Dec 31, 2014

2014 book numbers

Not that I obsess about stats- I don't even think about it most of the year, and this time didn't keep a tally sheet- so it's a bit tedious to count up the numbers. But it's still nice to see how things ebb and flow, how my reading habits change over the years. I'm following same pattern as 2013 and 2012 (in terms of what I count/look at) here. Please note- numbers don't always match up to the total because some books are in more than one category, and that's just how it is.

Total books read- 105

Fiction- 36
Non-fiction- 69

non-fiction breakdown
Art- 8
Gardening- 5
J Non-fiction- 6
Memoirs- 15
Nature- 5
Animals- 55
Other- 10

fiction breakdown
YA- 7
Historical Fiction- 15
Fantasy- 3
J Fiction- 8
Picture books- 28 
Animals in Fic- 23
Baby books- 6

other formats
Short stories- 2
Graphic novels- 1
Ebooks- 6

sources
Owned- 59
Library- 69
Review copies- 3
Borrowed from a friend- 2

other numbers
Abandoned books- 13
Re-reads- 1

This year I didn't include picture books in the general tally (that feels more honest). And I read far more of them to my kid than the mere 28 I blogged about. So of course the numbers aren't perfect, but you get a general idea.

Places I visited in books this year: various South American and African countries (notably the Amazon jungle, Zululand and Somalia), rural Italy, Northumberland, several remote mountain peaks including Everest, Afghanistan, Holland, Poland and the South Pacific.

Great books? It seems none of the fiction really stood out for me this year (I'm still leaning heavy into non-fiction reading). The best all-around fish book (lots of those!) was The Simple Guide to Freshwater Fishkeeping, the most stunning art/photography book was The Life and Love of Cats and my favorite picture books were Extra Yarn, The Curious Garden and The Squirrel Wife (I'd add all those to my kids' collection if I find them).

Yeah, not so exciting I know. How was your reading year?

Dec 30, 2014

The Cat

by Edeet Ravel

This story is not really about a cat. It is about navigating grief. A lonely mother, isolated from friends and family, is devastated by the loss of her only -and very much cherished- son when he is accidentally hit by a car. On the roadside in front of her house, no less. She locks herself up, refusing visitors, turning off her phone and closing email, in effort to deaden the pain. She wants to end her own life, but realizes (with horror at first) that she cannot abandon the cat her son loved- she must stay to take care of it. The story follows her thoughts and memories through numbness, pain, anger, resentment, guilt and finally to an outlook of possible hope and recovery. It took a little while for me to realize she was not only avoiding people because of her pain and anger- her whole life had been spent feeling mostly alone, shamed by the birthmark on her face. Through the pages you learn about a painful childhood, an only friend lost long ago, a few college lovers whom she felt betrayed by, a complicated mix of family she mostly avoids. But finally she reconnects to a few people and realizes they still do care for her, after all the years apart. For a relatively short book, it's very intense.

Rating: 3/5       221 pages, 2012

more opinions:
Book Chase
The Indextrious Reader
Bibliophile by the Sea
the 3 Rs Blog

Dec 29, 2014

October Light

by John Gardner

Okay, so has anyone out there read this book and can tell me more about it? Because I'm really wondering if it has any merit to continue on, or should I just throw it down as I feel wont to do. I looked at some reviews online to get a better feel of this book- seems people either love it as being a great work, or find it awful and tedious (as I did). This is as far as I got: it's a turn-of-the-century novel about two elderly siblings in a farmhouse and the man hates his sister and locks her in a bedroom where she reads a crappy novel that's also interspersed in this novel. And they plot against each other. And the old man is bitter and scornful of everything around him. I was intrigued by one aspect: how the elderly people felt proud of their skills and knowledge and looked down on newfangled inventions that made life easier. One scene in particular was vivid: the old man smirking at another on the roadside whose car (new invention) had stalled from the cold, while he sat up high on a sleigh pulled by two strong horses- warm living flesh that would always function, not rendered inert by cold like the machine. The description of him baffled me, though. I picked this book up because I remember liking Grendel (same author) in high school, but this one I don't seem to be able to read. The long-winded descriptions loose my attention and the characters confound me- I don't understand them, and I don't like them so I don't care to try more.

Abandoned     440 pages, 1976

Dec 24, 2014

Animal Talk

by Karen Gravelle and Anne Squire

This book is all about how animals communicate, with each other and with us. It's written for young readers (I would say age group eight to twelve) but is very informative and I even learned a few things (that ducklings coordinate their hatching time by responding to the mother's calls through the shell, and that rattlesnakes can't hear the sound they produce with their own tails!) While none of the topics are discussed in a lot of depth, they are all clearly presented. Each section is headed with a short descriptive passage of an animal interacting with others, and then the following chapter explains how this is possible. Not only the different methods animals use to communicate- sound, scent, touch, body posture and so on- but also why their communication abilities differ (animals that live underground or are nocturnal don't use many visual signals, for example). Animals featured in the book include honeybees, rattlesnakes, prairie dogs, housecats, chimpanzees, songbirds, elephants, seals, deer, frogs, sheep and even certain fish (which pulse electric signals to each other)! The final chapters discuss why dogs are so good at communicating with people (we share many similar types of signals) and how humans have taught signals and rudimentary language to dolphins, chimpanzees and gorillas. I was familiar with the apes briefly presented here- Lucy, Washoe and Koko. Even though this book is written for kids, it was a satisfying quick read for me.

Rating: 3/5        114 pages, 1988

Dec 23, 2014

Talking to Animals

by Barbara Woodhouse

An old book I picked up at a secondhand shop once. The author is an adamant animal-lover, and she tells of her life with various animals, how she raised and trained many, her methods and affinity with them. She can be stern but mostly comes across in this book as training animals with encouragement and praise. The book opens with her childhood around horses and dogs, and she tells of attending an agricultural college when few women were allowed to. She then went to visit friends at a cattle range in Argentina and ended up staying on and working for them, stepping in wherever needed- as much as they would allow! Women weren't supposed to break horses, so it took some cleverness on her part to be allowed the chance, and once the men saw she could train a horse in a few days with gentle methods, she got the job to break and train horses continually. Returning to England she faced hard times during war years, had to sell her horses but started keeping dairy cows to sell milk in the neighborhood- so there's a lot about her work with cows- not only how she kept them and got extra yield, but also how she let her children ride the cows and eventually was called up anytime someone wanted a cow to use in a film! because hers were known for being docile and that she could "do anything with them." When the war ended her household moved, and she began buying and selling cattle, but eventually got back into training horses again, and then tried to get her favorite dog- a great dane- acting in films as well. She found it difficult and tiresome to deal with film companies, but became known as a dog trainer and took up running dog obedience classes as well. This was not a woman to ever take no for an answer- often she got around regulations for her dairy cattle, she made and produced her own film on dog training and self-published a book about her great dane. There are a lot more stories in here, all wrapped around the animals, her love for them, and her claims that upon initially earning an animal's trust, she could teach it to do anything she wanted.

I found particularly interesting the description of her time spent in South America, the different customs there and methods they used to manage livestock and train their horses. She also tells of becoming diabetic while she lived there, and nearly died of the condition until she took a local remedy from a tree which she claims completely cured her.

Also a curious passage which made me wonder about the origins of the nursery ryhme/song "Rock a Bye Baby". She tells of a native custom where if a baby died, the people did not want to put the body underground but instead would tie the small coffin up in a tree. And a storm blew it down. And they collected the remains and tied it up again. She doesn't say how long they would leave the coffin in the tree- indefinitely?

Rating: 3/5        208 pages, 1974

Dec 20, 2014

The Devious Book for Cats

a parody
by Joe Garden, Janet Ginsburg, Chris Pauls, Anita Serwacki, Scott Sherman

Funny book about why cats do what they do, written as if it's one cat giving instructions to another. From how to wake your human, napping styles, methods to employ in a cat fight, planning secret missions (against humans in the household of course) to the horrors of the crazy cat lady, waging war against the vacuum cleaner and more. Dogs are absolutely dismissed. There's also, interestingly, notes on how to handle the indignity of being declawed (an enterprising cat can still disembowel an armchair to launch a sneak attack). And notes on what kinds of dead prey make the best gifts to a human provider. Also some kitty viewpoints on famous cats in history, wild feline relatives, cats from comic strips and online personas. If this book had been published some years later, I'm sure it would have featured Maru, Grumpy Cat or (one of my favorites) Simon's Cat. As is, I learned about the origins of the lucky Japanese Maneki Neko cat figurines. It's an amusing book, and pretty true to the character of cats, but not one I'll actually keep on my shelf. Because I've seen it done better, in a book called The Silent Meow- which this one only made me want to go read all over again.

Rating: 3/5       213 pages, 2008

Dec 16, 2014

The Big New Yorker Book of Cats

forward by Anthony Lane

I don't read the New Yorker, and now I know why. It's obviously not for me. You'd think an animal lover who admires cats would enjoy this book, but no. It was really uneven. Certainly an eclectic collection of stories. There are stories about family pet cats, exotic wildcat crosses, and even a lady who hordes tigers (reminded me of some episodes from a tv program Fatal Attractions I used to watch). There are articles about cat fanciers and breeders, cat rescuers, cats who live in shops, cats that perform in tv commercials. One very dull piece was all about the work a man does in a cat welfare organization, dictated from his desk. Many others I either disliked or could not comprehend well enough to finish reading- the writing was just too sophisticated for my taste, I suppose. I simply was not interested in what the people in them were doing, or thinking, or talking about. And too often the cat was simply an article in the background, not a focus of the story at all. So out of all fifty-seven short stories and articles, only a dozen will I mention here:

"The Cats" by John Updike- when a man's elderly mother dies, he must figure out what to do with the forty stray cats she's been feeding in her backyard. (The end solution is to either let them starve, or ask a neighbor to shoot them all).

"Town of Cats" by Haruki Murakami- a boy and his father have difficulty understand and relating to each other, until the boy shares with his father a story from a book he read on the train- about a secret town inhabited solely by cats. This is one that kept me thinking- I'd like to revisit it to understand better.

"Lady of the Cats" by Wolcott Gibbs and E. F. Kinkead- article about a woman in the city who makes it her personal duty to catch stray cats. To the extent of overwhelming animal shelters and taking people to court over mistreatment of animals.

"A Dull, Ordinary, Normal Life in Manhattan" by Bernard Taper- amusing little story about a family that spends all day trying to find their missing cat, which they can hear crying. Finally the husband follows the cat through an open window into a neighbor's apartment, just as they arrive home from vacation.

"Tiger in the Snow" by Peter Matthiessen- I have a full-length book of the same title by this author. I've tried to read it once and found the writing style rather dry (which disappointed me, as I've often come across the author's name- he writes many books about wildlife fieldwork, a subject I usually enjoy). This excerpt was still dry reading, but at least I made it through. About a study done on tigers in Siberia.

"The Last Meow" by Burkhard Bilger- true story about a beloved pet cat that receives a kidney transplant. Part of it is the story of this one cat's treatment, the rest looks at how the veterinary scene is changing- how increasingly sophisticated medical procedures are available for pets and the owners that are willing to pay for them. Very interesting.

"The Lady and the Tigers" by Susan Orlean- about a woman in New Jersey who kept over a dozen tigers on her property in arguably deplorable conditions.

"Living Room Leopards" by Ariel Levy- article on the growing number of breeders crossing domestic cats with wild species in attempt to get something really exotic-looking. It discusses the Bengal, Savannah and in particular the toyger- how breeders are trying to make it look more like a tiger- not just the rounded ears and distinct stripes but down to the skeletal proportions that make it pace and move like a big cat.

"Edward the Conqueror" by Roald Dahl- it surprised me to see who wrote this story! Curious tale of a woman who becomes convinced that a cat which shows up in their yard is in fact, a reincarnation of Franz Liszt. This because of how the cat reacts when she plays certain piano pieces. Her husband thinks she's going crazy.

"Tooth and Claw" by T. Coraghessan Boyle- rather disturbing story about a guy who looses a bet in a bar, and winds up possessing an African serval. A girl from the bar goes home with him, convinces him to lock the wildcat in his bedroom and insists on helping care for it, but abandons him when things get increasingly dangerous and difficult to manage.

"Where I Live" by Amy Ozols- amusing narration by someone inviting another into their home, giving a little tour as it were of the small studio apartment and making increasing excuses and explanations as it becomes alarmingly apparent how many cats live there!

"Cat 'N' Mouse" by Steven Millhauser- this one reads like a script of old Tom and Jerry cartoons- complete with anvils falling, heads getting cut off, sticks of dynamite exploding in the hand (or paw, actually). But interspersed with the slapstick action are segments which narrate what the cat and mouse are thinking, respectively- one driven to catch the other, one certain to die if he ever fails- each wondering if they could ever put their differences aside and be friends- frustrated and bored beyond belief by the constant conflict they are in.

There is also a piece by Vicki Hearne, which was the final chapter of this book- and I had just as much difficulty reading it the second time around. The best part of the entire volume was the poetry, cover artwork and cartoons interspersed throughout. I really did like most of those! But not enough that I'd probably ever want to own this book.

Rating: 2/5        329 pages, 2013

Dec 12, 2014

Where the Blind Horse Sings

by Kathy Stevens

This book is about an animal sanctuary which focuses on rescuing mistreated and abandoned farm animals. Via her work, Stevens educates the public about how poorly livestock is treated when used for food production by big industries, the depth of emotional feeling these animals can have, that they deserve better from our hands. Her book is all about the animals- where they have come from and how they recover (or sometimes don't). She doesn't focus a lot on the horrors they have escaped, but on their healing process and the personalities that unfold as these terrified, ill and pain-wracked animals find kindness for the first time in their lives. Out of the hundreds of animals that have come to her sanctuary, she shares the stories of a mere handful: some very assertive pigs, a duck that has never seen water, an ex-fighting rooster- said to be vicious, but it wanted to sleep on her bed, and was passionate about car rides! This rooster became the only animal Stevens took out on public visits, because most animals found travel away from their new safe home too stressful. She tells of her beloved dog who is always in the midst of things helping out, and a belligerent sheep who becomes a self-appointed guardian to the other animals. There are many more. My favorite story is also one that threads constantly through the book- about a blind horse who arrived at the sanctuary frightened to take a single step forward- he had spent weeks prior standing motionless to avoid barbed wire in a small pen. With immense patience, Stevens instilled trust and confidence in this horse- she taught him simple verbal directions and eventually was able to not only take the horse on trail rides, but to ride him across flat fields - at a run. The joy this horse felt at being able to really move again was unmistakable. This is a very accessible book full of compassion for the animals. While the author doesn't go into a lot of detail about what the various animals have suffered in their past, she provides an extensive list of titles for those who want to know. I've read a few of those books, have others on my list.

I borrowed this one from the library. First heard of it on Opinions of a Wolf

Rating: 3/5         204 pages, 2007

Dec 9, 2014

more TBR

bloggers duly noted below are guilty of adding to my future reading pleasure!
Lives in Ruins by Marilyn Johnson- Sophisticated Dorkiness
The Hills is Lonely by Lillian Beckworth- Read Warbler
Tracks by Robyn Davidson- Caroline Bookbinder
The Guest Cat by Takashi Hirade- Farm Lane Books Blog
The Republic of Imagination by Azar Nafisi- At Home with Books
Spoiled Brats by Simon Rich- Bermudaonion's Weblog
Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer- So Many Books
The Writer's Garden by Jackie Bennett- So Many Books
Getting Life by Michael Morton- Shannon's Book Bag
Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz- So Many Books
Bad Elephant Far Stream by Samuel Hawley from Opinions of a Wolf

Through the Eyes of the Condor

An Aerial Vision of Latin America
by Robert B. Haas

I picked this book up from the library at the same time of Through the Eyes of the Gods. It's a similar tome featuring aerial photography- in this case crossing the rivers, deltas, mountains, jungles, cities and deserts of South America. I was a bit disappointed- for some reason I did not find the imagery as compelling as the prior book, although in this case the writing wherein Haas describes his work and vision (the technical aspects, travel difficulties, thrill of discovery, art of working with the camera from diverse angles created by banking aircraft) was more interesting. The forward was lovely, very poetic writing. My favorite photograph is one showing an expanse of giant lily pads- the kind that can support a person! If you look very closely you can tell that this isn't a pond like a Monet painting- on one lily pad a caiman rests, looking small as a salamander from the distance. I also really liked a particular photo showing salt pits just off a coastline- making a curious abstract pattern against blue waters- and one of crops, the tight circular heads of cabbage in straight geometric rows, bold green on reddish soil. Other images sent me to look for more information- lithium fields, the Huayllay "rock forest". Things I'd never seen before.

Rating: 3/5    232 pages, 2007

Dec 8, 2014

The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter

by Holly Robinson

A lively read- it's amusing and interesting, reminded me of many things and taught me others. It's another memoir, about growing up in a family with a very curious secret: her father raised gerbils. By the thousands. Some were sold to pet shops, but most were to supply medical and scientific research. The author's father was in the military, and for the longest time kept his gerbil hobby a secret, because it wouldn't look proper. Later when he had his own gerbil farm instead of a basement or garage setup, he just let neighbors in the rural community assume they bred rats. His efforts to produce animals with certain traits needed in research led to her father becoming famous among certain circles, but it wasn't until Holly grew up and took her own children to a gerbil show that she discovered another side: gerbil fanciers. Actually though, most of the story isn't about gerbils. It's about growing up: dealing with siblings, parents, moving, going through a horse craze, first boyfriends and so on. The chapters about her sister who had cystic fibrosis reminded me acutely of a book I read decades ago called Alex: the Life of a Child. I like the way this book is written- it has a very engaging style that reminded me of Betty MacDonald.

Rating: 3/5        288 pages, 2009

Dec 6, 2014

Comet's Tale

How the Dog I Rescued Saved My Life
by Steven D. Wolf with Lynette Padwa

Memoir of a man and his dog. Steve, more often called Wolf, had recently separated from his family to live in a warmer climate during winter months, due to a debilitating back condition. He encountered a group that rescued abandoned racing greyhounds, and was captivated by a particular dog, Comet. Even though he had trouble taking care of himself, Wolf adopted Comet and helped her learn about daily life: raised pretty much as livestock, she had never been inside a house, never encountered stairs, tile floors, dog treats, children, crowds of shoppers and the like. As Wolf learned to understand Comet, she gradually lost her nervousness, gained confidence, and became devoted to him. When his health and mobility seriously deteriorated, he decided to train Comet as an assistance dog. Trainers he consulted had never heard of a greyhound being an assistance animal, none of them would take her on. So Wolf taught her himself, through trial-and-error, how to help him perform daily tasks that had become difficult or impossible- from opening doors and picking up dropped objects to navigating stairs and shopping malls. It's amazing to see how Comet stepped into her new role and learned what was expected of her. But it's not just a story of this man and his dog. It's also about living with disability, the strain it puts on his family relationships, what it's like to deal with decades of chronic pain (I thought about The Camera My Mother Gave Me more than once while reading this book). Not without its serious and funny moments, this is overall an inspiring and touching story.

Rating: 3/5        257 pages, 2012

more opinions:
BookNAround
Bookfoolery
Linus's Blanket
Diary of an Eccentric

Dec 5, 2014

I'm signing up

for the Dare again. Read the details here. I'm glad it's being held one more time! I always enjoy participating. I've slowly been working towards a goal of getting through enough TBR shelves in my home that unread material will fit in one bookcase. I'd like to shuffle a hundred not-to-be-kept books out the door (total unread pile is still near two hundred). So this will help me get closer to the goal.

I don't know why I always mistakenly think that vacation means more reading time, it usually doesn't. My own kids were gone for more than a week over thanksgiving, but my time was spent at my boyfriend's house with folks visiting, cooking and cleaning, good conversations, raking leaves off the yard, throwing leaves onto children (my boyfriend's son and niece), raking them up again, working on some creative projects for christmas gifts, working on the computer and so on. I had checked out a pile of tempting books from the library in anticipation of extra reading time, but then realized the Dare was upcoming. I kept the three I was in the middle of, two more that are actually on my TBR list, and returned the rest.

So let's see how many more volumes I can pile onto that out-the-door heap, or fall in love with and reshelve with my keepers.

Dec 2, 2014

Through the Eyes of the Gods

by Robert B. Haas
An Aerial View of Africa

Photography from the air. Stunning spreads of imagery captured from a small low-flying aircraft. Revealing patterns of the landscape, wrinkles in rolling hills and sand dunes, spreading fingers from volcanic islands, weaving threads of ancient animal trails and pathways. The sinuous lines of riverbeds, the undulating shapes of coral reefs, the movement of herds. Human activity is pictured here too- scattering of huts, pockmarks of dying pits at a riverside, lines of fruit trays or conical heaps of salt dotting an area, snaky curves of fish traps- but mostly it is an image of the soul of the land, of its soil and flora, of the animal life moving in and out of view. I particularly noted the description of how a hunt is viewed so different from the air than from the ground- instead of a close focus on individuals you get a picture of the herd movement responding to the pressure of the predator. The author's musings on the land and its wildlife make for thoughtful, poetic reading. My favorite passage was about how deeply mesmerizing it can be to sit and watch the ocean waves or a flickering fire. There are also some writings on the conundrum of dealing with officials in Africa (moving through airports, trying to extend his stay, avoiding exploitation from pilots and so on) and the technical challenges involved in aerial photography.

I've had my eye on this volume for a long time. It has been high up on a display shelf behind the information counter at my public library for ages. Every time I walked by, I glanced at it and wondered what it contained. Now I know. It's the kind of book you really want to linger over.

Rating: 4/5          208 pages, 2005

Nov 30, 2014

Beautiful Joe

by Marshall Saunders

Joe was not beautiful by any means. He was a mixed-breed dog (a "cur") owned by an abusive man who starved his mother, killed his unwanted littermates, and brutally chopped off his ears and tail. The dog was rescued by passerby who heard his screams, and taken into a home full of kind people obsessed with animals. The mother in this family believed her sons would grow up to be kind, considerate people if they had animals to care for, so she gave each of them specific charges. One boy kept goldfish and canaries, another fed and cared for the dogs in the household and so on. The book is not really a story of Joe's life, but a collection of tales about animals as they are related by various human characters in the book. Joe listens to a lot of conversations, and reports on them. The stories all press morals about being kind to animals (including wildlife), about training them properly and shunning abusive methods. Quite a number of people in the book take it upon themselves to succor animals in need wherever they find them, to punish people who abuse animals, and to correct and teach them if they've been neglecting them in ignorance. There are lots of short tales about dogs, horses, cattle, sheep, pigs and other livestock- how they respond to kindness and suffer from poor use. There's a story about a travelling Italian with a group of trained animals that perform (these are treated kindly), another about a man who abandons his livestock to starve (the description of their deplorable conditions reminded me of Animal Cops episodes). There are related incidents of how cruelly wild animals are trapped or killed, and quite a few passages about how animals that are raised for food should be treated well and humanely killed. It's also pointed out how keeping animals in poor condition can pass diseases on to people- for example, a slovenly milkman causes other people to become ill from the contaminated milk he sells. It is pretty sentimental overall, and the book tells its age- women are not yet able to vote in this story, anyone who doesn't attend church is considered "awfully wicked", Pasteur is alive and well in France- people travel to him to be cured of disease. There's also a focus on birds- how many thousands die to provide decoration for ladies' hats, and how the countryside suffers from overpopulation of insect pests as a result. On the whole, the city is shunned as an evil, dirty place and the countryside and farm life extolled throughout. A large portion of the book describes one young lady's visit to a relative's farm for the summer. I thought it rather laughable when a man tells some younger people that he doesn't worry about his sheep falling prey to dogs because Beautiful Joe would protect them- when in fact it seemed that Joe was always in the house at his mistress' side, or travelling with her- he never let her out of his sight. Not guarding the sheep. But that's a small point. It was an interesting read. Surprising how much- and how little- has changed. Animals raised for food still suffer for profit, though in a different fashion...

A few other things I recall now, looking at notes I made while reading- the stories warn against overfeeding and indulging animals just as much as neglecting them. At one point the family has a pet parrot and I was both surprised at its use of language (far more sophisticated than I think even a parrot would know to use) and that its diet included coffee grounds! I liked once scene where a girl breaks up a dogfight by throwing ground pepper in the dogs' faces (great use for pepper spray!) I appreciated the point the author made that dogs must be well-trained, but the way she described a puppy's training seemeed a bit ludicrous to me; did not sound like a method that would really work.

It is clear from the introduction to this book that it was written in response to the overwhelming popularity of Black Beauty, in the hopes of raising awareness to the suffering of other animal species and extending goodwill to all. And the author was a woman, but used a pseudonym because she feared not being taken seriously. I read this one as an ebook, from Project Gutenberg (what a wealth that site is!)

Rating: 3/5       1893, 256 pages

Nov 27, 2014

Yoss

by Odo Hirsch

I am not so good on historical writing, but I think this story is supposed to occur in a time and place like the European Renaissance. The main character is a fourteen-year old boy named Yoss who leaves his isolated village to see the world. He ends up in a sprawling city full of corruption at every turn. The boy is not unintelligent, but has led so sheltered a life that he doesn't realize that the first men he meets are thieves. Taking advantage of his ignorance, they involve him in a crime for which the penalty is hanging. He escapes their company and falls in with some beggars instead, who give him a different picture of what life in the city is like. Then two thieves get caught and Yoss is of course included in the accusations. Fortunately he is saved from prison by the very merchant he had helped to rob- not realizing that the man keeps him in conditions equal to slavery. He is a hard worker, cheerful and trusting, and the merchant's employees can't help but like him. So when the merchant's wife wants to meet Yoss (for reasons of her own) the overseer has a hard time refusing. Yoss ends up not only in the secluded upstairs region of the household, but also begins keeping company with a hired artist working on a ceiling mural. The painter figures Yoss might as well help if he's going to hang around all day, so he begins learning rudiments of that trade. Meanwhile the thieves are trying to find a way to escape prison, one of them wants revenge, and when the merchant finds out that Yoss has been frequenting the upstairs and his overseer practically lying about it, he wants to throw to boy out (where he could face hanging). It's all a pretty pickle, and when the boy thinks about it himself, he can't figure how it all came about, why he should be the centre of everyone's concerns when he wanted none of the doings himself. He only wants to get home to his village again.

The first time I tried this book I couldn't get into it, but this time around I found the story engaging and all the characters interesting on different levels. I will probably want read it again someday.

Rating: 3/5         341 pages, 2001

Nov 25, 2014

Happy Jack

by Thornton W. Burgess

A story of a squirrel. It opens with the gray squirrel Happy Jack and the red Chatterer, quarreling over who claims the nuts of a hickory tree. While they are scolding and chasing each other around, a chipmunk advantageously gathers all the nuts they knock out of the tree! Then the chipmunk tricks one of the squirrels into raiding the other's stash of nuts, and the fracas continues. Eventually the chipmunk has a change of heart and invites the squirrels (plus a few other animals who happen by) to a little feast, where all is forgiven. Now Happy Jack has food for winter, but must search for a new home when the weasel threatens. At the same time the chickadee shows him where the farmer's boy is staying home in bed, gravely ill- his mother is putting nuts on the bedroom windowsill which tempts the birds to visit. The chickadee encourages Happy Jack to approach the window and even more daring, to feed from the boy's hand and eventually enter the room. It's really very well-presented, how fearful these forays must be from the squirrel's point of view. It turns out that Happy Jack's trust in the farmer boy saves him when the weasel comes hunting again, and the boy also tries to give him a new home. All is well in the end, the squirrels having learned not to be so greedy, and Happy Jack finding new trust and friendship. I did like one little touch that shows the farmer boy doesn't necessarily favor only the cute animals- he traps and removes the weasel, but releases it further off in the forest.

These stories never loose their appeal for me. I enjoy how they show the natural behavior of animals- the competition between the squirrel species, the predation by the weasel, their efforts to save food for winter and find shelter, all wrapped into a charming story about trust, friendship, hard work and generosity.

Rating: 3/5       140 pages, 1918

Nov 22, 2014

The Woman at Otowi Crossing

By Frank Waters

In a remote area of New Mexico, Helen runs a tea shop at a now-defunct railroad station. She is feeling rather adrift with the shutting down of the railroad, when her life starts to change. A daughter she had abandoned practically at birth comes to visit, hoping to build a relationship with her mother and ecstatic at the prospect of visiting pueblo ruins (she's a budding anthropologist). Helen experiences a change in consciousness, an opening to the oneness of things, a closeness to the slow methodical way of life embodied by the Navajo around her. It grows into a kind of spirituality that causes a rift between her and her long-time lover Turner, an aspiring news reporter. Then a secret government project moves in, taking over a local boys' school and blocking off large areas of the desert. In spite of the sworn secrecy and distance he's supposed to keep from the locals, one young scientist on the project, Gaylord, becomes involved with the anthropologist girl.  The tea room becomes frequented by men from the secret project "up the Hill", the reporter tries to find out what's going on up there, and gradually all their lives become intertwined.

I learned fairly soon that the big secret was the making and testing of atomic bombs. The beauty of the southwest setting and the quiet local people is a stark contrast to the dry scientific nature of the terrible project. The horrific potential looming, the shock of people when they found out what was going on, the ridiculous festiveness they brought to the test sites when it was revealed to the press. The characters are a study in contrasts too- the anthropologist a spoiled, passionate headstrong girl, her mother so calm and knowing, understood by few. I really didn't get a clear picture of what the legend was that grew around her; even though it was stated numerous times that the locals came to respect then revere her, including her in their sacred ceremonies. I liked how real these characters seemed- complex people each with their own reasons, each of them had something that appealed to me or I could in some way relate to.

Yet I had to force myself thorough to the end, even though I really wanted to like the book. It has a very slow start. The writing can feel rather jumbled; the descriptions of the scientific work was completely unclear to me and the narrative is interspersed with odd present-day snippets showing different individuals reminiscing about the events of the story, as if interviewed by the author. I didn't get it. I didn't quite get the spirituality that unfolded with Helen, although I liked the glimpses into Navajo culture and faith. But once again, that was not very well-explained and it was only a bit familiar to me because I've read a few other books featuring pueblo groups in the southwest.

It reminded me in some ways of Fire on the Mountain.

Rating: 2/5        314 pages, 1966

More opinions:
the Random Book Review

Nov 19, 2014

Witch Child

by Celia Rees

Mary's grandmother, the woman who raised her and taught her healing skills, has been denounced as a witch and put to death. In fear for her own life, Mary flees England to cross the ocean with a group of Puritans who are also seeking to escape persecution. The journey is long and difficult; they finally arrive to discover their companions who had gone ahead are no longer in the original settlement, but have moved deep into the forest. Mary goes along with trepidation- she has no friends in this new land, but doesn't really fit in with the Puritans either. She is constantly afraid of coming under suspicion. Her behavior doesn't fall under their strict code of living, and when she wanders into the forest to collect herbs, cautiously befriending a native american boy, the colony begins to suspect her. It's obvious they want a scapegoat to blame for their troubles, but it disgusted me how the other young women in the colony tried to manipulate the villagers' fear against her for their own gain. I found this story riveting and succinctly told; was a bit curious about the sequel but the opening passage from it included at the rear of the book dissuaded me of that- it appears to go in a different direction I'm not much interested in. I do really like the cover image of this book- it's such a simple yet compelling image.

Rating: 3/5      261 pages, 2000

more opinions:
Darque Reviews
Silly Little Mischief
Katrina's Reads
Stella Matutina
Morsie Reads

Nov 18, 2014

The Bird Book

edited by Richard Shaw

Simple little book, very appealing. It's a collection of short stories, poems and fables about birds, illustrated with drawings and paintings in varied styles. The authors include William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Kenneth Grahame, Alfred Tennyson, Robert Louis Stevenson, Aesop and many others. Robins are featured prominently- I suppose because they're popular and familiar. My favorite was the old English folktale about the magpie showing the other birds how to build nests- she went through a complicated series of steps but the others did not wait to see the whole process, each leaving when they saw something they liked or recognized, and thus they all made different kind of nests.

There are several other collections of poetry and art about foxes, owls, cats and frogs compiled by the same author. I'd like to see those books too, I think I'd enjoy them.

Rating: 3/5    48 pages, 1974

Nov 17, 2014

The Thinking Dog's Man

by Ted Patrick

Another book of dog stories I picked up at a used sale. This one is a bit more focused- it contains the author's personal take on various subjects surrounding dogs: their loyalty, devotion to man, perceptive senses, training and so forth. In most cases he points out how common perceptions (of his time) are flawed and what a dog is really doing has a matter-of-fact explanation- such as that dogs are not psychic but know when you're coming home because they actually hear your vehicle when its still two miles from the house, or how easily they can find their way home when lost or moved (without their consent) because they can remember landmarks, scents, and have a directional sense. He also discusses dog breeding and shows, what makes a champion (how easily a good handler can turn any well-bred dog into a champion by strategic entries), how certain breeds have been degraded by their popularity, how to properly choose a dog etc etc. It's written in an amiable, somewhat amusing style that makes for easy reading, but nothing in here really stands out compared to other dog books I've read. In fact probably the most interesting sections are the forward written by John Steinbeck (on why he doesn't want to write an introduction, and tossing in a few brief stories of his own as if he can't help himself) and the last few chapters which tell of the author's own dogs- all of them Airedales.

Rating: 3/5      150 pages, 1964

Nov 16, 2014

Cats and Dogs

Woofs and Purrs, Spits and Grrrs
edited by Claire Necker

A bit similar to the last book, this one is a collection of sayings, stories, fables and other material comparing cats to dogs, or at least including them together. There are poems, entries from old bestiaries, proverbs, old charms and cures that used cat and dog hair together (to drive couples apart, most of them). Most of it is just various thoughts and observations on the nature of cats versus dogs, why certain people like one or the other, and how they most often fight but can also be good companions in the household. The cat's nature was most often compared to women, and the dog touted as a man's companion. It was curious to see the two sides of every opinion- cats both praised for their independence and vilified for being indifferent and self-centered; dogs lauded for their loyalty and faithfulness, but by others scorned for their servility. It's interesting reading to a point- the rather archaic attitudes become tiresome, the material is repetitive, but there are a few delightful stories and curious tales about cats and dogs co-existing, highlighting their differences. I thought I was familiar with some folktales regarding cats and dogs for instance, but all the ones about "why cats and dogs fight" included here were new to me!

Rating: 2/5        306 pages, 1969

Nov 14, 2014

The Tiger in the House

A Cultural History of the Cat
by Carl Van Vechten

A wonderful compilation of all things relating to cats. In particular their history- how they have been treated by mankind throughout the ages in different cultures. The author is obviously very fond of cats and points out all their endearing traits throughout the book. Then mentions all the references he can think of from literature, art, poetry and even music that include cats. It is quite a jumble of observations and quotes, but very intriguing to read through. The chapter about ailurophobes, which describes how certain people loathed cats so much it was like a disease- they would physically suffer if one was in the room even unseen- made me wonder if this was simply a case of severe allergic reactions. The portion titled "Cats and the Occult" was rather horrific in describing all the ways cats have been tortured to death, thrown off towers, sacrificed for various reasons, their body parts ground up and skins used as cures, and one which I had never hear of and now wish I never had- the cat organ. Gah. Who ever thought such a thing was amusing? Then there are mentions of cats that lived in theaters and inspired (or hindered) the performers, cats that inspired musical compositions (some written to mimic the sound a cat makes walking across piano keys!) cats featured in poetry, and cats beloved by famed authors. There are a number of plates showing artwork and photographs of cats, but so many paintings were referenced in the book I wished to see more. And my only disappointment is that so very many quotes regarding cats were shared in French, with no translation provided. I could look up a few sayings and short poems, but entire passages nearly filling a page defeat me.

Rating: 3/5       425 pages, 1921

Nov 9, 2014

The Dark Horse

by Marcus Sedgwick

In a small, struggling coastal settlement during ancient times, life is difficult and getting harder every year. Crops are failing, the fish no longer abundant, winters cold and long. The people are barely surviving. Then they discover a small ragged girl in a wolf cave, and bring her home. She has an uncanny ability to communicate with animals which they mistrust and fear, even as it could save them from starvation. But there is more to her obscure past. While scavenging for food on the shoreline, the wolf girl and her adopted brother find a mysterious, beautiful wooden box among the flotsam. They take it home, but the girl is plagued with a deep fear of it. Then a stranger comes among them, asking for the box. At the same time, rumors are arising of a warring tribe descending from the north, and the tribe is in turmoil as their leadership falters. All these events are in some way connected to the wolf girl, and as they try to first deal with then flee their oncoming fate, she might be their entire undoing. This is a fast-paced story. Well told, with sparse yet vivid language. It definitely kept my attention. Even to the very end, I was never quite anticipating where the story would turn next.

Rating: 3/5       224 pages, 2003

more opinions:
My Favorite Book
Bart's Bookshelf

Nov 4, 2014

Our Precarious Habitat

by Melvin A. Benarde

Sometimes I pick up old books on subjects that have advanced so much there's a risk of misinformation. I feel like there's a threshold here: if the book is old enough, I'm liable to just be amused at the different viewpoint it presents; if it's closer in time and sounds sensible, I can't always pick apart what's irrelevant information according to newer findings. Such is the case with this volume. A book that attempts to inform the public about our interrelationship with the environment- how things we do on a large scale alter the environment and how that in turn adversely affects humanity. It covers topics such as air and water pollution, pesticide use, food contamination, diseases that cross from animals to humans, waste disposal, occupational hazards, population growth and so on. I read the chapter about food poisoning and it did give me a clear picture of what causes the risks and how food should be handled safely, although the stories of food recalls were mild cases compared to what I've seen in the news in recent years!

But an earlier section in the book baffled me and raised doubts to the veracity of its content. The page begins thus: By 1975 construction is expected to begin on a sea-level canal across the Isthmus of Panama, linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It goes on to caution that further environmental studies should be done, that the spread of species from one ocean into the other could be detrimental in ways we can't yet imagine. True, but wasn't the Panama Canal finished in 1914? Is this a serious typo or what? I felt pretty dubious about the rest of the book after this. When I got to a later chapter extolling the use of DDT for the great good it could do in reducing mosquito populations and thus malaria epidemics- I had to stop. Silent Spring was published in 1962. I'm pretty sure DDT was banned in the early 70's, why would this book be praising such a deadly pesticide. Its horrific effects were already known at the time. Both these reading incidents made me wonder if the original version of the book (I had a revised edition in hand) was actually written a decade earlier, but I could find no earlier publication date, and searches online did not turn up an earlier first edition either. So I quit it. Needless to say, this book is not staying on my shelf.

It appears to have been used as a university text in the past; I sincerely hope that's no longer the case. Or at least that whoever uses it can point out its errors. I wish they could be explained to me!

Abandoned        448 pages, 1970

Nov 3, 2014

The Snake

by John Godey

It's a pretty simple story: a dangerously large and poisonous snake gets accidentally released in New York's Central Park by a drunken sailor just ashore from the tropics. Of course it bites some people, and the first few cases baffle doctors. Once they realize a deadly snake is on the loose, pandemonium breaks out. Everyone is rushing to the scene- the police force, news reporters, anxious citizens. Most want to just find the snake and get rid of it, but there's also a herpetologist who would prefer to catch it and a strange religious faction that views the snake as an incarnation of evil they alone are destined to deal with. I was a bit intrigued with the descriptions from the snake's point of view- how it moved, what motivated it, why it went where it did- but that is only a small part of the novel. Most of it is about the uproar in the city, an outbreak of snake-related pranks and crimes, the refusal of most residents to stay out of the park, a ridiculous scene when six hundred people release their dogs at the same time- hoping they will locate and drive out the snake. It doesn't happen. The final scene is a chaotic fire and riot caused by the religious group, and the snake meets a brutal end at the hands of furious and idiotic people. I don't feel bad about giving it away because I doubt any of you will read this book- it's an amusing thing you can practically read in one sitting, cringing at the older stereotypes all the while. It has a tidy ending with an obvious lead for a sequel- if this was a scary movie (which I pictured the entire time) I'm sure one would be made.

Rating: 2/5       183 pages, 1978

Nov 2, 2014

Nest

the Art of Birds
by Janine Burke

This is a quiet little book, and not exactly what I expected. From the little information able to glean from the front and rear covers, I assumed the book would be about the skill birds put into building their nests (I was hoping for something rather like Secrets of the Nest). While it does cover that topic, the book also ranges into art and poetry. The author shares her love of birds, her fascination with their nest-building skills and beauty, their secrecy and devotion. She describes both her own experiences discovering and observing bird life, and those of other people, including the famed Attenborough. While I have long admired Attenborough, I never fantasized about meeting him on a safari trek like she did! Being an Australian native, Burke discusses many Autstralian birds and habitats, which was interesting to me, but other than that I did not learn much new about the birds. Then there's the human connection- how birds have inspired certain poets and how the poets felt an affinity to avian creatures.The poets and authors she mentioned were mostly familiar to me- Virginia Woolf, William Wordsworth, Hans Christian Anderson, Karen Blixen, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Mary Shelley- their connection to birds less so, their personal tragedies previously unknown (to me) and sad to read of. She also delves into the question of art- are bird nests purely utilitarian, or do they themselves have an appreciation of the beauty they create? this is particularly apt when you consider the bower bird.

All in all, the book is a pleasant jumble of thoughts, one that I enjoyed reading but do not really expect to revisit- after closing the covers last night, nothing much stands out to me now.

Rating: 3/5      182 pages, 2012

Nov 1, 2014

State of Wonder

by Ann Patchett

This was a strange and intriguing story, which took quite a few turns I didn't expect. It's about a research doctor who is suddenly sent by her company deep into the Amazon jungle to locate some missing colleagues. Dr. Marina Singh usually does lab research, but communication has lapsed for a long time with one of their prestigious research doctors  who is in the jungle working to develop a fertility drug. They had already sent another employee down there to find the uncommunicable Dr. Swenson, but he is reportedly dead of a fever. Marina Singh was his best friend. Promising his grieving wife to find out what happened, and to get a status update for her company on Dr. Swenson's work, she finds herself en route to the Amazon herself. After endless waiting to make contact she finally arrives at the research station in the remote jungle where the team almost immediately engages her in the work. And things are not exactly what they seem here. Everything is strange and difficult at first- torrential rain, threatening insects, improvising with limited supplies, bizarre native customs, huge snakes, there's even a neighboring cannibal tribe. The story is about anthropology and the intricacies of an unexplored ecosystem, about the ruthlessness of a big drug company, about unexpected discoveries that have far-reaching implications, and about searching out answers to long-held questions. I found the ending particularly captivating, especially regarding what happened to Easter, a deaf-mute boy from another tribe who had been unofficially adopted by Dr. Swenson. It's a book I keep thinking about, days after finishing.

Rating: 3/5      353 pages, 2011

more opinions:
Jenny's Books
Sophisticated Dorkiness
Musings of a Bookish Kitty
Fyrefly's Book Blog
Citizen Reader

Oct 27, 2014

Old School

by Tobias Wolff

I think this book is semi-autobiographical. It is the story of a young man in his years at prep school, a school that focuses on literary achievement. Quite bookish. Every year the school invites several famed authors to visit, and encourages the students' writing efforts with a competition. They submit a piece of writing, and the visiting author chooses one. The prized reward is a one-on-one chat between famed author and student writer. The boys compete fiercely for this honor, and talk about it all year. During the course of the novel, Robert Frost and Ayn Rand both visit the school. The final author in the lineup is Ernest Hemmingway, but he doesn't show. Through it all, the narrator, our unnamed boy, is searching for himself. Searching for himself as a writer, searching for his identity as a person, as a friend. There are subtle duplicities going on- he doesn't quite admit to his friends who his family really is, wanting to obscure parts of his identity in order to fit in, and it bothers him the entire year. When finally a chance comes and he realizes how he can show the truth of who he is, it involves another kind of fakery, which gets him expelled. And who will he be now? What does it mean to be a writer, what does it mean to tell the truth? to live it?

This is one of those books I think I need to read again, to see it more clearly. I was glad that I have read a number of poems by Robert Frost, one or two books by Hemmingway (including For Whom the Bell Tolls) and Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, so at least I had an inkling of what was going on when those authors visited and spoke. But I know some of it still went over my head.

Rating: 3/5     195 pages, 2003

more opinions:
Shelf Love
Jenny's Books

Oct 26, 2014

People of the Book

by Geraldine Brooks

A woman working in the very specialized field of book conservation is brought into Sarajevo to study and write a report on a very rare, ancient Jewish book called a haggadah. She finds bits and fragments of things within the binding and pages- a piece of insect wing, a grain of salt, a single hair, a dark stain and so on. These fragments get taken in turn to other specialists who can reveal something about their nature, and from that historical fiction is spun about where the book came from, where it had traveled, who held on to it and how it changed hands. This book had high promise for me, but I got bored and then disgusted with it. The character of the conservator became annoying. And her constant affairs with colleagues. And her nasty relationship with her mother. After fifty pages I began skimming. At first I was reading the present-day portions (still interested in the details of preserving very old books) and more or less skipping the historical parts which quickly became dense with history too light on character development- I simply could not become interested in any of them. The first piece about a young woman who joins resistant forces hiding in the mountains during the Bosnian war, held me. The second one, about some depraved people (equally desperate) in Vienna, did not.  That's when I started just thumbing through. I did pick up again the final historical chapter about the actual illustrator, way back in ancient times, the description of the immense labor and time it took to create such beautiful pages was interesting, the constant drama and liaisons were not. Then I started reading the current narrative again and instantly lost focus when it turned into a mystery and crime scene at the end. I didn't want to be reading that kind of story. And I'm not, anymore. Moving on.

Abandoned       372 pages, 2008

Oct 23, 2014

I'm Not Scared

by Niccolo Ammaniti

The Italian countryside, a small village of just five homes. Stifling hot summer days. A group of kids go off exploring on their bicycles, and one of them, nine-year-old Michele, makes an unexpected discovery in an abandoned house. A monstrous secret he holds back from his friends, but realizing something needs to be done, he tries to tell his busy father but keeps getting brushed off. Then he tries to handle it himself. Making up scenarios in his head, trying to figure things out, not seeming to recognize the gravity of the situation. When he finally understands that things are closer to home than he'd realized, it's really too late to fix things, and his attempts to save the situation only make things worse.

I can't really say what it is without giving the story away, and the surprise of it made this a riveting read for me. This book also has horrible things going on, but very different from the last book I read. We see everything through the filter of Michele's eyes and for a long time he does not seem to recognize what is really going on. His days are full of negotiations with friends and sometimes-enemies, dealing with his little sister, trying to get his father's attention, avoid his mother's anger (she naturally gets upset when he wanders off all day). The secret in the empty house is at first just a peripheral curiosity, but becomes a looming worry as the story progresses, until it is too big a thing to solve. Ammaniti knows how to tell a story- the childrens' teasing and squabbles, jokes and games, concerns and so forth are so accurate to what kids are really like- plus quite funny at times. The sense of place, rolling countryside full of wheat fields, oppressive summer heat, flavor of Italian idioms and culture, even the odd viewpoint they have of Americans (I puzzled for a very long time over what the "little wash-bears" might be) were vivid. It has a terribly tragic ending, but was a good read nonetheless.

Rating: 3/5      200 pages, 2001

more opinions:
Savidge Reads
I'm Lost in Books
It's All About Me
Farm Lane Books Blog

Oct 22, 2014

Smartypants

Pete in School
by Maira Kalman

I don't quite know how to describe this picture book. It's nuts, funny, quirky and downright hilarious. I have a suspicion there's a few of them revolving around the dog, Pete, but this is the first I've encountered. This girl tells about the day her dog went to school, caused havoc in several classes, ate a set of encyclopedias and started talking. Then caused all sorts of new trouble because he suddenly knew everything and the kids wanted him in class to answer questions for them. Throughout the silly story of a dog in school there's all sorts of little hilarious asides and snide remarks on the school rules, the system, the quirks of various teachers, the girl's friends and classmates and so on. With these awkward but descriptive drawings and funky handwritten text (even the copyright info on the first page is handwritten into a picture on a classroom wall!) that really liven up the story. It's great. Way beyond the comprehension of my little one, but my ten-year-old ate this book up. I've got to find more by this author.

Rating: 4/5     44 pages, 2003

Oct 21, 2014

Bastard Out of Carolina

by Dorothy Allison

Nicknamed 'Bone,' Ruth Anne's family is a sprawling clan of very very poor folks in southern Carolina. The men are notorious for being violent drunks, shifty men who can never seem to work their way out of poverty, no matter how hard they try (many don't even seem to care). The women are tough, bitter and fiercely loyal, keeping to their own. Bone doesn't know who her father is. Her sister's dad died in an accident, and the loss devastated her. When her mom falls for a new man, everyone wants her to have another chance. Even though they all seem to mistrust and despise him, they turn a blind eye to what's going on for her mother's sake. And Bone is the one who suffers. Her new 'Daddy' is an abusive man of the worst sort, and in a terribly twisted way, he makes Bone feel guilty for the violence and attention he fixes on her. I knew before I had read very far that something awful was going to happen in the end, and it did. A compelling read, with characters that tug at your heart, even as you cringe at the things they decide to do. Bone has a very difficult coming-of-age, growing up way too fast, living through devastating experiences. I found the ending, the mother's choice, appalling. I don't really understand it.This is a powerful book, but also one that's difficult to read. I am not sure I will ever want to open this book again. The afterward merits close attention, and I read it with appreciation. The author discusses the overlapping distinctions of memoirs and novels-based-on-fact, hints at her own efforts to deal with a painful past, the reaction schools and parents have had to her book, her response to that, her conviction that we need to hear this story. Girls in particular.

Rating: 3/5       320 pages, 1992

more opinions:
Caribousmom
Estella's Revenge
A Guy's Moleskine Notebook

Oct 19, 2014

Palazzo Inverso

by D.B. Johnson

This very imaginative picture book draws its inspiration from the work of M.C. Escher. In a whismical, dreamlike story it features a young boy Mauk who is apprentice to a master builder. Mauk is supposed to only sharpen the master's pencils, but it seems he has turned the drawing around when no one was looking. As he runs through the corridors, courtyard and staircase of the palazzo in construction, things turn one way and then another, the ceiling becomes a floor, the staircases run the wrong way, all is confusion. The workers try to catch him, the mistress leans out windows the wrong way, the Master calls out, but in the end they see that all is right, even turned every whichway. The Master (and Mauk) realize the building is more beautiful in its confusing ambiguity. You read the book left to right, then turn it over and read it back the other way, with the pictures telling both sides of the story (beginning and end). It's quite intriguing. My favorite spread is the one where the boy runs over the bridge- on one end of the story birds and fishes are in their place, at the other end the birds are in the water and fish swim in the sky. Delightful!

Rating: 3/5     32 pages, 2010

Oct 18, 2014

April's Kittens

by Clare Turlay Newberry

April lives in a small apartment with her parents and their beloved cat, Sheba. When Sheba has kittens, the little girl is delighted, but her father is concerned- their place is too small for four cats, so the kittens must go. Of course April falls in love with them, and has a special favorite. When new prospective owners come visiting, she watches anxiously as they each pick out a kitten. Finally only one is left- and it's her favorite. Her father decides that they will give the mother cat to her her aunt, and keep the kitten "you'd rather have a kitten to play with, wouldn't you?" but soon April realizes this will mean giving up the cat she has known for so long- and what if Sheba isn't happy in her new home? a young kitten would adjust easier. She agonizes and sheds tears, then finally decides to send the kitten to her aunt's house, and keep Sheba instead. But when she announces this idea to her father, he has a new plan that might allow them to keep both cats.

I have to say, not everyone would find the final solution practical, but it's a neat and tidy ending that leaves everyone happy. What makes this story shine are the very realistic conversations everyone has over the fate of the kittens- April wondering, tearful, hopeful at turns, her mother gentle and consoling, her father very matter-of-fact, other children questioning and thrilled with the kittens too. The illustrations are simply delightful. They are so beautifully drawn and depict precisely feline gestures and moods.

I snatched this up when came across it on a library shelf (I'm familiar with a few other books by this author/illustrator). The book is a little advanced for my three-year-old; I have to edit out about half the sentences on a page or she looses interest but the illustrations are so endearing, she still wants to read it with me (my older daughter read a few of the picture books I brought home last week too, and this one was her favorite).

Rating: 4/5       32 pages, 1940

Oct 17, 2014

The Book of Negroes

by Lawrence Hill

Moving story of woman who was abducted and sold into slavery at the age of eleven. She was forced to march for months from her village to the coast, then suffered the horrors of passage on a slave ship. She was sold to the owner of an indigo plantation (I had never read of how indigo dye was made from raw plant material; the brief description in the book prompted me to look more info up online). Later she was sold again to a well-to-do Jewish man and worked in his household in the city. She carried with her skills as a midwife first taught by her mother in Africa, and was eventually able to earn some of her own income as a slave "hired out". Also never forgot where she came from, never lost her burning desire to know more, to learn, and to return home. She learned to read and write, always taught and helped those around her when she could. Her life is a long tale of one degree of suffering and indignity after another. She is torn from her loved ones time and again. I was amazed at the fortitude that kept her going, at the passion that remained between her and her husband, even though they did not see each other for years and decades at a time. She became known as an educated woman among her community, which caught the attention of white people- not always to her benefit. During the Revolutionary War, she was employed to write up a ledger keeping records of blacks who wanted to leave the States- they were promised freedom as Black Loyalists if they had served the British cause. She ended up in Novia Scotia, where after years of struggling to survive, realized that this new life was not living up to its promise. Then she travelled to Africa in a longed-for effort to find her home village, and then eventually ended up in London where she proclaimed her story to help the emancipation effort.

It's a long story. I started to loose interest about the point where she moved off the plantation, but the end of the book picked up again, because this was a part of history I knew little about. It was a lot like Roots, but did not feel quite as emotional or powerful to me. This book has been published with another title: Someone Knows My Name.

Rating: 3/5      486 pages, 2007

more opinions:
Farm Lane Books Blog
Buried in Print
Daisy's Book Journal
Books and Quilts
So Many Precious Books, So Little Time

Oct 15, 2014

The Adventures of Jerry Muskrat at Home

by Thornton W. Burgess

I haven't read one of these little books in a while, so this was a fun diversion. Like all the other Burgess books, this one uses a story featuring talking animals who act pretty much like real wild animals, teaching about the natural behavior. This one features a muskrat who is busy building his home near the edge of the pond. The rabbit admires his work and scoffs at the effort, he would never go to all that trouble. The muskrat and other animals point out how wise it is to be prepared for winter. Soon the fox happens along, and he schemes how to get the muskrat to leave the water so he can catch and eat him. He pretends to admire the muskrat's house, flattering him and claiming he wants help to build his own house. When this ploy doesn't work, the fox tells the muskrat where he can find carrots at the edge of the farmer's garden. Both animals think they are out-smarting the other- the muskrat goes to the carrot patch alone, and figures out a way to reach the carrots without exposing himself to view. Then the fox finds he's gone without guidance, and tries to catch him there. In the end the muskrat realizes how serious the fox's deception was, and feels he can no longer trust anyone- who else might seem to be his friend, and only pretending to get an advantage? He nearly falls victim to a trap, which shakes his composure even more. In the end the farmer's boy finds and disposes of all the traps set to catch the muskrat, and he is once more safe from predators- both natural and man-made.

Rating: 3/5      206 pages, 1926

Oct 14, 2014

The Known World

by Edward P. Jones

This book at first intrigued me with its topic: a free black man who himself owned black slaves, in the years before the Civil War. It's a Pulitzer Prize winner and some of my family members have recommended it to me. So once again I'm disappointed in not liking, or being able to even read, the book. It introduces far too many characters right from the beginning, an intricate web of relationships throughout this imagined county in Virginia, which I'm sure is satisfying when you see how it all fits together but was difficult to get into. It jumps back and forth in time, doesn't settle on any one character to focus on, and is packed with facts that distract from the storyline. Sometimes each sentence is so crammed with detail it's difficult to figure out what the author meant to say. I got the impression he just wanted to show off his research. It does not make for easy reading. I couldn't get very far, no matter how high the accolades. And this was the third time I tried the book. It's not getting another chance, sorry. I have too many other things to read.

Abandoned        388 pages, 2003

more opinions:
Things Mean a Lot
Reading Reflections
Chamber Four
Vulpes Libris

Oct 13, 2014

Stuff Dutch People Like

a celebration of the Lowlands and its peculiar inhabitants
by Colleen Geske       

My boyfriend brought this book home from travels, and I read it in one sitting. He got me intrigued by thumbing through it pointing out highlights and laughing at how true all the points in the book are. It's based on a blog apparently, all about idiosyncracies of the Dutch and their culture. I have to say, most of it rang true to my limited experience. I've either been exposed to many of the things mentioned here, or told about them by my boyfriend and his family. The love of good cheese, the thrifty no-nonsense attitude towards things, the traditions of Sinterklaas (including hot debates about Zwarte Piet- which personally I find offensive, and my boyfriend has no problem with). Chocolate sprinkles on toast, stroopwafles, passion for the color orange (on certain holidays), the prevalence of bicycles, tulip fields and windmills in the home country, the pride in beating back the water. There were a few things in here new to me, especially some Dutch phrases (I haven't learned the language much). I'd never heard of the term gezellig before, which has no direct translation. The Dutch will hurl curses at you with ancient, dreadful diseases. And I burst out laughing at one phrase Ik plak je achter het behang en ga verhuizen which means I'll paste you behind the wallpaper and then move away! My boyfriend says yes, his dad used to say that to them when they were annoying (as kids). Cracks me up. 

To add a little more insight, each explanation of a bit of culture, diet or language use includes some comments from the original blog. People pointing out how yes, they've run into this or that on travels, Dutch people saying how it is, some disagreeing, most affirmative. Fun and enlightening read.

Rating: 3/5        196 pages, 2013