom honey from the local supermarket, Wegman's. It has a light amber color like clover honey (which is all I'm used to eating in regards to honey) and tastes a lot similar. It has a definite, sharp citrusy zing, kind of as if the honey had orange zest in it. And a nice tingly aftertaste that seems to linger in the roof of my mouth.

Then just a few days ago we went to a local produce stand at an Amish farm we like to visit, but only go two or three times a season because it's quite a bit of distance from us (at least a twenty-minute drive). I usually get eager about their homemade jams and sauces, but this time noticed there was a shelf full of monofloral honey! I got all excited when I saw the tupelo honey, which I read about in Robbing the Bees, and had a hard time deciding which other type to try. They had starthistle honey, blackberry, apple blossom and many others I can't remember now. I was intrigued by the avocado one so we got that.

You can see the difference in the colors here. The Tupelo honey is amber too, a bit darker than orange blossom. The avocado honey has a rich, dark almost red-tinted color. We tried just a bit smeared on crackers to compare the flavors.
The tupelo honey is very sweet and astringent. Its flavor reminds me of something else but I haven't been able to put my finger on it. The avocado honey has an incredibly rich, heavy flavor like molasses. It left the longest aftertaste on my tongue. I can't decide which I like best and have to figure out some special cooking or food combinations to do with these. They are a bit pricey- the tupelo jar cost $10, the others about $6 each, but we are going to savor them. I don't know if they're exactly local- I think tupelo trees only grow in Florida, for example- but I know our farmer's market has honey produced by local hives. Next change I get, I want to try some of theirs, too.

Oct 14, 2011

Drawings of the Masters

Flemish and Dutch Drawings from the 15th to the 18th Century
by Colin Eisler

Another art book I got from a library sale recently. I picked it up because in thumbing through saw a wonderful drawing of an elephant by Rembrandt, also several awesome lions, and figured there'd be more. I was right- there was much more. Just a few are of animals: a boar's head, a scruffy-looking bull, a donkey, a beautiful little monkey with a chain on his neck, several cows in a group and quite a few horses (mostly with figures). There's also a wonderful page full of little studies of garden vegetables which made me wish I could draw plants better, and two that quite made me laugh. One is a drawing called Men Shoveling Chairs. Seriously. I was glancing at the plate titles in the front of the book and my eye wandered down the usual kind of names: Portrait of a Young Man, Virgin and Child, Landscape with a Bridge, etc. then I saw Men Shoveling Chairs. What!? I turned to that page and it was exactly that: four men with long-handled paddle-like shovels thrusting them under piles of three-and-four-legged stools and chairs. I still puzzle over what it means or why the artist drew it, but it makes me laugh nonetheless. The other amusing one is a drawing by Hieronymous Bosch called Tree-Man in a Landscape which reminds me how even centuries ago people would idly sketch fantastic things they just dreamed up: a "man" with an egg-shaped body (cut away to show figures around a table inside), his legs are trees and his feet boats, his hat has a jug on top out of which tiny figures climb on a ladder, an owl sits on a branch growing from his back. It's entirely fanciful and curiously delightful to peer at.

Of course there are lots of the types of drawings you'd expect to find: the portraits and madonnas, landscapes and buildings. They all show me something to aspire to, but I was really glad that I found something to smile about, too.

The style of the drawings ranges from very rough, simple line sketches to highly detailed meticulous wash studies and finely hatched pen-and-ink works. Some you can imagine the artist having spent hours working on, others just a few moments. There are lots of amazing studies of folds from the clothing people wore, and a wide variety of faces. The introductory text describing the artwork and its changing styles through the centuries and via different artists wasn't nearly as incomprehensible as I feared, actually pretty interesting. But of course, I mostly enjoyed just looking and looking at the pictures.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 140 pages, 1963

Oct 12, 2011

Metropolitan Zoo

by Joseph Bell

This book has been sitting on my shelf a long time, picked up from a library sale who-knows-when. I read it through several bouts of nursing the baby, taking time to look closely at all the pictures. Metropolitan Zoo is a collection of images from the Metropolitan Museum of Art that all feature wild animals. There are paintings, drawings, sculpture, embroideries, jewelry and other forms of art. Each image is described, not only explaining the medium and style, the artist's inspiration (whether from life or completely fanciful) and a bit of history, but also something about the animal. In particular, the author points out when the details of the artwork show something factual about the animal's life or habits, and when they got it dead wrong! I noticed myself a few small details: in the painted screen of white-handed gibbons (shown on the cover), the male is holding some kind of insect in his clenched fist. In few pages showing lions, I saw that quite a number of them depicted the Barbary lion, now extinct in the wild, whose mane extends along the belly. And one left me with a question: what is the other, un-named animal in the detail of the unicorn tapestry shown? Next to the hyena (which doesn't look much like a hyena) is a creature with a striped tail like a raccoon (only skinnier) but the longer neck and finer face of a weasel. A civet? I keep turning to that page, trying to puzzle it out. The artworks feature lions, elephants, rhinos, deer, squirrels and many other mammals. There are also quite a few pieces depicting snakes and other reptiles, and lots of various and beautiful birds. It's a book I thoroughly enjoyed looking through, and should be very popular with anyone who loves animals or art (or both, like me!)

I want to get my hands someday on the other edition they've printed featuring cats from the museum's artwork.

Rating: 5/5 .......112 pages, 1985

Harvest for Hope

by Jane Goodall 
with Gary McAvoy and Gail Hudson

Concerned about many alarming trends she's noticed around the world Jane Goodall wrote this book about "mindful eating." In it she talks about all sorts of things revolving around what we, as humanity eat, and how current practices are destroying our environment and what we can do (on an individual level) to make a difference. Some of the things she talks about in Harvest for Hope include the presence of chemicals and poisons in our food, water shortages, bio-engineered crops, the awful treatment of animals in large-scale operations, overfishing of the oceans and loss of species diversity. Some of the information and predictions for the future are downright scary. On a positive note she talks about the many rich food cultures around the world, organizations that teach schoolchildren how to grow and cook their own produce, farmers that go back to using "deep organic" practices in order to heal their land and produce healthier food, the growing numbers of farmer's markets and restaurants that use local food, the importance of vegetarianism (in all its forms) for our health, the well-being of animals and the reduction of resources overuse, etc. She hasn't quite convinced me to go vegetarian but I am more determined to make an effort to buy local and organic food when I can. Even if it costs more and I can't buy as much, eating a bit less can only be good for me!

rating: 3/5 ....... 296 pages, 2005

more opinions at:
Sayin' Stuff
Becoming Green
She Writes, Right?
Cooking, Food and Wine

Oct 10, 2011

more TBR

Rin Tin Tin by Susan Orlean- seen on Sophisticated Dorkiness
Healing Paradise by Gay Courter- noticed by Superfast Reader
One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-read about on A Work in Progress
The Gardener's Year by Karel Capek- Captive Reader
Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver- Stuff as Dreams Are Made On
The Curious Gardener by Ana Pavord- Captive Reader
Flower Hunters by Mary Gribbin and John Gribbin- Captive Reader
Sex on Six Legs by Marlene Zuk- A Striped Armchair
The Curious Gardener by Ana Pavord- Garden Rant
Second Nature by Michael Pollan- Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

The Orchard: A Memoir by Theresa Weir
It's a Long Road to a Tomato by Keith Stewart
The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels by Ree Drummond
those three from Caroline Bookbinder

The Proof of Love by Catherine Hall- Farm Lane Books Blog
A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard- We'll Always Have Books
Seeing Trees by Nancy Ross Hugo- Commonweeder
Cluck: From Jungle Fowl to City Chicks- Garden Rant
Feathers! by Thor Hanson- Sophisticated Dorkiness
Your Farm in the City by Lisa Taylor- Garden Rant 
Night Waking by Sara Moss- Farm Lane Books Blog
Urban Farming by Thomas J Fox- Garden Rant
Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi- Farm Lane Books Blog
Chick Days by Jenna Woginrich - Garden Rant
My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira- Books and Movies
A Lucky Child by Thomas Buergenthal- Diary of an Eccentric
The City Homesteader by Scott Meyer - Garden Rant
Sugar Snaps and Strawberries by Andrea Bellamy- Garden Rant

The Seventh Well by Fred Wander- Diary of an Eccentric
Making It: Radical Home Ec... by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen- Garden Rant
Bending Toward the Sun by Leslie Gilbert Lurie- Diary of An Eccentric

Four Hedges by Clare Leighton
A Countrywoman's Notes by Rosemary Verey
The Garden in the Clouds by Antony Woodward
The Curious Gardener's Almanac by Niall Edworthy
all those last four from Captive Reader

Oct 6, 2011

No Impact Man

by Colin Beavan

I don't know why I have this thing lately for reading books about people doing experiments to change their lives and live in ways that are better for the environment. It's interesting to see how far people are willing or able to go, what challenges they come up against, how they solve them. I guess I also like to compare myself, to imagine if it's something I could do, too. Most seem to have one focus; I've read a lot of books (because I like gardening) about sustainable living and feeding yourself. This Organic Life, Farm City and  Animal, Vegetable, Miracle are several titles about people who tried to only eat what they could grow or find within a short distance of home (thus avoiding the costs of food traveling far). This author has alerted me to several more; there's a book called  The 100-Mile Diet whose title explains itself, and another where the author tries to do one new environmentally-friendly thing per day: Sleeping Naked is Green.

Anyway, No Impact Man describes Beavan's experiences taking his family through a year-long project to see how much they could reduce their carbon footprint on the earth. It's pretty impressive that he didn't just focus on one thing, like see if we can only eat local for a year, or only use green energy for a year. No, he did it all. In stages, which I think was smart. First, he cut out all the trash their family produced. The used nothing new. They quit buying any food that came in packaging- so only fresh produce, no take-out, not even coffee from Starbucks until he thought to bring his own re-usable cup along. Next they quit using vehicles for transportation, walking and biking everywhere (and taking stairs- they even eschewed the elevator!) Then tried to do without electricity. He flipped the circuit breaker in his apartment and took to shopping for fresh food several times a week, going to sleep when it got dark, stomping on clothes in the tub to wash them, etc.

Oh, and he did this all while living in New York City.

Several interesting things happened. He got a lot of attention for this project. His family was willing to go along with it and even found it fun. He discovered he had a lot more time on his hands and began spending it with family and friends, appreciating the simple pleasures of life. He found his limits: there's a point at which doing without in order to save the planet just becomes miserable (washing kid-vomited-on bedsheets by hand?) He also reached a point where it wasn't enough simply to reduce his own use of resources or environmental impact, but that he wanted to do something positive and so got involved with local volunteer projects to plant trees, clean up trash on the river, etc.

Can you tell I was impressed by this man?

There's been a documentary made of the No-Impact Man project (I think that's how I originally found it; saw the title on Netflix). And Beavan has a blog all about it, too.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 274 pages, 2009

more opinions at:
Switchboard
The Back Patio
anyone else?

Oct 2, 2011

This Organic Life

Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader
by Joan Dye Gussow

Joan Gussow and her husband set out to build their retirement home, and instead they built a garden. I kid you not. Her dream home was really picked because of its location on the Hudson river and its long backyard with ample sunny space, but when they discovered the house had to be gutted (and even later, that it had to be torn down and rebuilt) they went ahead and started improving the land and planting vegetables months before their home was tenable. I am amazed already, but go on through my reading to discover that Gussow and her husband have reached their goal of feeding themselves from their own yard- veggie garden, fruit trees and berry patches- when there isn't stuff available fresh they eat stored potatoes, onions and parsnips, etc. That impresses me enough, but she goes on to live her environmentalist convictions even further, always questioning where the food she eats was produced, looking for food sources as close to home as she can get them (like Barbara Kingsolver also strove to do) as well as other measures (the book is mostly about food-related ones). One chapter in  This Organic Life is all about things she's willing to do without, another is about the nextdoor community garden she helps establish, yet another is about the hard knocks nature deals them- like when the river floods their garden, when wireworms eat her sweet potatoes, when rats destroy her tomato plants. She admits its not easy and worries even more over the state of our nation's famers, who must have it even harder. This is such a conscientious, thoughtful, funny and encouraging book I'm looking already for a copy to add to my personal library. Not to mention that it's got recipes, and really good-looking ones, too! Granted, they are all on the spicy side, but my husband likes spicy food! I haven't figured out yet what to do with all the hot peppers I grew this year...

I like this author. I like her voice, I like her convictions, I like the fact that she does something about them. I want to read more of what she's written, so I'm looking in my library's database to see what they have... nothing! blah. Time to try for another swap, I suppose.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 273 pages, 2001

more opinions at
Alternate Roots
Edge of the Page
organic gardening crash

Oct 1, 2011

bookmarks!

It's been a while, so I'm doing another bookmarks giveaway. This pair has an Egyptian theme. Simply leave a comment if you'd like to win them!
Sorry, giveaway open to mailing address in the US and Canada only.

It runs for two weeks. I'll draw a name at random on... the weekend of my birthday! Oct 15.