Dec 31, 2016

Love: the Tiger

by Federico Bertolucci

I saw this book mentioned on another blog somewhere (was it you?) and while it didn't land on my actual TBR list, when I wanted a light read this week I picked it up along with several other graphic novels at the library. It is authored by Frédéric Brrémaud although there are no words, the pages are all full of gorgeous artwork by Bertolucci.

It depicts the life of a tiger in the jungle. Most of the pages are taken up by images of the tiger prowling through the undergrowth and stalking prey. He has an awful lot of near misses. Gets harassed by monkeys, bitten by ants, a near encounter with a crocodile and fights some rival black panthers. Tries again to catch a meal- usually seems to be after a tapir (who has unusually large ears). Life as a tiger seems difficult. In the end the tiger does get his meal, an unexpected one.

Really the pictures are breathtaking. So much atmosphere, detail, fierceness and beauty. I had not heard of this artist before but he is amazingly good at drawing animals. Especially birds- and they're not the main focus. I really liked the final few pages that show some original sketches and studies done by the artist, and you can see a lot more samples online. Beautiful work.

Rating: 3/5    82 pages, 2011

More opinions:
Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales

Dec 30, 2016

Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour

by Robert Surtees

This book from the mid 1800's is about a man of limited means who acquires three rented horses, puts on airs and basically invites himself to the homes of various folk in the countryside so he can attend fox hunts (which he also invites himself to). He banks on the fact that nobody knows him, to be able to get away with things- people pretend they know of him to avoid looking ignorant, and he lets them make assumptions about his social position etc, takes advantage of free room and board until he seriously wears out his welcome, and they make efforts to throw him out. Then he moves on, finding someone else who had extended (in mere politeness) an invitation, which he takes them up on suddenly. Eventually enough people in the district hear of him that he finds himself staying with people who aren't so well-to-do, and he is thoroughly dissatisfied. He tries to get himself invited back to one of the other households, and starts to wonder at his predicament- no money, no income, and apparently no more invitations forthcoming.

All this time he is involved in some kind of horse-dealing scams- showing off his horses (hiding their faults of course) and selling them, but then making the buyer so discomfited they pay him to take the horse back (once pressured by empty threat of a lawsuit). So he makes money off these horses that aren't even his. He doesn't seem too skilled at foxhunting although more into it than some of the other characters- lots of them apparently participate just to make a show of themselves- and has a curious obsession with studying a book of 'bus schedules and fares that he carries around. A lot of the book isn't about Mr. Sponge at all (most of the names pointedly emphasize something about each character) there are entire chapters just describing the people who will be his next set of hosts. Lots of curious folk with different quirks and habits. I think the one that amused me most was a man who went foxhunting so he could look for likely trees to cut sticks from- his hobby was carving an entire series of walking-sticks with the heads of famous people.

In the end Sponge, who had often had female attentions pressed on him when staying at various households, met a lady who liked to ride with the hounds, and he very suddenly fell in love and married. Of course he still had no means to make a living, but adroitly (or by sheer luck) won a steeplechase and found something to invest his winnings in. It was a rather abrupt conclusion.

I was interested in reading the descriptions of the hunts, the various ways in which they were conducted and the parts about the horses. Most of this seems to be character studies and obviously intended as humor, although I sometimes missed the point. I did like it just for the fact that it described a way of life long gone by, so very different in many ways (it went easier when I started glossing over the descriptions of people's clothing). More than for enjoyment of the story or an expectation to read it again, I feel I ought to keep this book just for what it is as a physical object- one of the oldest books in my library. My edition was printed in 1860, and even though it is faded, yellowed and stained in places, the binding has held up remarkably well, the paper has a fine texture (although print somewhat faded) and the ink illustrations are very clever- depicting the various characters with a lot of humor.

Rating: 3/5       408 pages, 1853

Dec 22, 2016

Jayber Crow

by Wendell Berry

This is a thoughtful book, and slow. It is the story of a small town, told through the eyes of a man who lives above the barbershop, makes his modest living giving haircuts, and listens to all the talk of the town. It has many threads- some of this man's life- his childhood on an aunt's farm, his religious education, the moment he realized he didn't want to be a priest and wandered back home where he settled down as the town barber. Then it is a very long and slow story of the small-town life, the people he observed, the folk he liked or disliked. I admit I liked the beginning and end of the novel better, the middle part at times felt very dull and hard to stick with. The latter end, where Jayber falls in love with another man's wife and admires her from afar for years, while internally criticizing how that man uses and abuses the land, was far more interesting to me. It is one big long soliloquy on the dismay of small farms folding under pressure and how big agriculture ruins the land. With bits of storylines of the townsfolk holding on or moving out, woven around to make a whole. As the small town quietly crumbles under pressure of change, Jayber himself moves to live in a small cabin on the riverbank. Lots of writing describing nature then, it makes you think of Walden, and then the ending is very sad.

I am curious to read another one of his novels, as I've heard they each tell the story of this town through the eyes of a different inhabitant. Also intend to read some of his nonfiction and essays. But I don't know if he'll ever be a favorite of mine. Just a bit too- deliberate and meandering sometimes for my taste. However it's entirely possible I just need to approach it again at a different time of my own life, with a different mindset to appreciate it properly.

Rating: 3/5      363, 2000

Dec 18, 2016

Pyewacket

by Rosemary Weir

When I picked up this book up secondhand, it was because I thought I'd read the name of the main character before- a cat named Pyewacket in another book, called after this Pyewacket whom I didn't know of before...

Not sure which book it was that mentioned it, but now I know who the original Pyewacket is. A tough, scarred, one-eyed cat that lives at the end of a rundown lane. There is a cat in each house- a young foolish kitten, an older gentle cat who lives with two ladies, a rather snobby Siamese, a standoffish Manx, two other toms- variety of types. The cats are sitting around complaining about how their humans mistreat or neglect them when the old tom Pyewacket announces a plan: get rid of the humans and have the lane to themselves. He makes a deal with the local rats to enlist their help in scaring away the people, but something else much bigger than Pyewacket's plan is going on. Quicker than they had expected, the people start to leave and the cats (who manage to avoid being taken along when their owners move out) are left to their own devices- but not in easy possession of their homes as they had assumed. The entire street is being torn down for a factory to be built. The cats start to get cold and hungry (loosing their edge against the rats) and then their leader is injured and carried off to the animal hospital. What will become of the cats now?

It has a good ending- rather predictable, but with a few nice turns. I liked the inked illustrations by Charles Pickard.

Rating: 3/5       123 pages, 197

Nov 29, 2016

How Green Was My Valley

by Richard Llewellyn

I can't remember the last time it took me a month to read one book. I have simply been busy- all the regular stuff plus a basement remodel, guests for the holidays and a very large project at work that has gone way past the deadline, have eaten up all my free hours. I'm still trying to wrap up stuff at work, often too tired at the end of the day to focus on more than a magazine article before sleep...

Well, this is a book that sat a very long time on my shelf- for over eight years. I can't recall what prompted me to first pick it up at the Book Thing, except perhaps the title caught my eye. Reading it at once I was reminded of Germinal, because of the similar theme. How Green Was My Valley is set in a coal-mining village on a mountaintop in Wales. It is told from the viewpoint of a younger son in a large family, Huw Morgan. Most of this bildungsroman is about family centeredness- the strong moral code, the younger son learning skills from his father and older brother. There is an incident in his childhood which leaves him weakened and bedridden for several years, so he studies a lot and becomes well-versed in classical literature. It is baffling later on when he is sent to receive formal schooling, but the school is run by the English and they look down on him and think he is ignorant, just because he is Welsh. Huw learns carpentry from the local preacher and boxing from a group of prizefighters- and there are lots of ins and outs in the story about love- his brothers wooing different women and getting married, the unrest some of these pairings cause in the family, his long infatuation with his brother's wife, his curiosity about 'the facts of life' and final realization with a girl from the next valley over- this part of the story was actually quite funny, as he didn't like the girl at first but she weaseled her way into his company. For some reason I never really connected with the main character- nothing about him really stood out to me, except that he had a strong sense of right and wrong, curiosity about how the world works, and didn't hesitate to question the actions of those around him when they seemed senseless.

The parts about mining and its effect on the valley loom in the background- slag heaps piling up to nearly topple over the houses, grime slowly covering everything, the meadows of flowers suffocating, the streams devoid of fish- but it all occurs so gradually people don't notice until it seems too late. Most of their concern was keeping their livelihood- Huw's brothers are involved in creating a union and there is a lot of unrest, times of suffering and famine. The ending, when Huw's father goes down into the mine to find one of their men who didn't come back after going down to see why the tunnels are flooding- well, it ends in tragedy as you might expect. All the fighting and suffering and despoiling of the mountain, to end in loss and sorrow.

The language is beautiful. Throughout the entire book there is a unique pattern of phrasing that comes from the Welsh language- it took me a while to get used to it, and then I loved the way the descriptions would put images in my mind. Huw's thoughts on the nature of the land and the depth of relationships in people around him are quite eloquent. It is for this I might keep the book on hand to read again, or look for others by this author- although from reviews I glanced at, the sequels to How Green Was My Valley aren't as good.

Rating: 4/5         497 pages, 1940

Oct 30, 2016

Educating Esmé

Diary of a Teacher's First Year
by Esmé Raji Codell

I found this book at a secondhand shop, and was interested because I have a friend who is in her first year as a teacher. It's the author's diary about her fifth-grade classroom in a Chicago school- one that had just been built. She tells how she earns the students' respect, helps them deal with problems (or leave them at the door) and how she galvanizes learning- especially when it comes to literature. About her plans and projects, how they work out or don't. She's full of creativity and energy, but comes up against reluctant volunteers, unenthusiastic co-workers, and a serious clash with her principal who mostly picks a fight because she wants her students to call her "Madame Esmé" which he insists isn't proper. The kids often give her a hard time. Some of them are dealing with abuse (it happens right in front of her a few times), homelessness, recent immigration... She isn't afraid to speak up to other adults or even the children- this could come across as rude but I admired her for speaking her mind. It's a funny, heartwarming, sometimes surprising account. But it was a really quick read. Half the book is made up of the foreward, an afterward, an epilogue, and Esmé's own tips for new teachers- which is certainly thorough and looks very informative. She taught two years at the Chicago school and then went to a different school where she became a librarian (and loves it). Her current space: The Planet Esmé Plan, where I might just get some recommendations myself.

Rating: 3/5       262 pages, 2009

more opinions:
A Worn Path

Oct 29, 2016

the Dragon of Og

by Rumer Godden
illustrated by Pauline Baynes

This charming little story is set in Scotland, medieval times. A young dragon lives in a pool near a Lord's manor. Every so often the dragon eats one of the Lord's cattle, otherwise he leaves the people in peace. The people see him as a symbol of luck and protection, so they don't bother the dragon. Then power changes hands. The new Lady of the manor brings newfangled ways that upset a lot of folk- she wants to have basic cleanliness and order. The new Lord is upset when he finds out the dragon eats his cattle. He demands that the practice be stopped, and when they can't find a way to prevent the dragon from taking what he sees as his due, the Lord demands that a knight be found to kill the dragon. Meanwhile, the Lady herself has met the dragon on its own terms, and she has befriended the beast. So she is out to thwart her husband's plans.

Quite cleverly, I thought. There's a point in the story when it looks like this will be a tragedy, but it all turns out well in the end. A bit reminiscent of The Reluctant Dragon. And I have to say, the illustrations by Pauline Baynes are a perfect match with Rumer Godden.

Rating: 4/5      60 pages, 1981

Oct 25, 2016

Whatever You Do, Don't Run

True Tales of a Botswana Safari Guide
by Peter Allison

Peter Allison always loved wildlife. He waffled around trying to figure out what to do for a living in his early twenties, went on a vacation backpacking in Africa, and never wanted to leave again. When he found out he could make a living as a safari guide he was ecstatic. It was a dream job he'd never imagined existed- spending his time driving around looking for animals and showing them off to tourists. Apparently he worked in various locations for several different safari outfits, even was a camp manager once (but didn't like it, as he wasn't out in the bush observing wildlife) but this book describes his time in Botswana. When I looked for more titles I found he's written quite a few books about his safari experiences, and now I want to read them all. The way the book covers are designed and his goofy shocked expressions give the impression the books are all humor- but that's not true with this one, at least.

While there are plenty of self-deprecating jokes and Allison has no qualms about describing his clumsiness and mistakes that often get him into troublesome situations (drowning several vehicles when he tries to cross rivers, or finding himself too close -on foot- to an upset mother lion or elephant for example) you can tell he really loves the wildlife, and the book is just as much about appreciating the animals. There's also a lot about what goes on behind the scenes in running a safari camp, the ups and downs of the daily grind it becomes, the relationships with his co-workers, the visiting tourists who are often difficult or demanding. And there are some quite serious moments when people fall ill, have accidents, run into dangerous snakes. Or when a kill they are excitedly homing in on to show the tourists some action- lions and hyenas fighting over something- turns out to be the death of an animal they had come to know from long association- so instead it is something quite sad.

I liked this book. It was engaging, funny, heartwarming, interesting by turns and made me want to go look up more by this author. Still a 3- which is a good read in my little system, but this is a 3 that I will keep, whereas the previous book was a 3 I don't mind letting go (it's already swapped in the mail).

Rating: 3/5        246 pages, 2008

more opinions:
At Home with Books

Oct 21, 2016

Monkeys on the Interstate

by Jack Hanna
with John Sravinsky

This book is by the zoo director of the Columbus Zoo. He tells about his childhood interest in animals, his early attempt to run a pet shop, first few jobs working for a veterinarian and in some older zoos, and then how he got the position of director at Columbus. The book goes up to the time he started appearing on the Letterman Show in the late 80's, but I think there is a sequel or two, I saw another title online where he looks older on the dust jacket, called Jungle Jack (also posed holding animals, of course).

There are a lot of animal stories in here- tigers, camels, gorillas, you name it. Even pet cockroaches. Hanna describes lots of amusing or interesting incidents, including times the public called him in desperation to take care of situations- an alligator in someone's backyard, an apartment full of venomous snakes. The zoo was small and in some disrepair when he started as director, and a lot of people didn't even know it was there. Hanna definitely put it on the map- rebuilt better enclosures, boosted employee morale, acquired more land, and especially worked hard on publicity. Including television appearances. In fact, a lot of the book is about that, and his work managing the zoo, not actual animal stories.

So for me it was an amusing light read, but nothing great (which I should have guessed when I saw it was co-authored). Quite a few other readers really liked it, though- it has five-star marks on amzn and LibraryThing.

Rating: 3/5        301 pages, 1989

Oct 15, 2016

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

by David Sedaris

I didn't like this book much. And it's not just because I had forgotten how crude Sedaris can be. Despite it's small, compact size and the cute cover illustration, these stories are not for children. It's a bunch of short stories, 'modern fables' Sedaris wrote, with animal characters that act and talk a lot like people. They're dark. Unpleasant, wry and snarky. I didn't laugh out loud once. Several times I was left scratching my head- expecting just a bit more to wrap up a tale. Especially the last one about the hippo and the owl- I really wanted to know what that exploring gerbil found. The story about the lamb and the crow was disturbing, the one about a mouse with a pet snake overly predictable, the storks arguing about what nonsense to tell their children about where babies come from, kinda lame. There's a dying rat in a lab, an Irish setter dog whose mate wonders if he's cheating when his owners take him to be bred to other females, a brutal rabbit who wants to safeguard his part of the forest with a ridiculous gate. Makes his point well. It was mildly amusing in an uncomfortable way, but I probably won't read this book again. The animals act too much like dissatisfied people, and too many of the stories leave me hanging.

Rating: 2/5       159 pages, 2010

more opinions:
She Treads Softly
Boston Bibliophile
a good stopping point
Bermudaonion's Weblog

Oct 14, 2016

Trash Mountain

by Jane Yolen

This is a brief story about a young red squirrel who struggles to survive when gray squirrels kill his family (his siblings die of squirrel pox, and his parents are killed outright in an attack). Includes lots of facts about squirrels and other wildlife- some woven into the story, others presented at the chapter headings. The red squirrel is pushed out of his parents' territory and runs away- to the dump. There he meets some rough characters- rats and gulls- and finds out they're not as stupid as his parents always told him (they called those scavenging species "lowlifes"). Our red squirrel has to figure out how to keep himself fed and safe among the territories staked out in the dump, and thwart the gray squirrels who come looking for him. He makes it in the end, and I thought the part about the defunct appliances in the trash heap being used to save the day was clever.

However, I wasn't quite able to get into the story or enjoy it. Some things were odd- the squirrels are ignorant about lots of things beyond the farm area they occupy- and they give descriptive names to things they don't really understand- for example cars are 'People Carriers'. Yet the red squirrel knows what trolls are from overhearing a family telling stories on their porch, and his mother keeps a photo of the Queen of England on her den wall- how could they not know what cars are, and yet recognize and revere the Queen, whom they've never even seen?? It didn't seem consistent.

Also, for a story written at a middle-grade level, there is a lot violence (although it isn't described in too much detail). The red squirrel's parents get killed, the gray squirrels try to kill him, and owl takes one of them, the squirrels and rats fight viciously, there's a lot of death. Which is to be expected in an animal story about survival, it just seemed a bit much for a book aimed at a young audience. I felt like it should have been toned down a little, or the story written with more detail for older kids.

Found browsing at the public library.

Rating: 2/5        176 pages, 2014

Oct 13, 2016

The Nature of Jade

by Deb Caletti

High-school senior Jade has a lot going on in her life. She has a heavy courseload at school. Her friends are being pulled in different directions as the school year draws to a close. Her parents are at odds, especially when her mothers' excessive involvement in organizing school activities leads to a flirtation with the school librarian. Through it all, she keeps calm via thorough talks with her therapist, repetitively counting up the words in sentences on her fingers, knocking on doorframes and watching elephants from the nearby local zoo on a webcam. Her therapist encourages her to reach out and do more than just watch the elephants. She becomes interested in a young man she sees repeatedly on the webcam- and feels they have a connection because he also seems interested in elephants. She wonders why he always has a young child with him. Her attempts to meet the boy flounder, but she starts to volunteer at the zoo, working with the elephants, and gets a second chance. Their brief meeting gradually evolves into a relationship, one she hides from her parents and friends: because Sebastian is a teenage father. With a secret. That threatens to undermine all Jade is hoping for.

I liked this book. The voice of its young protagonist is insightful and lively. It's not about a teen working through problems or facing the world on her own- her family and the rocky relationship with her mother, her simultaneous annoyance at and tenderness towards her younger brother- are very much a part of the story. People in this book aren't perfect- Jade's new love interest, for all his positive traits, has flaws as well as anyone else. Jade struggles to make the right choice when she finally learns what is really going on. I'm glad the book has a positive yet realistic ending- it's not all wrapped up super tidy, but satisfying enough for the reader.

And the setting was a nice touch. It's in Seattle and there was just enough atmosphere to remind me of where I grew up. The author is from the area, which helps a lot in getting the details accurate!

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5       288 pages, 2007

more opinions:
Becky's Book Reviews
The Compulsive Reader
Bookworm 4 Life
Write Meg!

Oct 5, 2016

The Fox

by D.H. Lawrence

Two women live alone on a small farm, in near-poverty just after the war. They are raising chickens but not making much success of it. A fox is constantly stealing the chickens. After some time a young man shows up on the farm, expecting to find his grandfather who used to live there. He is constantly described in terms that link him to the fox- sly, conniving, smoothy flattering to fit his needs. He invegiles his way into staying at the farm, even though it is considered highly improper. Finds ways of making himself useful, but his end goal is obviously to get one of the women, March, to marry him. He fixates on her from the very beginning. Even though he is much younger than her (also considered very improper).

There were some parts of this story that intrigued me, and other parts that seemed a bit off. I found that I really like how Lawrence writes characters. The way the three people interact, their little gestures and bits of conversation, feel quite vivid and significant. Descriptions of the landscape and the fox are strong, too. But I found it odd how constantly the women were portrayed as being less, being weak- they were referred to as 'girls', they were always identified by their last names, it was pointedly noted that March would loose her independence if she married the young man, that she wasn't a complete person yet, and so on. The man saw her as a mere object of desire and stopped at nothing to obtain her- he felt he needed to own her. The end of the story really felt heavy-handed with its constant reiterations -from both characters- on how miserable they were going to be in their new relationship. Not a happy ending. And the fox is dead at this point.

I was puzzled at a few points in the story that seemed inconsistent- I thought at first that the man wanted to gain the farm, by getting the woman's hand- but later he plans to return immediately to Canada. I failed to note when that intention changed. I also thought he had run away from the service, but he readily talks of having steady work back in Canada, and when he does return there on his own, there is no mention of difficultly in re-joining his camp- he's just suddenly described sitting there, "cleaning his kit". Wouldn't there have at least been some reprimand? Oh well, I suppose it's not important. Although the foreward by Doris Lessing was interesting and insightful, I wish I hadn't read it first. It gave away a major event that happens at the end of the story, so there was no surprise waiting for me there. It was pretty heavily foreshadowed though, I might have guessed what was coming anyway.

Funny thing, I had completely forgotten where I first heard of this novella. It was noted in my TBR list without a source. After writing I found two other blogs that mentioned this book- and I had commented my interest in the story on Bibliographing, over seven years ago! That's how long this title was on my TBR. I'm glad I finally read it. I might look for a few more D.H. Lawrence, now... any recommendations?

Borrowed this one from the public library.

Rating: 3/5      89 pages, 1921

more opinions:
Bibliographing
The Reading Life

Oct 1, 2016

Under the Sea-Wind

by Rachel Carson

I have a few of Rachel Carson's early works, books about oceanic life in all its minutiae. The other one come to mind now is The Edge of the Sea, which describes the creatures that live on the margins of sea and land. If I remember correctly, that book is kind of a list of descriptions. This one is more narrative in style. It details the life cycle of several animals that live in or near the ocean. First a shorebird called the skimmer, and alongside the story of his migrations and search for food are the lives of other birds and animals he encounters, but the landscape is really a key feature here. The rolling hills and seagrass, the wind and the tides and the sand flats. Crabs that scuttle along the shoreline. Creatures that shelter in the seaweed.

The second section is about the life of a mackerel fish, from egg to spawning adult. This is more focused on the one fish, although it still describes the movements and habits of other creatures that share the environment. The life of the fish is one of chance- he narrowly escapes being eaten many many many times before growing large enough to maneuver and avoid dangers and seek safe areas. Descriptions of how fishing nets are set and the activities of the fishing boats- it sounds destructive, how many fish are caught and how many thrown out and how many small lives blindly destroyed, but really I think it is nothing compared to the waste that happens in later decades.

Last of all is the life of an eel- from its origins in the ocean, travels upstream to a creek, development and growth into an adult eel, and then the journey back to the sea decades later. I think I liked this narrative, and that of the fish, the best. Reminded me a lot of Eels in its descriptions of where eels go and how they live. But there are so many other creatures in this book: starfish and octopus and tuna and dolphins and lobsters and barnacles and sand fleas and on and on. The movement of water, the pressure of tides, changes in salinity or light or temperature and how the fish and other animals respond to that, how they feel it. There were some things Carson could not explain that I know a little more about- what fish use their lateral line for, is one example- but this book really does not feel dated. It is impressive how clearly she describes the interwoven lives and activities of so many different animals in the ocean. It encompasses so much. In some ways very like Watchers at the Pond, or Sally Carrighar's books One Day on Beetle Rock, One Day at Teton Marsh, Icebound Summer...

Rating: 3/5      314 pages, 1941

Sep 27, 2016

Silver Boy

The Gray Fox of Topanga
by Vance Joseph Hoyt

This book came into my collection over the weekend (a library sale find) and went into the swap box just as quickly. Which is kind of sad. I have a fondness for animal stories in older books and out-of-print junior fiction. Some of them I enjoy for the storytelling, even if the events are improbable. But in other cases- like this one- it seems the author was trying hard to write an authentic nature story, but got some key details so wrong that it totally lost me.

The story is about an avid naturalist in California (near Los Angeles) who so admires a wild gray fox he plans to trap it and keep it as a pet. Supposedly the author himself once had a pet fox and based a lot of his story on first-hand observations of wildlife. He describes trapping the fox and slowly gaining its trust so he can let it roam his cabin, and can hold and pet it (although the fox doesn't seem to enjoy this). Then the fox kills a rattlesnake that found its way into the cabin, and the man is so grateful he feels guilty for keeping the animal captive. He lets the fox go and continues to observe it in the wild, knowing where the den is.

His next venture is to trap a wild condor, in order to send it to a zoo. The strange thing is that the condor was described as a "modern roc" terrorizing all the small animals of the canyon. While the physical description of it was accurate, the bird's behavior was not. In the story it would stoop to catch prey like a falcon, and chase it actively like a hawk, using its talons like "grappling irons". Um, no. Condors are vultures, they eat carrion, already-dead animals. They don't actively hunt the way this story describes. Unfortunately that inaccuracy was so ludicrous, it killed my interest in reading any more of the book.

Abandoned       265 pages, 1929

Sep 26, 2016

The Tigris Expedition

by Thor Heyerdahl

Once again Heyerdahl set out to prove that ancient peoples could have used reed ships to travel the seas. This time, he started on the Tigris river and built a boat from the local reeds (different from the Egyptian papyrus). The book has the same pattern as the other two I've read: an explanation of his theories about contact between ancient cultures (in this case Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley), his efforts to research and find people who could built him a ship of local materials, the building process, and the journey. It was interesting to read about how the reeds were used and tested, how locals reacted to seeing the reed ship built, and how it was launched across the Persian Gulf. A large part of the journey is about navigational difficulties- they had to avoid a lot of shipping traffic until got free of the Gulf, and it was not easy to steer the ship in tight quarters. Reeds under sail (which float excellently- he kept describing it as riding high on the water like a rubber duck) respond differently to wind and maneuvers than wood hulls powered by engine. So a lot of the narrative is about narrow misses with other boats, tricky maneuvering and encounters with locals along the way- in many places they were told certain areas were hostile- they did run into extortioners- and so could not always land when needed. The boat rode out storms with ease- although it could not always be steered in bad weather, there was no fear of sinking or capsizing.

The part where they cross the Arabian Sea was more to my taste- the going became easy and the writing was more about oceanic life they encountered- particularly the movements of fish that sheltered near their hull and small creatures that lived off the sea grass and shellfish that started to grow there. I really liked reading about that micro-environment that developed under their boat and the various fishes and sharks they observed. More distressing is to read about the pollution encountered. By the time they reached the tip of Africa- making final port in Djubouti- the waters on all sides were banned from travel due to warfare and hostilities, so although they had been five months at sea and the boat was still in great condition, they ended the expedition, setting fire to their reed boat in protest against the war.

Throughout the narrative there is a lot of history interspersed, in particular about ancient Sumerians. And about ancient building sites they visited, and stonework Heyerdahl was interested in. These parts weren't as engaging, and I started skimming quite a lot before I got to the end where the marine life is described when they finally cross the ocean. I'm sure I would have learned a lot from it, but my mind wandered when the history got more and more detailed, so I actually skipped reading about a third of the book.

You can read a little more about the expedition here.

Rating: 2/5      349 pages, 1984

Sep 18, 2016

The Ra Expeditions

by Thor Heyerdahl

This book was a re-read for me. Seven years ago I was kind of floored when I read about Heyerdahl's trips across the Atlantic in handmade boats, to test his theories about how ancient peoples might have travelled the oceans, in particular going from Egypt to the American continent. For some reason I had this book on my TBR shelf next to The Tigris Expedition and decided to read one before the other (chronologically). I was only a few chapters in before incidents and descriptions began to feel familiar, and I realized I'd read it before. It was still pretty darn interesting, and is sticking around in my collection (this time properly shelved).

In Kon-Tiki Heyerdahl crossed the ocean on a balsa wood raft, in this case he built papyrus reed boats. He travelled the world to find men who still built reed boats on various lakes, and with their expertise handling the materials, followed the design of reed boats depicted in Egyptian tombs- he was convinced by their shape they must have been seaworthy. However he didn't know the purpose of certain parts of the design, so although they copied the images faithfully, once at sea they made some mistakes which caused the boat to start falling apart. They made it most of the way across- just a few hundred miles short of their goal before being rescued by a ship. The bulk of the book details the research, how the boat was constructed and the first trip- how the men settled their differences on board (being from seven different nations), how they learned to steer the reed boat, sightings of whales, porpoises, sharks, jellyfish and other oceanic life, difficulties with the weather and all things you'd expect to read about an ocean voyage. Mostly it's about how the structure of the boat held up (or didn't) to the rigors of wave and wind, and how their provisions held out- they took only foods that ancient Egyptians might have had, and packed them the same way- clay jars and baskets. It all worked out surprisingly well.

Thor Heyerdahl launched a second trip not long after, to prove they could make it all the way with the boat built and loaded properly. This time they didn't have nearly as many difficulties, and the second trip is told in a mere one chapter. It wasn't as exciting because not so much went wrong- the boat still took on water and they broke steering oars, but it didn't fall apart like the first one.

While I liked reading this again, I did notice it got really repetitive telling about all the historical similarities between ancient cultures Heyerdahl was trying to prove. There's an entire chapter or two in the middle of the book where he just reiterates all the arguments he brought up at the beginning of the book, fleshed out from some reading the crew did while on board to while away calm moments. Then he rehashes it all again at the end. I didn't really want to read a bunch of history, I wanted to read about the adventure- I could have done with all that just told once and summarized again...

Rating: 3/5        341 pages, 1971

My earlier review is here.

Sep 12, 2016

Wither

by Lauren DeStefano

In the not-so-far future, every continent apart from North America has been annihilated by nuclear warfare.  For a time afterwards America was like a utopia- cancer and other diseases erradicated, only  perfectly healthy babies born due to genetic manipulation. Then the dark reality sets in- those born in the next generation die in their early twenties. All of them.

What this means for the story is that our main character finds herself kidnapped at age sixteen, taken to a mansion and coerced, along with three other girls, to marry a wealthy man who is among the desperate- they want to breed as many children as possible in hopes of finding a cure before humanity dies out. The main character is one of these girls kidnapped to be a bride. She is suddenly jerked from being in poverty and uncertainty to living in luxury and being well-cared for. But she isn't free, she's not happy, and she knows when she's going to die...

It's an interesting idea, but this one didn't work for me. The characters were uninteresting. I never got a sense of them as real people. And I didn't quite buy the premise. If everyone was suddenly dying young, would the reaction of wealthy men really be to kidnap young girls and marry them in order the get lots of progeny? To me it was an odd idea. Another issue I had was that the story is told a lot in flashbacks, so the background events are revealed in pieces. I prefer my narrative to be linear. I think if I'd had chapters describing the chaos, the sudden flux of orphans when people started dying, the struggles the main character faced before suddenly being shoved into this mansion... it would have made more of an impact for me.

But again, I'm not the target audience for this book. It's the kind of thing my near-twelve-year-old might gobble up. Except when I started to tell her about the premise (to see if she wanted to read it before I return it to the library) she said "wait, so all these girls are getting raped by a rich guy?" Well... they got married to him, but against their will, so yeah, rape. The whole idea of it is pretty distasteful once you start seeing past the descriptions of opulence hand-in-hand with oppression. However, as far as I read in the book, I didn't come across any sex scenes at all. The girls discuss consummation, who spent the night when with their husband, one of them gets pregnant, that's it. I can't be sure though- I started to feel distracted around thirty pages in, and just skimmed a bunch after that before ditching this one.

Abandoned         374 pages, 2011

more opinions:
Presenting Lenore
Rhapsody in Books
Dear Author
There's a Book

Sep 11, 2016

TBR 63

Kid Artists by David Stabler- Bookfoolery
The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell- Shelf Love
Evicted by Matthew Desmond- Caroline Bookbinder
I Will Send Rain by Rae Meadows- Book Chase
Jonathan Unleased by Meg Rosoff- Bermudaonion's Weblog
Make the Bread Buy the Butter by Jennifer Reese- Caroline Bookbinder
The Unwritten by Mike Carey- So Many Books
A Dog's Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron- Book Chase
Mutt's Promise by Julie Salamon from Puss Reboots
Beside Myself by Anne Morgan- Opinions of a Wolf
Home and the World by Rabindanrath Tagore- Shelf Love
Raising the Barre by Lauren Kessler- Caroline Bookbinder
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are by de Waal- Reading the End
Follow That Bird! by Bill Oddie - Read Warbler
Sanaaq by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk- the Indextrious Reader
Drawn from Life by Stella Bowen- the Neglected Books Page
Waer by Meg Caddy- Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails
The Secret of the Blue Trunk by Lise Dion- the Indextrious Reader

Did you write about one of these books recently? I have lost part of my list of links. Was able to remember whose blogs I saw most of these books on, but not all. They're from the past month and a half. I like to link to the source of interest (your blogs!) so that I remember what first caught my eye about any particular book, and link to your review if and when I finally read the book myself... If it was on your blog, do let me know and I'll update this post.

I figured them out, thanks!

Sep 9, 2016

The Magic Circle

by Donna Jo Napoli

I often enjoy re-tellings of fairy tales that have some new twist to them, or that tell it from the villain's point of view, like this one. It's the story of a midwife in a small village, a medieval setting as far as I could tell. She has a weakness for beautiful things, jewels in particular, but can rarely afford them. Which desire enables a manipulative neighbor to push her into seeking new skills of healing. This didn't mean using herbal remedies, but driving devils and evil spirits out of ill people. One mistake lets her fall into the clutches of the devils, and to flee their influence (voices in her head demanding that she eat a child she has just healed) she runs away to a remote forest, where by keeping her house meticulously clean (because spiders and other small creatures have eyes that spy for the devils) and shielded with homemade candies (not sure of the significance of this part, it might have just been nostalgia) she stays free of their controlling influence for years. Until two lost, starving children come across her sweet-bedecked house. Their names are Hansel and Gretel.

This story did not unfold the way I expected it to, and I enjoyed that. Some of the intuitive actions the midwife made while trying to heal people surprised me, I wondered if a person in her position would really have guessed at such measures. But no matter. It's the kind of intense, thought-provoking story you can read in one sitting. And the ending makes you want to cry.

Some parts of the story reminded me a lot of Barbara Hambly's Dragonshadow.

Rating: 3/5       118 pages, 1993

more opinions:
Reading Rants

Sep 8, 2016

Seaglass Summer

by Anjali Banerjee

I liked this book. It's about an eleven-year-old girl who goes to spend the summer with her uncle on Nisqually Island, which is off the coast of Washington state (where I grew up). Poppy Ray is excited to visit her uncle because he's a veterinarian, and she's always wanted to be one too. She is determined to help out at his clinic, even brings along her own instrument kit. But work at the clinic is harder than she thought- prickly clients to please, messes to clean up, creepy specimens in jars the tech's son shows her. She feels queasy watching her uncle do wound care and is emotionally shaken when an older, ailing pet is brought in to be put down. Poppy starts to wonder if she really wants to be a veterinarian after all.

The story is really well-told, author Banerjee has a nice voice authentic to a pre-teen's concerns and snarky remarks on things that don't seem right to her. I was glad that the story wasn't all completely focused on the vet clinic- there are walks on the beach, troublesome moments between Poppy Ray and the boy at the clinic (he teases her at first, then starts to befriend her, then puts her down in front of other kids...) and an interesting character in one of the clients, a woman who claims to be a clairvoyant, wants to give Poppy a palm reading and some advice on her life's path. Poppy isn't so sure about all that. She has some growing up to do, and comes to realize that, just as her uncle tells her, the wonderful moments in veterinary work- saving injured animals, helping at the birth of some puppies, etc- make up for the difficult ones.

I only wish there had been more pictures. The few pencil drawings that front the chapters - one shown on a simpler cover version I found- have a lot of charm and I would have liked to see more of them. Also one small annoying detail threw me off. I really liked all the descriptions of riding the ferry, whale-watching for orca pods and other details that place the story in a locale I know well. But quite a number of the characters call Poppy "hon" or "honey." I never heard anyone use that term, growing up. It took some getting used to when I moved to the east coast and heard people calling my then-toddler (or myself!) "hon". It's just an east coast thing, am I right?

Rating: 3/5      170 pages, 2010

more opinions:
Book Bits
Mother Reader

Sep 6, 2016

There's an Owl in the Shower

by Jean Craighead George

Another middle-grade level book. I borrowed this one up from the library, saw it next to Julie of the Wolves on the shelf. It's about a kid whose father is a logger in the Northwest. He looses his job because of spotted owls, when they are declared an endangered species. Full of anger, the kid goes out to shoot a spotted owl, but instead rescues a young owlet that has fallen from its nest. He takes it home (thinking it is a barred owl- it doesn't have adult markings yet) and his family begins raising the owl. They don't quite know how to feed it at first but the daughter learns how to take care of raptors from one of her teachers- who also happens to be into falconry and who once got into a heated altercation with her father. Which resulted in a threat of a fine or jail time. The father decides he will care for the owl and take it with him to court, to soften the judge's heart and show all the environmentalists that he can be kind to owls (as long as they aren't the spotted owl). There's quite a bit of irony in that his daughter is learning about raptor care from the guy who got him in trouble, and also that he's really harboring a spotted owl. It all comes to a nice, tidy conclusion.

While there is a lot of information packed into the story about how baby owls grow, what they eat, how they behave, etc. most of it felt a little forced. Lots of characters take it upon themselves to explain it all to others, so the reader can learn. Didn't quite feel smooth. There is also a lot about how the owl is important to the ecology of the forest, what improper logging does to other parts of the ecosystem, how it affects the other wildlife and other people and industries and so on. The most interesting part about the owl is, of course, why it gets in the shower. Other than that, it's kind of dull. There are also a few parts of the story told from the viewpoint of the parent owls in the forest, and that feels pretty slow too.

So it was an okay read, I learned some things, but it wasn't terribly enjoyable.

Rating: 2/5       134 pages, 1995

more opinions:
Buried in Print

Sep 5, 2016

Julie's Wolf Pack

by Jean Craighead George

This sequel to Julie of the Wolves and Julie continues the storyline from the wolves' perspective. There are frequent glimpses of Julie and other people, which informs the reader what is happening with her as well. Also some insight into research with wolves, and efforts made by Julie and wildlife biologists to protect the wolves from a rabies outbreak with vaccines. Disease is not the only challenge in the wolves' lives. The story follows them through several generations, showing how the animals adapt to shifting membership in their pack, to the movements of prey animals and the changing seasons. Some wolves die- young pups acting recklessly from inexperience, older adults running risks to feed their families and conflicts with rival packs at the boundaries. Overall it was a good picture of how wolves live and the concerns they must face in their everyday lives. It also shows the interconnectedness of the various wildlife species and the landscape itself.

It was just a little dry. Lots of the wolves went here and then they went there and then they did this. In the first book I found the author's understatement to be lyrical and fitting for the setting- the people speak in brief sentences and settle their problems quietly. But by the time I got to this third book in the series, the simple writing style and descriptions felt rather boring. However, I'm not the target audience it's written for middle grade readers- so that well could be the reason this one didn't quite captivate me. I'm still glad I read it, though.

Rating: 3/5         192 pages, 1997

Sep 3, 2016

What's Your Favorite Animal?

by Eric Carle, et al

When I saw the cover of this book at the library, I thought it was a story about some crazy made-up composite animal. Nope! It's a bunch of renowned children's illustrators telling what their favorite animal is, and why. Some share little stories about a beloved pet, others about why they like the animal, a few are just a poem or brief description of the animal. There are funny pages and more serious ones. I especially liked the story about the carp that was supposed to be christmas eve dinner, and on another page, appreciation for the snail. I recognized a lot of the artists and thoroughly enjoyed looking at their pictures- Eric Carle, Steven Kellogg, Lane Smith, Mo Willems, etc. My five-year-old has forgotten that we used to read many books by some of these illustrators, so this volume has inspired me to pull some old favorites off our shelves (she's usually going for something new at the library, not repeats).
Rating: 3/5

more opinions:
Waking Brain Cells
Kids' Book Review

Sep 1, 2016

Julie

by Jean Craighead George

This is the sequel to Julie of the Wolves. It should have been a quick read for me but I have just been busy. And I didn't enjoy the story quite as much, so I would put it aside for a day or two and kind of forget about it... It tells what happens when Julie goes back to live in her father's household, in an Inuit settlement. Shows a lot more of the native culture and how they are slowly adapting some modern ways, rejecting others. There are more characters and interactions between people. Julie has a deep conflict to resolve with her father- he is the one who killed the leader of her wolf pack in the prior book, because wolves kill the muskox his village raise for income. Julie is not sure if she wants to live in a place that embraces modern views which threaten the wolves she sees as brothers. But she gets involved helping her father with the muskoxen, slowly becomes friends with his new wife, and finds to her surprise that a young man in the village- from Russia- has fallen in love with her. When the caribou fail to arrive and animals around them suffer in famine, the wolf pack poses a threat to the muskox herd again, and Julie decides she must lead her wolves away in search of other game.

It was a good story, and I certainly learned some things about Inuit and Yupik cultures. Also about the muskox. I didn't realize they were so small! Of course I enjoyed the parts about wolf behavior, but some parts of the story seemed to resolve a little too quickly or easily. I think one of my favorite scenes was when Julie and her father were arguing with some white biologists, about whether a calf carcass they had found was caribou or moose, and if it had been killed by a wolf or a bear. Their reasoning showed a lot of painstaking observation of wildlife behavior.

I was glad of Julie's final decision at the end of the story. If she had gone the way her companion urged her, I would have been disappointed at how easy it was, and unlikely considering they barely knew each other. Appreciated that she had some foresight!

Rating: 3/5      226 pages, 1994

more opinions:
Inkweaver Review
anyone else?

Aug 25, 2016

Julie of the Wolves

by Jean Craighead George

The pains of growing up and culture clash meld into a story of animal communication and survival skills with some beautiful nature writing. No wonder this book is a classic. It is told in three parts, and the first one is about Julie's interactions with a wolf pack, which hooked me from the beginning. In the opening scene Julie, a thirteen-year-old Inuit (or Eskimo as they are called in the book) is lost on the Arctic tundra. She had run away from home, trying to reach the coast where a ship would take her to San Francisco. She ran out of food and in spite of finding ways to hunt and forage, is slowing starving. She comes across a small wolf pack and decides that her only hope is to gain their trust and share their food. Incredible patience and close attention to the subtle ways the wolves communicate allows her to do this. I really loved reading about how Julie integrated herself into the wolf pack, and how she lived alongside the animals. It felt quite plausible.

The second part of the book is a flashback to Julie's childhood, which tells how she got into her present predicament. Her father, a great hunter who taught her many traditional skills, disappears one day on a trip and is presumed dead. She is forced to move away and live with an aunt who only seems to want Julie in her household as a source of free labor. Julie escapes this situation via an arranged marriage to an Inuit boy, but this new home is also insufferable. Having run away, got lost in the wilderness and found ways to survive, Julie (whose Eskimo name is Miyax) gradually discovers that she loves living close to the land, that she has a deep appreciation for nature and finds satisfaction in using her skills (not without some major challenges, though). When she finally reaches populated areas again, she's no longer sure if she wants to live among men. Her value system is different now. She directly sees the threat modern man poses to her wolves (who follow along towards the village). And when she makes contact with people, she discovers that far more has changed than her own perceptions. I really felt like the ending was too quick, and I had forgotten what sad notes it contained.

But it does make me more eager to pick up the second book and see where the story goes. Julie of the Wolves was a re-read for me. I'm not sure if I read the sequel before. I have a dim memory of abandoning it, but will see how much is familiar.

Rating: 4/5        170 pages, 1972

more opinions:
Inkweaver Review
Rhapsody in Books
Smart Bitches Trashy Books
Skipping Along

Aug 22, 2016

Because of Winn-Dixie

by Kate DiCamillo

This is a really gentle, sweet story about a girl who lives in a trailer park in southern Florida. She's recently moved there with her father, the local preacher, and struggles to make friends. Until she spontaneously adopts a large, ugly dog that's causing trouble in the grocery store. She promptly names him Winn-Dixie and takes him home. The homely, friendly mutt makes his way into everyone's heart, his unassuming nature opening things up for our young protagonist. With Winn-Dixie at her side she starts meeting new people, from all walks of life. She lands a job in the pet shop. She gets her father to tell her more about her mother, who left them when she was only three. She discovers that Winn-Dixie also has his flaws, he needs her understanding and patience too. By the end of the story she's made friends among other children in the town, two older women and a man who usually keeps to himself (rumors say he's a criminal and local kids call him retarded, but neither is true). The voices of the children sound authentic- sassy, confused or insightful as the occasion calls for it. The bits about the library are nice, and the stories the elderly women share. It shows something of how everyone has pain in their lives, but together those moments can be overcome. I liked this story. It's heartwarming and kind.

Rating: 3/5         185 pages, 2000

more opinions:
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On
The Novel World
the Cheap Reader

Aug 21, 2016

A Dog on His Own

by Mary Jane Auch

I was looking for some light reads, gathering up a handful of J fiction titles that have been on my TBR list for some time. Saw this one just sitting on the library shelf. It's aimed at a young audience- eight to ten-year-olds- but was a nice surprise. I found it a quick, enjoyable read and a pretty good story.

K-10 the dog has had a string of different owners and been in and out of animal shelters several times. He thinks he knows the ropes and is done with humans. He wants to make it on his own and enjoy the freedom of street life. After escaping from his latest encounter with animal control people, he is on the run with a few canine pals. But finds out that his street smarts don't quite cut it, and moreover he needs to learn how to choose his friends. After a series of adventures and mishaps, K-10 figures out who his true friends are, that it's okay to admit you need others, and humans might not be so bad after all. It's a well-told story with believable characters- the animal voices work in this case. It has funny parts, some touching and sad moments, and a lot of good lessons on friendship, loyalty and reserving judgement until you actually know someone. There was only one moment where I frowned at a too-convenient plot device, otherwise pretty darn good.

Rating: 3/5          153 pages, 2008

Aug 19, 2016

Aug 14, 2016

Yosemite

An American Treasure
by Kenneth Brower

Of all the National Geographic books I have, this one was the best. The writing is great. It's not as much about wildlife, but what there is of course I loved. Intriguing little snippets that throw exquisite details at me in a few sentences and make me want to go read more right away- for example about how gophers' winter snow leave soil deposits behind that in the spring look like giant worm castings- or so the author imagined as a child. He grew up in the park, his family having been closely tied to it for several generations. His great-grandfather was a contemporary of John Muir and in fact actively opposed Muir on many things, which gives lots of interesting insights into park management here.

There are details on all kinds of things. The history of geological formations- including early mistaken concepts about how they came to be. Controversies and different theologies on how wildlife should be managed in the park. Concerns over human use and the impacts of things like roads, campgrounds and the like. Issues from early decades, including sheepherding. How trails are designed and cut into the rock- the artistry (or lack) of them. Moutainclimbing, of course. Tree blazing, why it was done and what it indicates. Studies of fauna and flora- lichens, wildflowers, giant sequoias. I didn't realize there were so many various microclimates in Yosemite, that's part of what makes this place amazing. It's also about people. John Muir- lots about him. He was such a key figure in the early park's development. There's a close portrait of a Native American woman who learned the art of basketweaving, which plant fibers she gathers in the park, the reasons for their particular uses. Ansel Adams!! I loved that there was a whole chapter about artists who have visited the park, and what they created.

I think it's rather sad I could not find a single other review of this book online. Not on LibraryThing, or even Amzn. It's a book well worth reading. The pictures are stunning.

Rating: 4/5      200 pages, 1990

Aug 10, 2016

Yellowstone Country

the Enduring Wonder
by Seymour L. Fishbien

This is a National Geographic publication. It's about the lands encompassing the greater Yellowstone ecosystem- including Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park and the surrounding forests and ranchlands. It's about the wildlife and park visitors, land use management and research programs. Several studies are mentioned- of bison and elk herds, of the timing of individual geysers, of the aftermath of wildfire. Some of the info here was really familiar, as I had already come across it in the book on wildlife refuges and in Summer of Fire. There's lots about the fantastic geothermal features that make Yellowstone famous (quotes from early explorers and visitors make it clear they found it a frightening and "hellish" place). And about debates over certain park features- where campgrounds should be located, how much development should be allowed, how to manage problematic bears and congested traffic, etc. It's clear that the nearby wedge of Grand Teton Nat'l Park has more commercial aspects- but it also has majestic peaks and there's a nice segment in there about mountain climbing, from the author's personal experience in the Tetons. Overall it's a good read describing a wide range of features, and issues faced by park management. And highlighting the awesome beauties of nature found there. Lots of photographs and they are very nice. Many of the landscapes are just stunning.

Rating: 3/5     200 pages, 1989

Aug 9, 2016

Majestic Island Worlds

by Leslie Allen, et al

The other authors of this book are Ron Fisher, Thomas O'Neill, Cynthia Ramsay, Tom Melham and Christine Eckstrom Lee. So it's a travel kind of book describing islands. Japan, the Galapagos, Bali, Ireland, New Zealand and the Seychelles. The writing is a bit uneven- I liked the voice of several of the authors, others were dull. My favorite chapter was the one about the Galapagos, it mentions lots of animal encounters. Did you know a few of the Galapagos Islands are inhabited? I didn't. Each chapter kind of has a different focus: the one about Bali tells a lot about religion, ceremony and culture. The one about New Zealand is mostly about its geography and how much the people there love the outdoors. The chapter on Ireland has a touching story about the author finding some long-lost relatives.  The photographs are lovely throughout.  But near the end of the book my attention was seriously waning.  I just don't know if I'll ever read it again.

Rating: 3/5       200 pages, 1987

Aug 8, 2016

America's Wild Woodlands

edited by Donald J. Crump, et al.

I'm going through my National Geographic books. This one has numerous authors. It is, just as the title describes, a description of the various types of forests that cover North America. The chapters are about visits to different national parks and refuges, each encompassing a particular type of habitat. While the refuge book told me a lot about animals, this one is mostly focused on plants. Names of plants abound, their different communities and what makes them thrive and how people are managing woodlands to keep certain species from disappearing. There's frequent mention of harvesting methods, selective logging and thinning of trees, concerns about how to manage fires (which can be rejuvenating) and over other negative influences on forestland: insect infestations, tree diseases, acid rain. It reminds me a lot of Thoreau's Faith in a Seed, but this book is actually drier reading. Thankfully the text is brief, makes its point, and the pictures are numerous. Photographs are very nice and the illustrations by Alan Singer are exquisite in their tidy detail.
Disappointingly, only the cover illustration (hidden by the jacket) includes a bird, all the others show identifying tree foliage.

Rating: 2/5      200 pages, 1985

Aug 7, 2016

The Other Wind

by Ursula K. LeGuin

I loved LeGuin's books of Earthsea as a teen. I was ecstatic when years after reading the original trilogy I came across her collection of short stories set in the same world, and much later, the fourth book Tehanu. A number of years back when I heard The Other Wind was published, I was so eager to read it, but  somehow never got around to it until now.

Now Ged is an old man. He used to be Archmage but those powers have left him and he lives on his mountaintop on Gont, keeping goats and tending a garden. A young sorcerer comes to him, a man whose skill is mending things- broken pots and fences, the like. His beloved wife had died and he is harrowed by dreams where he stands at a low wall, his wife reaching to him across it from the dry land. The dreams become more distressing, with other dead figures troubling him until he can no longer sleep and frightens those around him- shouting in the dark at nightmares. He comes to Ged for help but the old man points him to Roke- he senses that these dreams show a significant change coming to their world, something gone wrong in the basic order of things. The young man's journey takes him to the center of their world, where me meets Tehanu the burnt girl, a foreign princess offered in political marraige, and the young king himself. I had forgotten how much I liked Lebannen's character, even though when I first met him in an earlier book I thought he was something of a brat! There are delicate relationships between the characters, strangers and friends, foriegners and those familiar to us. I had forgotten than in this world, some people exist who are really dragons, and some dragons can take human form. The depth LeGuin goes to exploring the foundations of her island world explains why that is so. It's very satisfying in that regard, and I liked that her final version of the distinction between life and death wasn't the expected one, that it took into consideration the ancient tales and superstitions of her foreign, 'barbaric' characters as well. It's very good at looking at how opposing cultures view each other. Most of all, this is a story about the relationship between life and death.

It was a good read, but somehow did not touch me vividly as the earlier books have done. LeGuin is a master of understatement- when I was a kid this let my imagination free to fill in the gaps, to invent all the details. Now I find it just a little bit flat. I was more interested in the ideas presented, than the characters themselves. I admit I had a sudden throb of nostalgia when I first opened the book and saw the map. How I remember poring over that map as a younger reader, following the characters on their journeys between the islands, imagining the different peoples and customs on each. A lot of it came back, reading this final novel. I have a borrowed library copy in hand, but will have to get another to add to my own collection, just to have this series complete.

Rating: 3/5      273 pages, 2001

more opinions:
have you written about this book? let me know and I'll link to your post

Aug 3, 2016

Wild Lands for Wildlife

America's National Refuges
by Noel Grove

This National Geographic book is about the National Wildlife Refuges. When it was written there were about 400 of them, in almost every sate. They are areas set aside specifically for wildlife- not recreation or sightseeing. Yet many allow visitors- hiking, limited hunting, even camping. Although a few- Alaska a pointed example- have vast areas of wilderness untouched by man, most of them are closely managed with areas periodically burned to restore certain plant species, or farmland strictly monitored to leave stubble for migrating waterfowl to forage in or work done to restore depleted wetlands. The book describes numerous refuges that the author visited, and tells descriptive stories about the various, sometimes conflicting ways they are run (quite individually, it turns out). Some of the reading is a bit dry, when it veers into politics and management details, but most of it interested me- the layout of the land, its purpose, the animals it strives to protect. There are passages about Florida Key deer, whooping cranes, bison, ruffed grouse, tule elk, longhorn cattle, alligators and more. There are stories of mistakes, pollution, overhunting, battles over land rights and efforts to educate the public. There are stories of success- wildlife multiplying and returning to lands they had forsaken. There is the comeback of bald eagles and peregrine falcons, the questionable future of Hawaiian monk seals. Wolves are barely mentioned as they had not yet been introduced back into the lower '48. Photographs are by Bates Littlehales. They're very good, crisp and vivid.

The book is divided into five sections by the different habitat types and areas: prairies, coastal lands and islands, Eastern forests, the interior West, Alaska. Mostly graced by pictures, but the text is a decent portion too.

Rating: 3/5        208 pages, 1984

Aug 2, 2016

This Good Earth

edited by Les Line

I didn't realize it until I actually started reading, but this large format, photo-heavy book features articles from past years of the Audubon magazine. It has a brief outline of the publication's origins and history, especially highlighting the efforts made to save birds from millinery interests in the 1800's. Least you think Audubon is only about bird conservation, the essays cover a wide range of subjects celebrating natural wonders and wildlife (mostly in North America). Including: the formation of fossils, lava flows on Hawaii, how wind shapes coral sand dunes in southern Utah, tortoises on Isabela Island, views from a fire lookout peak in Idaho, the persistence of ice, the beauty of life that thrives in cold-water oceans, patterns weathered in rock by wind and water at Point Lobos, and a broad picture of Alaska.

You know me- my favorite chapters were those featuring wildlife. The longest one is about osprey, and had a lot to do with their decline- this book was published just after DDT was banned and it speculates on the role of pesticides in weakening raptors' eggshells, but had no solid conclusions. It mentions numerous other things that contributed to falling numbers of osprey and other birds of prey (I always though ospery were solitary birds; learned here that they sometimes nest in colonies of several dozen adult pairs.) I enjoyed the essays on tallgrass prairie, chaparral forests and a marsh locked in winter's chill- very well-written and descriptive of environments I'm not too familiar with. There is an interesting chapter by Hal Borland on the names of wildflowers and herbs- just as much about wordplay and nomenclature as it is about nature. The article on bighorn sheep was too short- I wanted more! Another on lichens was really intriguing. Some of the articles however, did not hold my interest.

Funny thing is, I wasn't paying much attention to who the authors were until browsing the credits at the end of the book I noticed Peter Matthiessen among them. This is an author I've always felt like I should like but the few times I've tried reading his books I couldn't get through them. And one of the few articles in this volume that I skipped over was also by him- it describes an arduous hike down a volcanic slope in Hawaii. I guess his writing is just not for me.

The photographs are nice but not spectacular, mostly because they show their age.

Rating: 3/5         256 pages, 1974