Jul 20, 2017

Unlikely Loves

by Jennifer S. Holland

Sometimes when life is so busy you need a light, comforting read that's easy to dip in and out of. This book was perfect for that, cute and heartwarming. It's a collection of brief accounts featuring various animals that formed a bond with another species. A goat and a dog, great dane and a fawn, rhino and warthog, donkey and sheep, horse and dog, mother dog adopts kittens and so on. There are orphaned animals tucked into another litter- a piglet among rottweilers, for example. And others more unusual: a turtle who like to hang out with puppies. A miniature pony who befriended a capybara. A dog who liked his owner's snake. Some of the ones I found really endearing were the dalmatian who was attached to a spotted lamb, a hen who took it upon herself to babysit puppies, an otter who was rehabilitated among badger cubs, a disabled macaque who was given a rabbit and guinea pig for companions. But a few of the stories include humans- a boy who visited a field of marmots and they were friendly to him, a guy who flew a lightweight aircraft with his golden eagle, a young woman who helped nurse a moose calf, which never forgot her. And there's one about two lionesses- doesn't really fit with the theme. Overall, nice little stories. Most of which you can find online if you look- I'd seen the one of the cat and the owl before, and I looked up the one about a disfigured dolphin that appeared to be living with sperm whales.

The title is rather familiar- I think once before I picked up the precursor Unlikely Friendships but didn't find it interesting enough to really read. And I was a bit surprised to find another title in this now-apparent series with a focus on dogs, that had a tiny trademark-circled R after the title. Really? I don't know why but that irritates me.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5       224 pages, 2013

Jul 12, 2017

The Narrow Edge

A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab and an Epic Journey
by Deborah Cramer

It's about a small shorebird, the red knot. Mostly this bird feeds on small clams, but during its migration it makes a stopover on one particular beach in Delaware Bay to feed on the eggs of spawning horseshoe crabs. The author saw the birds and horseshoe crabs on a beach near her home and became intrigued by this close interaction of two species. The knots are dependent on the crab eggs to make it to their summer home and breed. Cramer undertook a project to follow the knots on their entire annual migration. She started in southern Chile and made stops all along two continents to observe the birds on their journey, all the way up into the Arctic. Met a wide variety of people who work with conservation efforts to save the red knots and other shorebirds, and found a vast difference in environmental conditions in each location. Like many other birds, knots are facing population decline, mostly caused by people of course. Lots of varying factors for this, most of which the general public seems unaware. After all the birds are small, and seldom seen in large, impressive numbers anymore.

Well, I really wanted to like this book. It has a lot of information, the kind I usually particularly enjoy. But something about the constant introduction of new names, places, details, scientific terms- I kept loosing attention. I think it's just me, this time. I want to come back to this one someday when I have better focus.

Borrowed from the public library.

Abandoned          293 pages, 2015

Jul 2, 2017


An Adventure into the Heart of America's Family Farms
by Richard Horan

This guy travelled around the country visiting small family farms to help with the harvesting of crops, and then wrote a book about it. I really liked the concept, and I appreciated learning a little about what goes into the production of certain crops, but overall the book left me feeling dissatisfied and a little irritated, and I skimmed some sections, especially getting near the end. The author worked with these crops in the following states: turkey red wheat in Kansas; green beans, potatoes and squash in Michigan; blueberries in New York, tomatoes and sundry in Massachusetts, raspberries and Brussels sprouts in Ohio, wild rice in Michigan, cranberries at a bog in Massachusetts, potatoes in Maine, walnuts in California. He also visited a winery in California, but didn't actually pick grapes. In each chapter, for each locale, he describes his experience, the people he met, how the operations are run, and a bit about the philosophy or history of the farm (however much the owner and/or their family would share).

I liked reading about the farms and the food they grow, but the author shares a bit too much about his personal politics and even though for the most part I agree with his stance, I didn't like it. He kept quoting books and authors and mentioning stuff in little footnotes but the way they were included here felt awkward. The chapter about visiting San Francisco was entirely unnecessary and felt uncomfortable. The way he talks about people sometimes confused me- if I was that person, I might be embarrassed let's say. There's just too much stuff on an unnecessarily personal level, or him poking fun at things and making jokes I don't find amusing at all, it just makes me want to skip the page. Disappointingly, the one chapter I was most curious to read, about harvesting wild rice, was the most unintelligible. Most of it was in an entirely different voice, as if imitating the style of a Native American storyteller, with so many Chippewa words interspersed it kept jarring me out of the narrative entirely. I didn't get it. On the whole it all felt a little bit off.

Rating: 2/5         300 pages, 2012

Jul 1, 2017

Bunny Drop

Volume 1
by Yumi Unita

I admit I picked this one up to make sure my twelve-year-old wasn't reading anything too objectionable, as I've noticed that manga can sometimes have very mature or explicit content, let's say. And flipping through this one I saw one illustration showing a young girl in the bath with a grown man, so I wondered and sat down to read it myself.

Turns out it was innocent, and the story is an interesting and sensitive look at the kind of unusual family structure that can easily lead to misunderstandings or judgement from others. The man in that scene is Daikichi, a thirty-year-old bachelor who works hard, enjoys his beer and considers children and women to be "the enemy" - avoid interaction at all costs kind of thing. The six-year-old girl Rin is his aunt. Daikichi finds out when he attends his grandfather's funeral that the old man had a secret love affair with a younger woman, and Rin is his child. The family is all shocked and no-one wants to take in the illegitimate child. They're going to put her in an institution but Daikichi finds himself angered at how casually and judgemental the relatives talk about her and in a fit of compassion he decides to give her a home himself.

This is a huge adjustment. Obviously Daikichi has no idea how to be a parent- what kids will eat, what she needs in everything from comfort to clothing; finding a daycare provider is such a difficult issue he even realizes he may have to reconsider his career path. He comes up with all kinds of questions and goes through internet searches, then starts to make new acquaintances just on behalf of the child. They have to deal with bedwetting and Rin's silent little deceits (he's shocked to find out she lies to him in the simple manner of avoidance all kids use I bet). Daikichi notices that Rin isn't dimwitted or shy as most adults assume when they meet her, but struggling with emotions she can't express. He realizes that no one ever helped her cope with or comprehend what happened when her father (whom she called 'grandpa') died and he has no idea what her past was like. He determines to find out more about her mother, a completely absent figure whom no one in the family has ever met.

The author hooked me pretty effectively with this unlikely pair. And now I want to read more, to see where this story is going and what happens with this child. Happily the manga series has at least ten volumes. Borrowed from the public library. There was one thing that took some getting used to- following the original style of printing in Japanese, the book reads not only back-to-front but right-to-left, which was confusing at first. You get used to it fairly quickly, though.

Rating 3/5                      208 pages, 2006

One Trick Pony

by Nathan Hale

Graphic novels are fun. The more of them I read, the more I like them. This one I picked up on a whim, browsing shelves. It's a post-apocalyptic tale, neatly told in a steady reveal through the interactions of the characters. So fair warning: there may be spoilers, especially if you want to understand the story gradually as I did, on the first read.

The world is gone to ruin, any kind of technology snatched away by dangerous aliens that have invaded and turned most of Earth into a wasteland. The survivors live in small bands, reverted to a stone-age lifestyle. Except for one group that lives in a traveling caravan, attempting to find any remnants of technology (computers, robots, films, even small things like watches) before the aliens do and saving it in a vast hoarde of precious knowledge. Which is highly risky of course, as the tech stuff attracts the aliens. Out on a scavenging trip, a group of teens finds a robot pony- something none of them have ever seen before. The girl Strata is so intrigued by the pony, she's determined to take it back with them. Which of course attracts the aliens, and lands them in a fast-paced adventure that leads to a greater understanding of what the aliens actually are and why they are there.

It was great. The worldbuilding (very well done in such a brief book), the banter between the characters, the pony especially and how its limited specialized functions (as a robot) led so very neatly to its final role in the story. I liked the artwork, although there were a few illustrations where the legs look weird (upper leg above the elbow too long).

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5                   128 pages, 2017

Jun 30, 2017

Silence of the Songbirds

by Bridget Stutchbury

The author is an avid bird watcher and researcher. Becoming concerned about the gradual decline in songbird numbers across North America, she took a closer look at possible causes, including traveling herself to South American countries where many of our songbirds spend the winter. Her findings present a bleak picture. Most people don't notice if there are fewer birds from year to year, but when the numbers are counted up and compared across a decade or more, the loss is real, and very alarming.

Birds face dangers in their wintering grounds from widespread pesticide use in many countries which have loose regulations or none at all. We're talking hundreds of dead hawks and songbirds found in or near fields of crops right after spraying was done to kill pests like locusts, for example. (And guess what, the birds were there to feed on the insects and they do a pretty good job of control, for no cost at all). Habitat loss is another big one. Here in North America where the birds come to breed, they face difficulties also caused by habitat loss or fragmentation, disorientation during nighttime migration caused by city light pollution, collision with towers or power lines, predation by housecats and the parasitism of cowbirds.

While examining all these issues in depth, the author describes lots of interesting details about things like how exactly birds use different habitats (why small, fragmented pieces of forest are not favorable), how their diet changes when they live in different areas, interactions with other bird species in mixed flocks, mating behaviors, what happens to them on the migration route, what makes cowbirds more or less likely to affect a population and more and more. Just the kind of book I really enjoy, even if the end message is rather dismal. Hopeful though, as it points out why buying organic or local produce and shade-grown or sustainable coffee can make a huge difference for the little songbirds. Also their importance in the overall ecosystem- although they are not as well-know for pollination as bees, they do a surprising lot of it, also spreading seed of certain kinds of plants, and vast amounts of insect control. Not to mention they are beautiful.

The chapter headings are illustrated by none other than Julie Zickefoose. Borrowed this one from the public library.

Rating: 4/5           255 pages, 2007

Jun 25, 2017

The Thing with Feathers

the Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human
by Noah Strycker

Another book about bird behavior, and this one was both fascinating and engaging. A field researcher with a focus on birds, Strycker's musings and hypothesis are based both on his personal observations and the work of other scientists (notes in the appendix are pretty thorough, adding to my list of want-to-reads). He delves into the lives of many species, including starlings, wrens, mockingbirds, penguins, hummingbirds, snowy owls, parrots, bower birds, albatrosses, pigeons, chickens and turkey vultures. The subjects covered in detail include birds' abilities with spatial memory, long-distance navigation, flocking behavior, social orders, habitat dispersion, courtship displays, self-recognition, musical acuity, aggression, pair-bonding and altruism.

I learned a surprising amount of new stuff. Lots of detail about why hummingbirds are so vicious to each other, and how huge flocks of starlings stay cohesive. I had never heard of the Boids program before, and viewing some demos of that was really cool. I didn't know that turkey vultures have a highly developed sense of smell- I though no birds did- but apparently the erroneous notion that they don't was originally based on another vulture species that lacks that sense. I didn't know that penguins fear the dark. Or that bower birds create optical illusions with their structures- while keeping in mind the viewpoint of the female who will judge them! Really intriguing stuff, with a lot of side notes and looks at relevant human behavior as well. Definitely going to look for more books by this author.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5          288 pages, 2014

Jun 24, 2017

Welcome to Subirdia

by John M. Marzluff

This book is about how bird populations change when forestland is converted into suburbs. Cities proper tend to have five ubiquitous bird species living in them, no matter where you are in the world: European starlings, Canada geese, house sparrows, rock pigeons and mallard ducks. But to the author's surprise, suburbs tend to have a much larger variety of bird species living in them than the original forest ever did. He conducted a lot of detailed studies to find out exactly which species were present where, how their territories shifted as developments were built, and what contributed to their success. The results show that a surprising number of birds can adapt to and tolerate living in man-made environments, others outright exploiting the human resources. Many more, with a little consideration from people, will do just fine.

You'd think I would really like this book. I found the premise of it really interesting, but for some reason it was dull reading. I couldn't pinpoint just why the writing style came across as stiff and dry to me, but after three times trying to get through a chapter and instead feeling bored, I gave up. It's going back to the library.

Abandoned               303 pages, 2014

Jun 23, 2017

Arctic Fox

Life at the Top of the World
by Garry Hamilton

This oversized, beautiful book is all about arctic foxes. Their evolution, distribution, history of encounters with mankind and most of all, how they manage to survive in one of the most hostile environments on earth. They are amazingly adaptable, switching modes from hunter to forager to scavenger depending on the opportunities for food. Well-known for shadowing polar bears for scraps, but some even even hunt seal pups on their own. They can thrive near human settlement- taking shelter in idle construction equipment and feeding at dumps - or in the farthest off-shore reaches of the polar ice, where there appears to be no other life around. Some stay in a closely-defined territory, others roam vast distances. They even have flexible family groups- any combination you can imagine, from a single pair with pups to communal living or even, in one case, a pair that split up (litters can be large in boom times), the male raising half the pups at one den and the female the rest of the young at another. I had no idea that arctic foxes use the same dens year after year, gradually expanding them. Some have over a hundred entrances, extend over more area than a football field, and are judged to be centuries old (reminds me of European badges in that sense). The book relates a lot about other wildlife the foxes interact with or depend on- geese and seabirds, seals, bears, caribou, hares and of course the lemmings. Also much about the landscape and how it changes.

You might think, like me, that the foxes are endearingly cute, but what I came away with most from this book is that they are incredibly tough. Appear to be completely impervious to the cold. The results of a study done by some scientists to test mammals' ability to endure cold still boggles my mind when I read the details. As a base for comparison, they tested a number of animals to see at what point they would begin to shiver, using extra energy to maintain body temperature. One of the hardiest tropical mammals, the coati, shivers at 68 degrees. Among arctic animals, lemmings reach this point at 53 degrees and polar bear cubs at 32 degrees. The arctic fox? It didn't shiver until the temperature was dropped to -94 degrees and even then only after a full hour of exposure! I am not kidding, that's what the book says. At an incredible low of -112 degrees the fox continued to endure, shivering continually, but still maintained its body temperature for a full hour. I think the scientists decided not to push it further. Amazing animals.

Great book. And the photographs by Norbert Rosing are fantastic. Borrowed this one from the public library

Rating: 4/5          231 pages, 2008

Jun 21, 2017

The Bluebird Effect

Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds
by Julie Zickefoose

A lifelong bird-watcher and rehabilitator, Zickefoose shares some of her intimate experiences with various feathered species. There are backyard birds she feeds and sees up close, and quite a few injured or orphaned songbirds she cared for: chickadees, starlings, Carolina wrens, scarlet tanagers, hummingbirds, titmice, phoebes, sparrows, cardinals, and of course bluebirds. There are heartwarming stories of healed, released birds- some of which seemed to revisit her yard and recognize her much later. There are stories that end sadly, as well. Two sobering tales of wild birds who were unreleasable yet seemed to bear captivity well, so she kept and cared for them into old age- a savannah sparrow for fourteen years, an orchard oriole for seventeen. There are observations of large, wilder birds- an injured turkey vulture found roadside, an osprey nest studied through a season, a ruffed grouse that would follow her on walks in the woods, wild hawks that prey on the very songbirds she feeds; least terns and piping plovers whose nesting sites she worked to protect. There are her eloquent longings for the hope of (anyone) ever sighting an ivory-billed woodpecker,  and her look at the conflicting views over hunting lisences issued for mourning doves and sandhill cranes. She also discusses how feeding birds in the winter months affects their populations. And last of all the most intimate is a chapter about her lifelong commitment to a pet chestnut-fronted macaw.

Through all the varied essays, the close and thoughtful observations come through with both skillful writings and a beautiful artist's touch. I love looking at her detailed sketches and paintings of birds just as much as reading her words. She knows birds so well, and is always seemingly ready to learn more, and share it with those of us who, like me, absorb from the sidelines.

Written before her compilation of the studies on infant bird development, this book contains some of the same material - I instantly recognized the paintings and a few passages - but with broader focus and more circumstantial details, about the people who brought her orphans, for example. It didn't feel like repeated material, but added richness.

Rating: 4/5       355 pages, 2012

Jun 20, 2017

The Moon and Sixpence

by W. Somerset Maugham

 * * * warning there are spoilers here * * *

It is a highly fictionalized account of the life of Paul Gauguin; in this novel the character of the artist is named Charles Strickland. It is told through the eyes of a bystander, a man who happens to meet Strickland's wife at a dinner party and later becomes curious about the man's character and becomes a close acquaintance. I wouldn't say friend, as he never liked the man, who had a blatant lack of regard for other people's feelings. In this story, Strickland suddenly leaves his wife and moves to France in order to pursue his art undistracted. The narrator encounters him again through the friendship of another artist- a simple, trusting man who admires Strickland's then-unrecognized genius. When Strickland, often destitute, falls seriously ill, this other artist takes him in; things happen and the poor man's marriage is destroyed. Strickland leaves- and our narrator (willingly) looses track of him for a while. Later he conveniently happens to meet other men who have had later acquaintance with the artist, and finds out that Strickland went to live in Tahiti, where he lived among the natives, seeking out a primitive idyll. He lived with a young woman who was his unofficial wife, and died in isolation and great suffering from leprosy. All the while, to the very last trying to paint and express some ideal vision from his soul.

While the book has a rather pessimistic view of human nature- at least, as far as the character of Strickland is concerned- it is so well-written I did enjoy it. Being told as a second-hand account, it has a lot of other characters and little side-stories. The writing style and descriptions of life in Paris, reminded me somewhat of George Orwell's work, Down and Out in London and Paris.

It did spur me to look up more about Gauguin, so I learned how many liberties this story actually takes. While a lot of it is roughly true to case, he didn't, for example, leave his wife in the way described. He did have quite a number of sales during his artistic career, had a dealer, didn't die in complete obscurity - nor of leprosy- and lived on a few south sea islands in succession, not just Tahiti. He had a different, young "wife" at each tropical locale- quite arguably the man was a pedophile. One of the scenes in the book which I found most moving, where he painted the entire walls of his house in a mural considered a masterpiece, and then his young wife burned it to the ground at his request after his death, was completely fabricated. I did wish more of the story covered his life in the tropics- that was such a short segment at the end of the novel.

The idea of a man driven to express something, having no desire for anything but to paint, and forsaking everything in his comfortable life to pick this up at age forty, facing the ridicule of those in polite society around him- well, there is something admirable in that. I know what it is like to be enthralled by the act of creation with your hands, even if the resulting product is not so great- to want to keep doing it just because you feel so alive when you do.

Does anyone know what the title refers to? I could not quite figure that out. I'm now curious to read a travelouge Gauguin himself wrote, about his time in Tahiti, called Noa Noa, and perhaps another fiction loosely based on his life by Mario Vargas Llosa, The Way to Paradise.

Borrowed from a family member.

Rating: 4/5

Jun 17, 2017

What Are They Thinking?!

the Straight Facts about the Risk-Taking, Social-Networking, Still-Developing Teen Brain
by Aaron M. White and Scott Swartzwelder

I got this book because of a concerned email from the public school administration (two months ago) sent to make parents aware of the new film Thirteen Reasons Why which was probably going to be popular among curious teens, and why it was so alarming. I haven't read the book or seen the film (nor do I want to), but I've heard about it. I don't think my pre-teen has any interest in it either, but I'm sure she will be exposed to the ideas of peers who have, and it's always best to arm yourself with knowledge. I don't often read self-help or parenting type books, but I went to the library looking for something about how to talk with teenagers about suicide. (My daughter is not suicidal. But I'm sure she will hear other kids talking about it in regards to this film).

The book didn't really give me that, but it was very informative in a different way. It's about how the brains of adolescents are still developing, in ways that make them eager to show off and take risks, short-sighted when it comes to planning, often unable to control strong emotional reactions, easily stressed, and quick to learn new habits which can be lifelong. It goes into a lot of detail about the actual structure of the brain and how connections are being made and how certain behaviors, food intake, sleep patterns and substance use affects the brain during this developmental stage. Alcohol and drug use are particularly scary. In a nutshell, the book discusses: mental health issues, sugar and caffeine, eating disorders, sleep habits (our local school system starts high school latest of all, and now I know why), driving (how the brain learns and manages that multitasking skill, how easily it is distracted, exactly what aspects of teens driving are risky), influences of digital media on the brain, sexuality, exposure to violence and drugs.

That's a lot to take in. The authors are a biological psychologist and a neuropsychologist. They quote a lot of research and studies, but keep it brief and easy to understand. There is not a lot in the way of what-to-do when your kid acts a certain way, or how to talk with them about things- it's more about understanding how their still-developing mind affects their emotional reactions, thought processes, how they learn and make choices- so you get an idea of what's going on and are not taken unawares. It does point out a lot of warning signs: when to recognize your teen is just being a teen going through normal ups and downs, and when they are showing signs of something you need to address (ie a mental health disorder or substance abuse).

On a kind of side note, one little tidbit I found really interesting: in one state the brain goes through while in process of falling asleep, "some people experience hypnagogic hallucinations during this stage, seeing imaginary objects or people in the room." It is common in young children and diminishes with age. So when your kid is frightened at seeing a monster in the corner or thinking of ghosts in the closet- they may actually be experiencing a minor hallucination when on the verge of falling asleep! On another note, I was kind of surprised at how abruptly the chapter on drugs ended. It discussed a lot of substances in succinct detail- telling what they physically do to the brain, how addictive they are, and how dangerous. The part about cocaine didn't mention anything about actual damaging affects to the body. Which I was expecting, because it was included in all the other sections.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5         288 pages, 2013

Jun 5, 2017

Baby Birds

An Artist Looks Into the Nest
by Julie Zickefoose

This is a beautiful, beautiful book. I borrowed it from the library same day as Bird Brain, and have spent all this time reading it (with several renewals), very leisurely to absorb and enjoy as much as possible. The author is a very capable artist, who also happens to be licensed to rehabilitate wild birds. She spends a good amount of time raising orphaned songbirds, and thus had the handling skills to undertake this project.

She decided it would be interesting, and perhaps reveal new knowledge, to paint daily life-sized studies of young birds from hatching through fledging. She accomplished this with seventeen different species, presented in this book- and mentioned in the afterward that she was starting on another, so the project continues! Most of the birds were nesting on her own property, close enough to the house she could view them frequently, or in nesting boxes she monitors closely. Others were nesting near the homes of friends or colleagues, who obligingly took daily photographs for her to use. A few birds were orphans she raised, and in several cases she began studying a nest only to find it empty after a few days- the infant birds killed by parasites, or a predator, or the cold- but fortuitously she received orphans of the same species at about the same growth stage as when she'd left off with the first nest, so could continue the record.

The revelations of these delicate, detailed watercolor and gouache paintings is amazing. I never thought how differently the chicks of various species grow, and I never realized how fast their growth rate is. Some go from helpless, ugly naked hatchling to a bird able to hop and flap among the branches in just ten or twelve days. There are two main reasons for this: getting out of the nest makes the young birds far less vulnerable to predation, and with the quick growth rate, the parents can often raise two or three broods in a season- advantageous when not many make it to adulthood.

I learned so much from this book. Seeing how the babies grow was eye-opening: some develop the feet first, or the wings, depending on what particular skills they need. Some hatch with fluffy down, others completely naked and sprout real feathers sooner. Most are fed high-protein diet of insects by the parents, but some finches eat a purely vegetarian diet (which foils nest parasites whose babies can't live on that- cowbirds, cuckoos) and the mourning dove feeds its young babies crop milk. A few times the author helped the babies out by cleaning the nest when it had mites - they feed on the nestling's blood and it can kill them. But she found that one bird places spider egg cases in its nest- and when the spiders hatch, they eat the mites.

The birds she studied include: carolina wren, eastern bluebird, tree swallow, ruby-throated hummingbird, chimney swift, house sparrow, eastern phoebe, carolina chickadee, european starling, northern cardinal, prothonotary warbler, tufted titmouse, indigo bunting, mourning dove, house finch, house wren and yellow-billed cuckoo. Lovely to read of the daily observations, the growing awareness of the infant birds to their surroundings, the little incidents with raising orphans. There is so much- I can't in any way share all the details- you'd have to read the book! I remember some time ago reading another book that focused on nests of birds, by Joan Dunning, and now I want to borrow that one again so I can compare what I learned from the two.

Rating: 5/5        336 pages, 2016

May 16, 2017

Bird Brain

An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
by Nathan Emery

The term "bird brain" is a complete misnomer, according to this author. Many birds are highly intelligent, having thinking abilities on par with apes in some cases, and using skills and facultie beyond our own, in others. The book is divided into sections exploring how avian intelligence may have evolved, their abilities to navigate long distances and utilize spatial memory, their communication skills, social intelligence, tool use and tool-making, perception of self and more. A lot of the studies in the book were done with birds renowned for their smarts- parrots in some cases, rooks, jays and crows in most. Other studies used chickens and pigeons. The difference in learning things by mimicry rather than trial and error or deduction is pointed out. I was impressed with the aptitude that rooks have for solving problems- usually presented with a task to retrieve food by choosing a correct tool, making a tool or using cooperation. Most surprising (to me) was to find that when presented with the same problems to solve as the rooks, children under five usually failed the test, even up to twelve-year-olds didn't always solve it as quickly. So these birds really are smart. The ways in which scientists studies how well birds can plan for the future was really ingenious. And unlike other books I've read on animal intelligence, this one actually shows maps of the brain, comparing the connections between different brain regions (and their relative sizes) with how similar connections function in humans and other animals.

While the book impressed me with its fascinating information, I was disappointed in the presentation. The chosen photographs and executed illustrations are good quality, but the font type for the main body text is lightweight and a tad small, so it takes some focus; I often found myself physically tired of reading and put the book down to return to later. Also noticed many typos, which became really irritating the further I read. But in all, an impressive volume that overturns ideas of birds as being dim-witted or simple in nature.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5         192 pages, 2016

May 8, 2017

A Lion Among Men

by Gregory Maguire

It's been a long time since I first read Wicked, I picked this one up for something different. It didn't work well for me. It's very- dull. Interesting to see the perspective of how Brr the Cowardly Lion grew up an abandoned lion cub in the wilderness (although that part is way too brief) and how his indecisiveness and misfortune at being in the wrong place at the wrong time earns him the label of a coward. Also there's a subtle examination of the difference between Animals (talking) and animals (mute) and human intelligence- this wasn't in-depth enough for me either. What philosophizing there was often went over my head or seemed to stray far from the point. The characters talk in circles. Far too much of the book consists of this interview between the Lion and Yackle, a elderly crone of a seer who admits to being a quack- it goes back and forth between the two of them telling their past histories, steeped in the politics of Oz as Maguire has imagined it, and the story never really goes anywhere. At least, I couldn't see where. Quit halfway. The details are admirable, the storytelling is too slow. I did like the part with the bears, that was amusing, and with the ghosts- that was interesting (and I usually don't like ghost stories). But the rest, really made my mind wander.

Abandoned      312 pages, 2008

May 5, 2017

In the Herd

A Photographic Journey with the Chincoteague Ponies and Assateague Horses
by Jayne M. Silberman

This gorgeous book about the wild ponies that live on Assateague Island fills in all the gaps I felt with the earlier read. It tells in more detail how the ponies live on the island, their social structure and daily activities. The author, an excellent photographer, followed the ponies into more remote areas of the island and shows them in private moments- napping on the sand, grooming each other- as well as more active images of them running through the surf, stallions fighting, and of course the famous pony penning day. There are more details about that, too- which answered a few questions I had. Mostly I loved looking at the pictures. They are simply beautiful. While the focus in on the horses, there are also some pictures of other wildlife that shares the island habitat, plant life and scenery. Some images are just about texture- pony hair blowing in the wind. It's a real celebration of the beauty of a wild place.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5       162 pages, 2012

May 4, 2017

Chincoteague Ponies

Untold Tails
by Lois Szymanski and Pam Emge

This book caught my eye browsing at the public library a few weeks ago, and I finally got around to enjoying it. It's about the Chincoteague ponies, mostly spotlighting individual ponies and the stories behind their names. Some small incidents or characteristic behaviors that are related give it a bit more storytelling, but really after the brief introduction about where the ponies came from, how they survive on the island and how their population numbers are managed, it's mostly just photographs (and paintings) showing the ponies and pointing out their names and heritage. Very nice to look through.

Side note: for the first time ever I understand why cowbirds leave their eggs in others' nests. The birds followed herds of cattle or migratory bison, feeding on insects stirred up by their hooves. They did not stay in one place long enough to brood the eggs, so somehow evolved the behavior of leaving their eggs for other birds to raise.

Borrowed this book from the public library.

Rating: 3/5      144 pages, 2012

Fish Decks

Seafarers of the North Atlantic
by William McCloskey

This book is about fishermen. Not casual sportsmen but those who ply the ocean for their daily living. It's also partly about the economics of the industry, the history of various regions and how fisheries are managed. Mostly a close, personal look at the men who catch fish for consumers, and what their daily labor is like. It sounds like throughout history, the lot of fishermen has been a hard one, although modern machinery and conveniences have improved a lot of things, they also have a detrimental side...

McCloskey himself really enjoys being on the ocean. He was able to write such detailed, personal depictions of fishermen because he volunteered to go along, pitching his weight with the crew and working alongside them. Thus learning something of the various skills involved (often refrained from, or denied, doing particular tasks aboard that required certain dexterity and practice to avoid spoiling the catch) and earning the respect of the men, who would share stories and explain things to him. He shows the hardships they endure and the freedom they enjoy, and also a bit of local culture, some of which remains unchanged through centuries (in one region the men looked askance at him for eating the skin of his potatoes at meals!)

The areas he visited included New Bedford, Gloucester, the Newfoundland Grand Banks, the coast of Labrador, Chesapeake Bay and Norway. In each region he spent time both among permanent residents of fishing communities (often very isolated) and also transient folk, who were only there during the main season. He went aboard big ocean trawlers that fished in international waters and smaller boats that stayed closer to shore. He helped place seine nets, longlines and dredging equipment. He went tonging for oysters and even accompanied some men on a sealing hunt- one of the few places where the locals met him with deep suspicion- their livelihood seriously threatened by "save the seals" environmentalists who protest the clubbing of seals as being cruel. But McCloskey shows how efficient their methods were, and also the long-reaching impact when sealing was outlawed in many areas- the resulting population boom of seals then impacted fishermen- starving seals tangled their nets far more often than the fish they wanted to catch. There are other parts of the book that show how regulations made by lawmakers often don't work out the way they're supposed to, how fishing methods can be vilified, how the issues of overfishing pressure on the oceans isn't as simple as it seems...

And probably a lot of this has changed in the decades since the book was written. It felt insightful to read it, though. The author writes well, describing places and people vividly, often breaking a laugh from my reading demeanor. Some parts about the fishing rights and international treaties and how catches are measured and so on can be a bit dry, but overall a good read.

Rating: 3/5           307 pages, 1900

Apr 23, 2017

A Zoo in My Luggage

by Gerald Durrell

This short but very entertaining book is about Durrell's return trip to the Cameroons (in Africa), eight years after his first visit. On this occasion he was collecting animals for his own zoo, which didn't have a location yet! The final brief chapters describe the difficulties of getting the animals safely home to England, and finding a site on which to build his zoo (the city didn't want it at first).

Half the book is little stories about the wild animals, much is also about the Fon, a local dignitary Durrell met on his first trip, who greeted his return with enthusiasm- just as much for the nights spent drinking and dancing as for the economic windfall Durrell brought to his country, with his offer to buy as many wild animals as the local people could catch. The character sketches are delightful. Once again the phonetic presentation of the local pidgin dialect can be cringe-worthy, but I had encountered this before and knew what to expect...

Of course my favorite is reading about the animals. The cute bushbabies and infant squirrels, alarming snakes, elusive rare birds. A baboon that caused endless trouble, in particular amusing herself by ambushing visitors and tackling their legs. Two mongooses of very different types and temperaments. A squirrel that has green fur and a red tail- I have read his description of this squirrel before, but never yet able to figure out what species it is or find a picture. Hilarious chapter about his attempts to film wildlife in realistic settings doing normal things- with regular failure: the owl deliberately turns its back on the camera every time, a diminutive antelope only wants to bolt or freeze, a calm episode of filming some rodents gets interrupted by a snake. A doormouse who having tasted the easy life in captivity, refused to leave when it was set free (it had suffered an accident which did no lasting harm but made it unfit for display in Durrell's opinion).

That's the last of my Durrell collection, until I find more of his books.

Rating: 3/5        185 pages, 1960

Apr 16, 2017

Encounters with Animals

by Gerald Durrell

More intriguing stories about experiences with wildlife, by one of my favorite authors. According to the foreward, these brief tales were originally presented as a series of radio talks, and so many people requested a copy of the script that Durrell decided to write them down in a book. Loosely grouped: stories about animals' courtship behavior, rearing and protecting their young, and amusing ways in which their actions remind us of humans. They're kind of scattered- ranging from time in his childhood spent watching insects (most notably a battle between different species of ants), keeping a marmoset as a pet which would crawl into bed with various members of the family in succession every morning (it had trouble staying warm enough) or time spent observing hippos in a river during a collecting trip for a zoo. My favorite was the description of a mother jacana and her brood -a bird in South America that walks across lily pads on the water- trying to evade a single young caiman that lurked in their pond. Also a chapter about the return trip Durrell made on ship bringing animals home- where the captain constantly disparaged the creatures until Durrell claimed he could prove that any invention by man had been used by animals for far longer. Of course Durrell won the bet by describing radar used by bats, electricity produced by electric eels and rays, paralysis (example of drugs?) caused by a spider bite to her prey, and an aqualung created by a spider that lives under water. Funniest part was that Durrell found out later that the captain afterwards would retell these same stories to other passengers to impress them! Behavior of many other animals described: tigers, birds of paradise, praying mantids, spiders, weaver birds, tree porcupine, Père David's deer, an orphaned kangaroo, dwarf mongoose (one I had to look up- he only referred to it by the local name kusimanse), a baby anteater, and a particular whip scorpion which became a beloved pet until he accidentally lost it at sea.

A lot of it felt awfully familiar- I think I've read some of these stories in other books of his, but didn't have the time to page back through them and find out for sure. Enjoyable, regardless.

Rating: 3/5         187 pages, 1958

more opinions: BookNAround

Apr 9, 2017


Maybe you've noticed, I haven't been reading as many books lately. Busy with gardening and transitions in my aquariums and other stuff. What reading I am doing is mostly dipping in and out of magazines- hobby related- so there's that.

I have a happy book moment to tell, though. A month or two ago I wanted to read a book off my TBR shelf about a woman who studied sharks. She was mentioned in this other shark book I'd read. I distinctly remembered getting it at a library sale, and what it looked like. Couldn't find it anywhere on my shelves or the stack on the floor (not organized, but it's not huge, either). Baffled, I searched two or three times. I even looked on my swap shelf downstairs, just in case. And checked my swap site lists online- thinking maybe I'd tried it, given up, put it out for swap and forgotten about it. Nope. I checked my library catalog- still listed as being in my collection, unread.

Finally gave up looking for it.

I just happened to find it today by accident, at the bottom of my backpack (which I don't use very often). I must have stuck it in there as an alternative read for a trip, never opened the book, and forgot it was there when I unpacked later. I'm so glad it's not actually lost or given away! Laughed out loud to hold it in my hands again. Now let's see if it's any good.

Apr 4, 2017

An Entirely Synthetic Fish

How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the World
by Anders Halverson

It's about rainbow trout. How they became so popular among fishermen, how hatcheries evolved to populate the streams and rivers, driven by the revenue brought in by sportsmen who then demanded certain provisions. This is back in the sixties and earlier. Entire watersheds were poisoned to remove "undesirable" fish and restock with rainbow trout. That part was awful to read. A lot of this is about management politics and departmental bickering over policies- sadly no real studies into the situation of fish in the rivers was done until it was too late. By then genetic testing and numbers revealed that most fish had rainbow trout ancestry to some degree- so lots of native fishes aren't in their original form anymore but the offspring of hybrids. In a complete about-face, fish and game departments started removing rainbow trout from the rivers they had once worked so hard to stock- when they realized that native fish and some ecosystems were threatened to disappear (fish and frogs don't mix- some frogs in lakes that had never seen fish until they were artificially stocked almost went extinct). The parts about genetics, fish behavior, wild vs hatchery-raised and even disease outbreaks (whirling disease) were interesting. The parts about how exactly why rainbow trout came to be so esteemed over other "trash" fish, and how certain groups of sportsmen tried to control access to fishing areas- seeing themselves as aristocrats in a way- not so much.

I'm not sure how to rate this book. It's one of those I didn't really read all the way through- skimming large sections that were just dull and reading with more attention the parts that caught my interest. I probably skipped a third of the book. As I knew going into it, the book is more about the history of organizations and people who dealt with the fish than it is about fishes.

Borrowed from the public library.

Abandoned           257 pages, 2010

Mar 27, 2017

Aquaria Fish

Management and Care of the Aquarium and Its Inhabitants
by Frank Lee Tappan

I read this book online. Happened across it when I was searching out treatment for a disease symptom in my fish. The entire text is a google document. I read the section that applied to my situation, then curious about the source of the text since it sounded a bit antiquated, scrolled back to the beginning. It's a short but very thorough treatise on how to care for fish- mainly paradise fish and goldfish. I was immediately interested because I have recently become curious about the paradise fish- reputedly the first tropical fish kept in captivity in the early 1900's. This book details exactly how it was done.

With water drawn from rivers and lakes, using plain glass globes (even back then experienced aquarists deplored these small containers) or aquariums that had frames made of iron or tin. The book describes how to situate an aquarium, how to catch live food for the fishes, how to handle breeding of goldfish and paradise fish, how to manage the temperature (heating water over a fire when needed!) and limited means by which to treat disease. Most of the book details the care of paradise fish. I was impressed that all the basics are the same- take care of the water and the health of the fish will follow. Don't overfeed or overcrowd them. Emphasis on having enough surface area so the fish are not deprived of oxygen. Of course some things were deplorable- water changes once every six months! but other techniques remarkably have changed very little in the past hundred years, as I just found out.

The book also describes how to raise fry, and it sounds just as painstaking back then. With attention to first foods, separating the young when they differ in size, and so forth. It has plans for a greenhouse and tells how to raise fish in outside ponds. The author recommended using frog tadpoles as scavengers to help keep the tank floors clean, and various snails as well (some of which I am familiar with). Also mentions use of live plants, and several other species of fish which were kept in aquariums back then- including bullhead catfish, american perch, a common killifish, shiners, and the famous nine-spined stickleback. Five distinct types of fancy goldfish are shown.

I was really surprised at how much of the information in this book was pertinent. Particularly about keeping fishes in good health, avoiding disturbances to brooding parents or young fry, and the benefits of live foods. The illustrations are few, but marvelous. If I ever found a physical copy of the book to add to my library, I'd consider it a treasure.
Rating: 4/5        97 pages, 1911

Mar 25, 2017

Fish Girl

by Donna Jo Napoli

Mira, called the Fish Girl, is a mermaid, living in a seaside boardwalk attraction. The aquarium is actually pretty cool- it spans three stories of the building, with the windows looking directly into the water column, and the fishes can pass between floors through various openings and tunnels. I really enjoyed the artwork of marine life and showing the internal structure of the building with its hidden passages and machinery. Mira feels like she has always lived here, she doesn't question the story the showman Neptune tells, that he's king of the ocean, controlling the waves and life therein. Mira's part is to flit through the corals and plants, letting visitors catch glimpses of her- enough to pique their interest and bring more business in, but not enough that anyone will see her and reveal that Neptune actually has a real-live mermaid in his exhibit. Until she meets a human girl, who through secret visits on the other side of the glass, becomes her friend. Then Mira begins to question the stories Neptune tells. How did she really get here? Is she a captive? Is there more to life- outside the aquarium, out in the ocean- for her?

I really liked this book. The story uses some familiar ideas about mermaids, but also feels fresh and unique. I like that it was told from the mermaid's point of view, trying to understand the world through the confines of this series of interconnected tanks. Appreciated that the author didn't make it too easy- she couldn't immediately talk to her new human friend, for example (and although she communicates with the fishes, they don't talk back in words). But the ending still had a flourish of magic. I admit I was expecting it to go in one direction which I really would have loved- and instead it went somewhere else at the last moment. That's okay. It's been a while since I read a graphic novel, so having a lot of lovely artwork to immerse myself into was really enjoyable as well.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5        188 pages, 2017

Mar 19, 2017

The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Aquarium Fish and Fish Care

by Mary Bailey and Gina Sandford

I have been slowly reading my way through this aquarium encyclopedia. It is all about fishkeeping (focus on freshwater), so starts off by outlining how to choose fish that suit your aquarium and are good companions. The sections about setup and maintenance tasks have good descriptions and nice, clear pictures showing what to do. Unlike most books the species profiles are all about type. Instead of showing pictures of as many fish as possible with very brief specs, there are descriptions of fish by families which describe their needs, habits, breeding strategies and interesting facts in more depth. The pictures are modest in number but very good quality. What makes it such a great book is that it's quite well-written, you can tell the authors enjoy their aquariums and they make this a nice read (the voice reminded me of Thalassa Cruso). Mine's a later edition, updated 1999.

Rating: 4/5      256 pages, 1995

Mar 13, 2017

A Fox Called Sorrow

by Isobelle Carmody

--- spoiler alert ---

This is the second Little Fur book. I'm not sure why I read it through, except that I was curious about the character of the fox. So- Little Fur the half elf/half troll sets off on another quest to save Nature. She meets with the wise owl and learns that the troll king is planning something terrible, and the owl wants to send spies into the troll kingdom to find out what. There's a hopelessly miserable fox who wants to die but hasn't been able to quench his instinct to live. He comes asking the owl for advice and is told to go on this quest- he can protect the spies (a pair of ferrets) and the mission is so dangerous he will probably give his life doing so, and meet his desire with purpose. Initially Little Fur is not supposed to be part of this expedition, but she feels so much compassion for the fox she volunteers to go along. There's also a rude rat and one of Little Fur's cat friends on the journey. And the crow, for part of it. Once again they cross the human city and then go into the underground maze that is the troll's domain (part of it is train tunnels). It's just as dangerous as they had been warned. It looks like they won't obtain their goal or make it out alive- but all comes right in the end. They'd been warned someone would betray them, but it didn't turn out the way anyone guessed.

Overall, I found it hard to keep my attention on the story- it's just a bit simplistic, written for younger readers, in spite of the serious tone and there's a lot of negative feeling. In this story, it's all nature = good, humans = bad. The cats are suspicious but I like their humor, the rat is snarky, the dogs they meet have been badly mistreated by people, and the fox was just as I expected- deeply scarred and tormented from having been experimented on in a lab. (They also met a monkey near the end. This seemed a more likely animal for such a situation than a fox. Hm). You really think the fox is going to die, but at the very end (literally, nearly the last sentence) he lives. So he must feature in the next book of the series, and I would read that one just for the fox (I liked his character) but I think I won't.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5        245 pages, 2006

Mar 9, 2017

Aquarium Fish Survival Manual

A Complete Guide to Keeping Freshwater and Marine Fish
by Brian Ward

It's another older aquarium book that I picked up at a library sale. Goes through all the basics. There's some illustrations showing how fish bodies function, including one of the best descriptions of how oxygen and blood pass through the gills that I've ever seen. Of course a lot of the info about technology is way out of date. And this one goes into enough detail about saltwater vs. fresh that I believe in my initial assessment: the salt side of the hobby is too darn complicated for me. It has a decent outline of how to incorporate live plants into the aquarium, although the photo gallery of plants was kind of amusing- I could guess they were all taken in a dealer's shop- most of the plants looked very recently stuck into the gravel and the same blurry pictus catfish was repeatedly swimming through the scene! While information about them is brief, the species profiles of freshwater fish were quite extensive, and the majority of photos here good quality. Saltwater section showcased fewer fish, but still very good pictures a real pleasure to look at. The kind of book that keeps me near the computer, to search more information or pictures of different fish varieties (not all species mentioned are shown in the book).

Rating: 3/5        175 pages, 1985

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

by J. K. Rowling

This little book disappointed me. I was surprised at first how short it is. It's presented as a textbook on magical beasts, a copy owned by Harry Potter with his handwritten comments and jokes in the margins. Which were kind of lame. The text itself is too brief to be interesting. It's got more historical background and explanation that actual descriptions of the beasts. Which give less detail than the typical species profiles in my aquarium books! I'm guessing all these creatures are ones mentioned in the Harry Potter books, although I only recognized two-thirds of them. For me, it didn't really do much to add to the wizarding world Rowling created. Not impressed. I guess I'm too old to enjoy this kind of fan publication.

Anybody else read this one? Looking for more opinions online I was unable to find any decent reviews about the book since the film (of the same name but not the same material) is getting so much attention online right now.

Rating: 2/5             42 pages, 2001

Mar 2, 2017

Flight Behavior

by Barbara Kingsolver

I had forgotten how much I love reading this author. Her language is so rich, and precise. She's really got the details of what it's like being stuck at home all day with small children. I almost don't want to tell you what the book is about, because I didn't really know myself going in. So when I read the initial descriptions of the wonder of nature the main character Dellarobia finds in the woods above her family's farm, it was a beautiful puzzle to figure out what she was seeing before she figured it out herself. It's a finely crafted story. Dellarobia lives in rural Appalachia, kind of drifting through life, settling for less. She tends her two small children, chafes under her mother-in-law's criticism, and tolerates her endlessly patient, dull husband. She thinks of herself as stuck in a situation caused by an error made when she was younger- and is deliberately aiming to make another mistake that could ruin it all when she happens upon this wondrous thing up in the mountain. A discovery that might thwart her father-in-law's plans to log the hillside for some desperately-needed income. A discovery that draws strangers to their door- news reporters, sightseers, environmental activists and a scientist who opens her mind to the wider world. It's a story of family and community, of facing facts and changing perceptions. Very much about current issues, particularly climate change. Some might think it really heavy-handed with the environmental message, but I found it a perfect weight. Even though there are several long scenes where Dellarobia hashes out ideas and has long arguments- one with her husband, the other with her best friend- in public while shopping- so there are pages and pages of them going up and down the aisles, weaving their inspection of items on the shelf through their argument. Kind of odd.

And the ending made me sad. I was hoping that the main character would make a different decision, and not reveal it quite so abruptly to her young son... Regardless, I liked the book and it is one that will stick with me. If you want to go into it blind as I did- the first chapter is quite slow in building but worth it I think- then don't read most of the reviews I linked to below. Only the first avoids revealing the actual subject matter.

Rating: 4/5        436 pages, 2012

more opinions:
Book Chatter
Joyfully Retired
Fyrefly's Book Blog
Fifty Books Project
Devourer of Books

Feb 24, 2017

The Dawning of the Day

by Elisabeth Ogilvie

Philippa, a widow with a child to support, moves onto a small island off the coast of Maine to take a position as schoolteacher. The island is a fishing community, and there are only nine children in her class. It's a story of small-town island life, of making a place for herself in a tight-knight community. Of solving issues among the children- boys who skip school, meanness towards some handicapped kids. There's also hints of bitter conflicts among the fishermen over access to lobster grounds (I didn't get that far). And somewhere along the way I discovered it was also a love story. But... it just wasn't engaging me. I found the writing rather dull and the characters uninteresting. Oh well. Another one for Book Mooch. Originally acquired from a library sale.

Abandoned        308 pages, 1954

In Love with Daylight

by Wilfrid Sheed

This author writes very candidly about his experiences dealing with a number of severe illnesses: polio when he was a young teen, depression and addiction, and finally cancer. His whole point seemed to be, not so much about finding inner strength or describing his experiences, but to extol the joys discovered when you finally feel better. That it's worth being sick or unhappy because when the body finally recovers and the light shines again, the feeling of wholesomeness is amazing. At least, that's what I gathered from the introduction and the thirty-odd pages I read. I was curious about the polio episode but it's not actually much about what it's like to live through polio. He writes more about his emotional state of mind, which is intriguing and insightful at first, but so meandering without much grounding in actual events or conversations, that my mind was seriously wandering and I had to pass on this one.

Abandoned           252 pages, 1995

Feb 23, 2017

The Wild Truth

by Carine McCandless

When Carine's brother Chris was found dead in a bus in the Alaskan wilderness, no one in his family expected that his story would become famous. Carine was consulted as one who knew Chris best, when the book and later the film about his experiences were made. She requested that a lot of sensitive information not be shared with the public, to protect her family. But later saw that this led to a wide misrepresentation of why Chris went off into the wilderness. She wrote this book to try and clarify what his motivations were. And I think it was successful- I feel like I myself was a bit too quick to judge when I first encountered his story reading Into the Wild.

Being from her own perspective, of course the book is more about Carine's own life than Chris. It tells of their childhood and moves on- relating how she met Jon Krakauer, her involvement with the film, how she and her siblings reshaped their lives. I was kind of expecting that reading about the sister's life would not be so interesting, but it was. The book is well-written and has a lot of insight; you end up caring about this individual just as much as you felt for Chris and seeing her own struggles and accomplishments is worthwhile reading. It is a story about abuse, violence, and dysfunctional family life. So many stories like this around nowadays it becomes tiresome and distressing to read them. What I appreciate about this one is that you see how Carine and her siblings overcame the difficulties of their past- how they moved on, how they broke the cycle. Met the negativity head on and moved past it. Painful, well told, heartening.

Rating: 3/5       277 pages, 2014

more opinions:
A Bookworm's World
A Bit Bookish

Feb 22, 2017

Little Fur

by Isobelle Carmody

Little Fur is half-elf, half-troll, a sort of guardian of nature. She lives in a grove of ancient trees in the middle of a city, where she listens to the trees and heals injured animals that come to her. Hearing rumors of trees being burned by humans, she sets out to consult a wise owl. The owl sends her on a quest to awaken a source of power living in a deep crevice beyond the cemetery, which can stop the "tree burners". Although she is small and afraid, Little Fur sets off on her journey to cross the strange wasteland that is a human city. At least, that is how it appears to her and her friends- a crow and two cats. Most of the story is about this journey which is full of confusing hazards. Little Fur is a very lovable character, and I liked seeing how she and her animal friends viewed human activities. The animal friends are nicely depicted- cats being cats, one of them doesn't stick through the entire quest- but it was kind of annoying how all the birds except the owl were portrayed as being stupid. Even the crow. Also confusing is how frightened Little Fur is of trolls, even though she is part one herself, and the frequent drawings of sneaky, goblin-looking creatures (I guess those are the trolls) which aren't at all part of the story. I didn't find the way the problem was solved in the end very satisfying, but neither did Little Fur! She knew it was only a temporary solution and realized more must be done. So I guessed there must be a sequel or two, hopefully with more explanation on Little Fur's background, and when I looked pleased to see my library has quite a few of these books. Even though I'm not keeping this one around in my personal collection, I've requested the second one for an easy read. There's a fox in it.

Rating: 3/5    195 pages, 2005

Feb 21, 2017

The Grizzly Maze

Timothy Treadwell's Fatal Obsession with Alaskan Bears
by Nick Jans

I found this book at a library sale. It reminded me of a documentary I saw years ago, featuring a guy who lived among the bears in Alaska. I think it was "Grizzly Man." I remember being impressed by the closeup footage of wild bears (and foxes), puzzled and baffled at the man's rambling commentary. It was obvious he was incredibly passionate and enthusiastic about his work with the bears, but he also appeared a bit mentally unstable to me. At the end of it my companion and I turned to each other and surmised that this guy was probably going to end up killed by a bear.

He was. I read some reports of it online and then forgot about the incident until I found this book. Here journalist Nick Jans writes about Timothy Treadwell's past, his engrossing interest in bears and his thirteen-year long project living among them in the wild. While he took meticulous notes on the bears' behavior and relationships, he wasn't at all scientific about it. He claimed he was there to protect them from poachers (bears in Alaska have stable, high numbers and are statistically not in any danger) and deliberately camped right in the middle of the busiest area where bears gather for food in late summer and fall. He refused to use any devices that would deter bears from approaching, instead trusting that they would sense his love and not harm him. And according to accounts of people who spent time helping him with his film projects, he was adept at reading the grizzlies' body language, knowing when it was safe to approach a bear, or wise to keep a distance from another. But it's clear that he put himself in harm's way and it was only a matter of time.... 

It reminds me quite a bit of Into the Wild (I'm not the only one to make that connection). The longing for a connection to wildlife, yet going into it all relatively unprepared... with a tragic result.

The book includes a lot of interviews with people who knew Treadwell, bear experts, members of the park service who had to deal with him, responders who went to the site when the attack occurred and other people who have strong opinions about what Treadwell was doing. (He spent summers with the bears, and in the winter travelled around giving talks to schoolchildren about bears- some say spreading misinformation- and he had an animal-rights organization called Grizzly People). There's an entire chapter or two of speculation about what actually happened in the moments of the attack. Mostly it's a big question: why did everything lead up to this, and how can we prevent it from happening again. Final chapters detail bear attack statistics (the facts are not what you might expect) and recommendations on what to do if you happen to meet a bear yourself.

A very interesting read and well-written to boot. 

Rating: 3/5       274 pages, 2005

more opinions: Bookfoolery

Feb 18, 2017

Facing the Lion

Growing Up Maasai on the African Savanna
by Joseph Lemasolai Lekuton

This is a firsthand account of growing up in a nomadic Maasai tribe, the Ariaal to be precise. Lemasolai describes what it is like to live in Kenya as a nomadic herder, and learning a bit about Maasai culture was pretty interesting. The customs, gender divisions, hardships, his experience in the initiation ceremony and most of all, the cattle. He talks a lot about cows, and it makes sense, seeing how important they are to the Maasai. There is not much mention of wildlife- avoidance of elephants, a brief but very memorable story about a hyena, a lion hunt where he is desperate to prove his bravery.

The government requires each family to send one child to school. Lemasolai's brother went first, but hated it and ran away from school, so Lemasolai volunteered to go in his place. He had a bit of a culture shock there, being required to wear western-style clothes, learn English and submit to a different form of discipline. While a lot of his story opens your eyes to how different some people live in the world, much of it is universal as well. He wants to make friends and impress them, has to endure teasing, struggles to face a bully, sometimes skips his obligations to play instead. Has to trek miles to go home to his family on vacation time- as they are nomads sometimes they are very far away, there are no roads and once it took him two weeks to get home. I really admired how he held onto his traditions and managed to straddle two cultures, seemingly with ease. He learned as much as he could at school. Catching the attention of the President of Kenya in a soccer game earned him a sponsorship which sent him very far, and eventually he ended up as a teacher himself in the States. Always returning home when he could, taking American students with him to show them to his homeland.

One really amusing incident occurred when he was home for a visit, dressed in traditional clothing and walking with some friends. They encountered a group of European tourists who tried to take advantage of their presumed ignorance. It was hilarious and satisfying when Lemasolai revealed that he'd understood everything the tourists said. Near the end of the book, I found it very touching that he took his mother a gift of fine cattle. He really wanted to show his love and appreciation, and did not give her any modern gadgets or labor-saving devices, but some quality livestock that would improve his family's herd, a thing she could really value. The afterword, written by a man who knew the author in his teaching capacity, is insightful and adds a bit more context to the book.

While the writing style is simple and straightforward, in this case it worked well. It's a book written for younger readers after all- the author wanted to share his story with children. I did wish for a bit more depth and detail, but as it accomplishes what it set out to do admirably, I can't complain.

Rating: 3/5        128 pages, 2003

Feb 17, 2017

Olive's Ocean

by Kevin Henkes

This one didn't work for me. I picked it up on a whim at the library sale- the cover (which seems to feature someone standing at the water's edge near some carp suffering from ammonia burns) intrigued me, plus the flyleaf description which mentioned a shared secret that connected two characters.

The main one is twelve-year-old Martha. She's going on summer vacation with her family, to visit their grandmother at the beach. One of her classmates, Olive, had recently died in an accident on her bicycle. Olive's mother gave Martha a page from her daughter's journal where she'd written that she wished Martha was her friend... Martha wonders a lot about those words. On the vacation she gets to know her grandmother better. She's frequently annoyed at her parents and her older brother, and is often left in charge of her little sister. She finds her feelings changed towards the family of boys next door- one of them pretends to like her in order to play a trick on her. He leads her on enough to get her to kiss him on film, which is hugely embarrassing. Martha wants to become a writer, and wishes to make a nice gesture towards Olive's mother.

But the secret between the two girls... ? It never materialized- either I missed it when I got bored and started skimming, or the flyleaf blurb was erroneous. The writing style felt really dull, and the extreme brevity of the chapters didn't help in this case (some less than a page long). The characters were convincing enough, but the descriptions about them and the events were so bland. I kept expecting more of a connection to come up between Martha and her lost classmate Olive, in fact I read through to the end just to see if there was some big reveal. Nope.

I was really surprised this one got onto a banned books list. Because it has some swear words (I hardly noticed them) and one time the older brother remarks to Martha that their parents' flirtatious behavior in the morning indicates they'd just had sex. That felt oddly out of place, but there was no more to it.

Rating: 1/5      217 pages, 2003

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Feb 16, 2017

Shadows in the Sea

by Harold W. Cormick and Tom Allen
with Captain William E. Young

This is an older, very comprehensive book about sharks and their relatives the skates and rays. I'm glad I read the entire thing because it turned out to be quite interesting, although in the beginning I had some doubts. The first section is about reported shark attacks on humans. Although I could tell the authors were trying to be purely factual the stories still felt rather sensationalist to me, even as they were told in a dry style. Which was odd and after a while kind of boring....

The next section of the book turns the tables, and tells how mankind has waged war upon sharks. In some cases this was literally true- large parties going after individual sharks when an attack happened, men with firearms protecting beaches. There are pages and pages about attempts made to learn what prompts shark attacks (nothing conclusive) and efforts made to create "shark repellent" devices- some of them appeared more-or-less effective and the calculated reasons intriguing.

Next part of the book is a large excerpt taken from Captain William E. Young's ship logs and personal writings. He first started hunting sharks as a young man and continued well into his seventies. Became renowned for his determination, bravery and skill and eventually travelled the world setting up shark fisheries and teaching local people his methods. It was well-written and very interesting although strange to read because views have changed so drastically. When Young was in his heyday, people thought nothing of regularly hauling trash out to dump at sea. Carcasses of horses in particular lured sharks and avid shark hunters would wait in the trash area to ambush them. As sharks seemed infinitely plentiful and were seen as a nuisance for the damage they did to commercial fishing operations, it was completely accepted for men to hunts sharks relentlessly. So many were killed that they tried to come up with ways to use the dead sharks at a profit. Shark meat was sold under other names so people would get over their repugnance at eating them (in the States- in many other countries it was normal to eat shark). Hides were tanned and used as leather. Oil was extracted- shark liver was found to be so high in vitamin A that for a long time it was a regular additive in milk, until vitamin A was synthesized. And so on. Teeth and jawbones sold as curios. And the remainder ground up as fertilizer (or put into animal feed).

There are several chapters on the many ways shark is prepared for eating (many recipes included in an appendix), another on legends regarding sharks, taboos and myths surrounding them.

The final chapters are about the classification, nomenclature and identification of sharks- some of it quite confusing and I am sure a lot of this info is out of date. Quite a few times going to the computer to look up more about a species, only the scientific name would get me an accurate result, the common names having change completely. It might sound like the dullest part of the book, but I liked seeing the wide variety of forms sharks and their cousins take- especially the oddities like hammerheads, thrashers, goblin sharks, and very small species that live in obscure depths. Smallest known shark when this book was written is Etmopterus hillianus which is 12" at maturity. Online you can find pictures of the dwarf lanternshark in someone's hand- they average just over 8". At this publication, approximately 350 shark species were known. Today there are 440 identified.

Well- here's just a few of the things that stood out to me from this reading: tales of huge sharks caught and landed- some larger than the fishing boat itself. A manta ray so big it took twenty-two young men to carry it out of the surf. Picture of a female hammerhead with her twenty-two unborn pups laid out in a row next to the body. I knew that many sharks bear live young; I wasn't aware that some can change the color of their skin to blend in with the ocean floor, others have poisonous spines on their dorsal fins, and a few are bioluminescent. Closeup photos of the denticles in shark skin are simply amazing. Their hides are so abrasive that just rubbing against it will take a person's skin off. In spite of the many tales of horror in this volume, I remain skeptical whether any shark can be really considered a man-eater. While there were many reports of entire animal carcasses or skeletal remains found in sharks- a horse, a sea-lion, another shark etc etc- of humans only one such case was told. Usually it was just an arm, a foot or hand- lending me to believe that sharks tend to bite people and then move on, realizing humans aren't so good to eat...

Not all sharks have to swim constantly to breathe- many species rest on the bottom and use muscles to pump water through their gills- but they do have to swim continually to stay afloat as they don't have a swim bladder (but some are partly kept afloat by the buoyancy of the liver).

I'm curious why sharks have a notch shape on the lower edge of the upper tail lobe- nobody knew back then and today nobody seems to have a clear answer, either.

Some sharks live in freshwater! There are quite a few river species, including one that was very numerous in the Ganges River (now it is critically endangered). There is also a shark that populates Lake Nicaragua. There is a river that connects this large lake to the sea, it is no longer navigable for ships but used to be- the book speculates that either: the lake used to be a bay and when a catastrophic event (earthquake) suddenly cut off the lake from the sea, ancestors of these sharks were trapped there or sharks used to navigate up the river when it had better passage. I looked this up- it has been proven that sharks still do navigate the river. Sharks in the lake were tagged, and many of them later found at sea.

Some famous people are in this book, because they were avid shark fishermen. Including the authors Earnest Hemmingway and Zane Grey. There is also brief mention of Gavin Maxwell's attempts to set up a shark fishery (he wrote Ring of Bright Water). In sum, my favorite part of the book remains the sections that quoted Captain Young, so I think I would enjoy reading his firsthand account someday.

If you thought all this interesting, maybe you should find yourself a copy of this book! Even though it is outdated, still some pretty good reading.

Rating: 3/5     415 pages, 1963