Jun 30, 2014

The Herring Gull's World

Niko Tinbergen

This is one of those scientific books written by a naturalist that I remember loving vividly, although I haven't been able to find a copy to read again. It's about a study done on coastal seagulls. Similar to other books of its type, it describes how the scientists approached the animals, using care to get close enough to observe and photograph the wild birds without frightening them away or altering their behavior. Details what they learned about how the gulls live: finding food, courtship, raising their chicks and so on. I remember an experiment where they fashioned a fake bird's head with a red dot on the bill, and presented it to newly-hatched chicks to see if they would instinctively beg for food by pecking the spot- or something like that. Not sure why that incident stood out to me. Like the best of animal behavior studies, the book is written in a conversational narrative fashion. It details not only the animals' behavior in both anecdotal and scientific fashion (those two might sound conflicting, but I remember they dovetailed nicely here), but also muses on the nature of the animal mind, the naturalists' methods and their own experiences while conducting the study. I do want to find this book again, and add it to my permanent shelf. It is strongly paired with A Beast the Color of Winter in my mind; probably because I read them during the same period in my life and they are of similar quality (although the animal subjects could not be more different!).

There's an entire article about the red-spot aspect of the study here. I guess there's a reason that part of the book stood out to me! Also an interesting tidbit here from a current worker in the field who reflects on Tinbergen's words.

Rating: 4/5    255 pages, 1953

Jun 28, 2014

The Wildest Brother

by Cornelia Funke

Ben is one wild little boy. All day long he pretends to be a wolf or a monster. He battles dragons, goblins, foxes and other ferocious beasts. Engaging his sister in these exuberant adventures (sometimes a giggling willing participant, other times protesting!) he's brave and strong and fearless- at least until darkness falls. When nighttime brings strange noises in the house, suddenly Ben needs his big sister to feel safe. I know a crazy little boy like this, and it's nice to remember there's a tender side under all the wild activity.

Rating: 3/5     24 pages, 2004

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Jun 27, 2014

The Zookeeper's Wife

by Diane Ackerman

This is the story of a zoo in wartime. Warsaw, Poland was bombarded by German attacks, occupied by the enemy, involved in devastating battle with the Uprising, and finally subdued under Soviet rule. Through it all Jan Zabinski and his wife Antonina remained in the zoo grounds, although at times they were forced to abandoned the villa that was their home they always managed to come back to it, trying to save what they could. In the early months of the war many buildings were destroyed by bombs, animals released (intentionally and by accident- this part of the story reminded me of Pride of Baghdad). Dangerous animals were purposefully shot because of fear they would escape, more were removed to zoos in other cities far from the war. The zoo grounds were ripped apart by soldiers as different orders came down from the occupying enemy: turned into a pig farm, established with garden plots to feed civilians and soldiers, stocked with raccoon dogs as a fur farm.

Before long, it seems there weren't many animals left and mention goes to how people in the city survived the war, the many underground activities, the horrors of the ghetto, incredible stress and risk people suffered from, and most of all- how the zoo director and his wife saved some three hundred people, hiding them in the villa and outlying buildings of the zoo. I admit I wished for a bit more about the animals, but the detailed picture the book painted of civilian life and all the efforts Jews and other threatened people went through to avoid attracting attention (and thus death) was compelling reading. I learned quite a lot of detail I wasn't aware of before. Ackerman is a good writer who knows how to tell a story, and seems to have done very thorough research. It all makes me wish I could read Antonina's original diaries and memoirs, or her husband Jan's books about the animals, but I don't know if any have even been translated. I was full of admiration for everything this couple did to help other people, most of them complete strangers.

One thing that stood out to me was the frequent mention of a sculptor, Magdalena Gross, who visited the zoo to use the animals as subjects for her art. The author often remarked how famous she was, how meticulous with details to accurately capture the poise of the animals. I really wanted to view some of her work but had trouble finding it online- I did come across a site that shows many animal statues from the Warsaw Zoo grounds, but I'm not sure if those are hers. Does anyone know?

I recently saw the film version of The Book Thief (excellent!) which vividly depicted wartime Germany for me, so it was interesting to read a completely different viewpoint of the same historical timeframe.

Rating: 3/5        368 pages, 2007

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Jun 26, 2014

Sally Jean, the Bicycle Queen

by Carl Best

A girl and her bike. Sally Jean starts out riding behind her mom, then gets a tricycle, and finally her very own real bike. She learns to ride solo (no training wheels) and do some tricks. She loves her bike so much she gives it a name. As she gets bigger, her parents show her how to adjust the seat and handlebars. But eventually Sally Jean outgrows the bike, and her parents can't afford to buy a new one for a while. What will Sally Jean do? Other kids offer her rides, but as the Bicycle Queen, she needs her own bike. She tries to earn money, but it's not enough. Her final solution really tickled me: Sally Jean finds some used parts and makes her own bike. Then she kindly hands her old bike down to another kid who's outgrown his tricycle. Great story, even though I don't really care for the illustrations (very loose, sketchy style).

Rating: 3/5        32 pages, 2006

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Jun 24, 2014

long-term goals

I have, for many years now, been slowly working through several goals in relation to my reading. The foremost of course are to read all the books that I own, read most of the books on my written TBR list, and to write about all the books I can remember having read. This last I've been slowly making progress on- I have a few compiled lists from the years before I began blogging, and whenever I write a past reads posts, it catches up some on that.

But I've been thinking lately about yet another goal.

I would like to take one year, and only read books off my permanent shelf. I wonder if I could make it through them all- it would be about seven hundred books, far beyond the usual amount I read in a year- but then, they would all be re-reads, so maybe I'd go through them faster. I think much of it would be enjoyable, delightful in fact, as I've kept these books because I loved them. But I'm also afraid at meeting some serious disappointments- many I have not read in a decade or more, they might not stand up to a re-read. Especially those I haven't read since my childhood, or teen years.

So... am I crazy? I'm wondering if I'll ever do this at all. But definitely feel the need to meet one of my other goals first. Getting through all the books on the TBR shelves, at the very least.

Jun 23, 2014

Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel

by Leslie Connor

Miss Bridie's story begins as she steps off a ship into a new land, carrying a shovel. She doesn't bring with her a chiming clock or pretty porcelain figure into the new world, but a useful, utilitarian object. And throughout her life, the shovel serves her well. She uses it to plant gardens, dig fence posts, clear snow for ice skating. The shovel digs wheels out of the mud and puts fuel into her kitchen stove. When a fire levels her barn, she finds the shovel blade and makes a new handle, continuing on. I did not expect to find this quiet, unassuming story so moving, but suppressed a tear when she used to shovel to bury her beloved husband, and plant a tree on his grave. The book closes with the shovel still in use, clearing snow for her grandchildren to skate now. Illustrated with a lovely woodcut style.

Rating: 4/5     30 pages, 2004

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Jun 21, 2014

Where Do Camels Belong?

by Ken Thompson

This is one of those books that kind of hurt my brain to read, but I appreciate because it revealed so much to me. It's about invasive species. It addresses such topics as: what makes some species invasive (successful) in new environments and others not? are introduced species actually harmful? what should we do about them- or are they better left alone? Most of the answers that Thompson arrived at actually surprised me. It seems that the furor about invasive species is either based on very little science, or none at all. Turns out it is quite natural for species to move around the planet and end up in different places than the originated in- if you go back not that far in time, anywhere on earth would be unrecognizable to us. So what gives humans the right to decide that a certain collection of plants and animals in one place is the ideal one, to be protected at all costs? In most cases, invasive species are not to blame for the decline of "natives"; looked at more closely it is often the fault of human changes to environments, or other factors altogether. And the cost of attempts to remove or eradicate alien species (almost always unsuccessful in the end) usually outweighs by far the cost of original "damage". While it still disturbs and alarms me to see news of a certain species disappearing, especially when it is the victim of human alterations to the Earth, I feel like I should in some degree accept that this is just the way of things. The world changes. Some things will die, others will arise. Yes, we are making this happen faster than before- but it would still happen regardless... I still like the idea of having a garden comprised of all native plants, but Thompson has overturned my thinking: I will no longer feel so guilty about planting Dutch flowers in my garden.

Rating: 4/5      262 pages, 2014

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chemfreegarden
Now Appearing

Jun 19, 2014

Owen and Mzee

the Language of Friendship
by Isabella and Craig Hatkoff with Dr. Paula Kahumbu

In 2004, a young hippo was found in trouble after a tsunami struck Southeast Asia with widespread aftermath. The hippo was rescued and taken to a wildlife park in Kenya. To everyone's surprise, the hippo named Owen befriended a 130-year-old male tortoise, Mzee. The animals became inseparable, with Owen following the Mzee around and copying what the tortoise ate. The two became protective of each other. Even more remarkable, they seemed to develop some basic communication, using sounds that tortoises and hippos normally don't make. But eventually the park managers faced a difficult decision: would Owen and Mzee need to be separated? Owen was adopting habits and a diet not usual for hippos, and when he grew larger could probably injure Mzee. He needed to learn that he was a hippo. The book closes with change looming at hand: with another young hippo elsewhere needing a companion, plans were in the works to move Owen.

I wish I could give this book a higher rating, it certainly is an incredible story. But for some reason it all falls a bit short with me. The writing style is aimed at younger readers and rather simple. (I am sure having three authors doesn't help, I'm always a bit standoffish to books with more than one author for some reason). The part about their interspecies communication, which I was most intrigued by, was actually very brief. There is not much meat here; I am actually wondering what this book includes that the first one didn't. I am sure there will be a third installment, but I'd really rather wait until someone writes a book ten years down the road that tells the entire story in more detail. The part I actually liked most was reading in the end about how Dr. Haller (who established the wildlife park the two animals lived in) works to rehabilitate old abandoned limestone quarries, restoring the forest at those sites so wildlife can live there again. I'd like to read more about that.

The story of Owen and Mzee has definitely caught the attention of many. There are already three books illustrated with photographs by Isabella and her father, plus two picture books by different authors.

Rating: 3/5      36 pages, 2007

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Jun 18, 2014

Extra Yarn

by Mac Barnett

While I was away, my mother took the children to the library several times, as evidenced by piles of unfamiliar picture books in my apartment. I've been enjoying reading them with my three-year-old. My favorite has to be Extra Yarn. The sparse, expressive illustrations by Jon Klassen are delightful, and the story even more so.

It starts like this: a girl named Annabel who lives in a cold, gray town, finds a box filled with colorful yarn. She knits a sweater for herself and her dog. Then for her friends, her classmates, teacher, eventually all the pets and people in town (even a guy who doesn't want a sweater- he wears shorts in the snow- gets something: she makes him a hat). Every time she finishes knitting, there is still yarn left in the box. So she knits sweaters for things that don't usually need them- trees, houses, etc. The town becomes very colorful! Now Annabel becomes famous, people come to see the knitting and the marvelous box and a rich duke who loves clothes wants to buy it. Annabel won't sell, for any ridiculous price. He steals the box of yarn, but of course it all turns out well in the end. I love the way the pictures tell the story, and the final message. Lovely.

Rating: 4/5        40 pages, 2012

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Jun 17, 2014

TBR from Africa

I've been away; just updated my blog with the books read on plane flights and in occasional quiet moments during the trip. Had an unexpected stop in an airport bookstore, stopover in Johannesburg. I don't usually expect much of interest in airport bookstores, but when I hesitated outside my boyfriend pointed out a copy of The Elephant Whisperer on the display table. There was an entire section on nature inside; it didn't take long for a stack to pile up in my arms. I only brought home two: Where Do Camels Belong? by Ken Thompson and Nest: The Art of Birds by Janine Burke. But I stole a few moments in front of the shelf to scribble down on the back of a receipt all the others I wanted to read, so I can perhaps find them later (at the library, hopefully).
Fifty Plants That Changed the Course of History by Bill Laws
The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony
The Last Rhinos by Lawrence Anthony
Whatever You Do, Don't Run by Peter Allison
The Lion and the Lamb by Mike Hardwich
The Rhino and the Rat by Mike Hardwich
A Hippo Love Story by Karen Paolillo
Bush Vet by Clay Wilson
Back to the Bush by James Hendry

Jun 16, 2014

Lobo, Rag and Vixen

by Ernest Thompson Seton

I thought this book was awfully familiar when I started reading it on my kindle on the plane; it wasn't until halfway through that I realized I had read it before in a different collection. It contains four stories selected from Wild Animals I Have Known. So it was an unexpected re-read; and I think I actually enjoyed it more the second time around.

The first story is about the wolf leader of a pack that preys on cattle, and all the ranchers' attempts to shoot or poison him. The wolf is finally brought down when they manage to kill a female from the pack and Lobo comes looking for his dead mate. The second story is about the lives of a grouse family, how the mother raises her young and the adventures of one grouse cock when it grows up. I was piqued by an apparent error: the story recounts how one by one young partridges are lost, only a few of the original twelve survive into adulthood. But after telling how the first three are lost, the number of chicks is suddenly seven. I kept thinking- wait, did I miss something? what happened to the other two? O well. A similar survival story is presented in Rags, about a young rabbit and how its mother teaches survival skills, the many ways to evade enemies. The final story is about a fox family, how the parents raise the young foxes until the male fox is shot for killing chickens. Then the den is discovered and most of the cubs killed; the last cub is chained in the farmyard where the mother brings it food and tries in vain to free it. The final, sad scene shows the mother fox killing her cub when she cannot release it from the chain- better it die than live a prisoner.

Reading the kindle edition I missed out on the illustrations, but found a sampling online. Here is one from each of the stories: the wolf Lobo and his mate Blanca, the baby grouse all in a row learning to drink, the rabbit Rags with its mother, the fox (delighted in watching a dog trying to unravel its trail I think).
Rating: 3/5    pages, 1899

Jun 14, 2014

Monarch, the Big Bear of Tallac

by Ernest Thompson Seton

A hunter kills a sow grizzly bear and captures her two cubs. Passing fellow buys them and takes them to a ranch where they live in dull captivity, tormented from time to time by dogs urged to fight. For a show when the bear is larger he is put to fight against a bull but breaks loose and runs off. Learns to survive in the wild by preying upon sheep. One shepherd sees the bear's shadow thrown large in the firelight and is convinced it is a monstrous beast, a giant of all bears. His tall tales and the bear's predation on flocks bring various men to track him down, those efforts are all related. Finally the bear is hunted down by the very man who once kept him as a cub. The man doesn't recognize the bear, but something vaguely familiar in the man's scent causes the bear to turn away from the moment of conflict and do no harm. By now stories of the bear have spread far and wind, inciting interest and furor; through it all the bear just wants to be left alone. Men come out hunting him again and finally after many attempts they trap him. Caged in heavy iron, the book closes on a dull, hopeless scene of his misery. Better he had never encountered men at all, was my final impression.

It seems this bear actually existed (although Seton probably made up the events of his early life) and lived his final days caged in Golden Gate Park; this blog post has some drawings by Seton and a photo of the bear. I found more photos and information about the bear on this site as well. I read this book on my kindle.

Rating: 3/5      214 pages, 1904

Jun 12, 2014

Elizabeth and her German Garden

by Elizabeth von Arnim

I had always wanted to read more von Arnim since loving her Enchanted April, and held off for a while after being disappointed with her dog memoirs. Similarly, I did not find Her German Garden quite as good as Enchanted April, but it was still very enjoyable. It was just not quite what I expected.

It starts out well enough, her lovely words about the beauties of the garden and musing on why no one else seems to appreciate it so much. Others pity her for being left alone in the very place she loves -they just don't understand. How she thrives on solitude and books and dearly loves her plants, would rather not even have visitors. She loves lilacs (so do I) and once filled the house with armloads of the flowers, so that the household staff were convinced she must be planning a party or at the very least expecting some guests. They were put out to find nothing of the sort! I enjoy all this very much. There is an oddly amusing passage where she sneaks into her cousins' garden to see what they have done with it since she was last there- it is apparent she doesn't like these cousins much, and is afraid of being found there, while reminiscing about gardens from her childhood. And of course there are all her efforts to compose a beautiful landscape with the plants, full of learning errors- although she doesn't actually get her hands dirty, merely directing the staff where to put plants she has selected.

There's another longer section about an English girl who comes to visit, a houseguest somehow forced upon Elizabeth; it becomes an extended stay lasting several weeks, even though no one in the household seems to like this girl much. She purports to be studying German culture in order to write a book, but her inquiries are either ignorant or insulting by degrees. Amusing all that, but not much about the garden. There there's some odd attitudes towards her own children expressed, and about women- her own gender! which reminded me that I was reading a book from a very different time. It was oddly disconcerting and uncomfortable for me, as I admired von Arnim so much before. I guess I don't know her very well at all. She also refers to her husband as The Man of Wrath- I was never sure whether this was in jest, or if they really had a bad relationship.

So- I liked most of it, but other parts confused me some, even though I did enjoy them for other reasons. I learned this was her first published work; maybe that's why it feels a bit disjointed to me, the writing voice always lovely regardless. I'm determined to read it again in the future, and see if a bit of perspective will improve my reading experience.

I read this one on my kindle.

Rating: 3/5      207 pages, 1899

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Jun 10, 2014

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

by William Kamkwamba

A remarkable story about a boy from Malawi, a poor village in rurual Africa, who built a windmill out of junkyard scrap- producing enough power to put lights and a radio in his family's home. But it starts out telling the story of his circumstance, which really opened my eyes. The daily struggle of poor farmers tied to the land, suffering incredibly when rain and crops failed them. He lived through famine and disease, his family surviving but left with no money for school. Burning with desire to learn, to know how things worked, Willima devoured books from the small local library, and experimented with things, taking apart and repairing radios. When he learned that windmills could generate power, he was fired with the idea to make one, to bring electricity and irrigation to his family and their village. At first his efforts were ridiculed; then people realized what he had done and the community came to stare in amazement at his achievement. They lined up to charge cell phones at his rigged outlets and draw water from his new well, pumped with wind power. He got the attention of journalists, became funded, travelled to New York (having never left his village at all before!), attended and participated in TED talks, gained his education, and returned home to continue building and inspiring people.

I was amazed at William's ingenuity, how he not only built the windmill, but wired it to his house, made wall switches and a circuit breaker from scrap materials, and tried many other inventions- some of course didn't work. But he didn't give up trying. Also opened my eyes to see how primitively the people live in many parts of the world, very hand-to-mouth, belief in things like witches and magic still strong- when things went badly in his village, some people actually blamed the windmill for causing it! As far as the writing goes, it is not particularly polished, but the substance of the story was what made this book great for me. I've seen other readers complain that it took too long to get to the windmill part- the first half of the book being about William's life and his family's struggles; but the context that gave for his achievement made the story all that more powerful.

I picked up this book from a free stack at the public library. I finished reading it on the airplane, then swapped with a friend I met on my trip, for a book that sounds most intriguing: The Golden Spruce.

Rating: 4/5        290 pages, 2009

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Jun 9, 2014

Bedtime for Frances

by Russell Hoban

Like many kids, Frances the badger doesn't want to go to bed. She finds endless reasons to delay- needs a song, needs a drink, needs a special doll or toy to hold. Then of course keeps getting out of bed when she hears strange noises, and her parents patiently deal with all these interruptions to their evening. When even later in the night Frances wakes her sleeping father he finally looses his patience and reminds her that everyone in the family has a job to do- he has to go to work in the morning, she has to go to sleep now, and if she doesn't, she'll get in trouble. This time Frances finally stays in bed, finds a way to distract herself with little songs, and succumbs to sleep. Darling as always.

Rating: 4/5     48 pages, 1960

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Jun 5, 2014

A Baby Sister for Frances

by Russell Hoban

Frances understandably feels confused when her parents bring home her new baby sister. She is frustrated that the household doesn't run as smoothly as it used to, and of course feels left out when the baby gets more attention. She decides to run away- announcing this to her family- and after packing a bag retires to a cozy spot under the dining room table (not too far away from the kitchen, in case she runs out of cookies!) There of course she can overhear her parents talking in the living room where they discuss Frances' good qualities, how important big sisters are, how much they miss her, that it's just not a family without Frances around. So she runs home to a hug and agrees how nice it is to be the big sister. Very cute story, including the little songs that Frances makes up about her situation.

Rating: 4/5    48 pages, 1964

Jun 2, 2014

The Lady's Not for Burning

by Christopher Fry

I read this one because it was mentioned by a character in Tam Lin and sparked my curiosity. I don't often read plays, it's quite a different format for me. This one was both fun and thoughtful. It's set during the witch-trial era of New England. The two main characters are a disillusioned ex-solider who wants to die - he claims to have killed two men and thus deserves to be hanged, but no one believes him. At the same time, there is a woman named Jennet accused of being a witch; the crimes stated against her are ridiculous but the townsfolk insist she is guilty. So the story is mostly a lot of talk and it all takes place in one room but in spite of that is quite interesting. The background characters never really change their stance of believing that Jennet is a witch and basically ignoring Thomas' desire for assistance to meet death. But through the conversations that occur the soldier realizes that he really does want to live and moreover he is now in love with Jennet, so together they flee the town. I liked the irony of the play, even though I had to read it rather slowly as the old-fashioned phrasing sometimes took me a moment to figure out. It's one I want to read again someday, or better yet, see performed in the theater.

Rating: 3/5     95 pages, 1948

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