Dec 31, 2017

The Hidden Life of Trees

What They Feel, How They Communicate
Discoveries from a Secret World
by Peter Wohlleben

This book is written by a forestry manager in Germany. He is involved in protecting and studying old-growth forests. The details in this volume surprised me at every turn. The interconnected relationships between trees and the mycorrhizal fungi, insects, birds, mammals and other plants around them is a lot more complex than I had realized. Trees compete with other species, but sometimes enter into beneficial relationships where one kind of tree supports another when conditions are favorable to it, and vice versa. Adult trees nurture their children- only one of which will usually survive to replace it. Trees create their own microclimate, and benefit from living in groups- a solitary tree is often stressed and unhealthy. They share nutrients and water through their network- and in one case the author quotes, a group of trees died when one in the center was struck by lightening- those up to fifty feet away were also affected. Some of the ideas in this book seem a little speculative to me- that the sounds caused by resonance in hollow trunks when they are dying of thirst is the trees screaming, for one. Studies do show that trees (and other plants) communicate dangers to their neighbors via chemical signals, and that the root systems of trees appear to have a "memory" or ability to learn- they definitely respond to stimuli. It's all very interesting and makes me wonder what new discoveries are down the line- if we can keep our hands off and let the older forests continue to grow. Trees do much better left to their own devices than when managed by people, it appears. And their lives are far more lengthy than I knew- saplings my height are probably forty or fifty years old, which is just out of kindergarten stage for a tree... it reminds me of many things I read in Thoreau's book about his observations on trees and other forest life. For sure makes you look at the trees around you in a different light.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5        272 pages, 2015

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Dec 30, 2017

Alpine NorthWest

It has been a very long time since I worked a puzzle. My older sister got me into the enjoyable pastime again- she sent me this lovely 1,000 piece Charley Harper jigsaw. (I first discovered this artist on a family vacation to Glacier National Park where we worked a different puzzle featuring his artwork). I've been putting this one together over the past few days with my thirteen-year-old. I love the abstract style of this artist, and the detailed way he depicts a wide variety of plant and animal life from each specific environment (I recognize many, but not quite all, of the species in the picture. Wish there was a list somewhere). Once finished we admired it for about ten minutes, then promptly disassembled to start a new one! Fun.

(sorry, the last pic has a bit too much light bouncing off it)

Dec 29, 2017

Frog

the Horse That Knew No Master
by Colonel S. Meek

This story is about a U.S. Army post that was stationed on the Panama Canal. The main characters are the officers at the post, but the horse is central to the story. Frog- so named because he has a habit of suddenly springing forward and unseating his rider- has such a bad reputation as a vicious horse, that he is going to simply be destroyed. A new man is transferred to the post who has a reputation as a very good horseman, he takes Frog on as a personal project. Under his hands the horse learns that not all men mean him harm, and comes to love his new master. The horse then acquires new skills- being taught to play polo, and is involved in many escapades. In one chapter he is used to ferret out a spy among the new recruits, in another his skills on the polo field convince a Major that the sport improves both men and horse, so it is not banned as a frivolous activity. He is involved in bringing a local madman under control, in getting rid of a lady who insists on using all the horses (to their harm), and undertakes a grueling midnight run to deliver a message- which his rider hopes will prove to the Army that horses are still useful and shouldn't be replaced by machines. He runs in a race, even while influenced by drugs (administered by a man who has a grudge against Frog's rider), and on another occasion carries an officer's daughter into the jungle to pick oranges, where he protects her from a poisonous snake. In all, lots of adventures, amusing dialogue and a bit of intrigue between the characters.

It's mostly about what life was like at the Calvary post, based on the author's experiences. Those men were very fond of chicken- any time a bet was laid, the winner got a free chicken dinner. It must have been an item hard to come by, or expensive? Beef steak was second choice to chicken! It's nice to know that in this story: the horse doesn't die. He isn't perfect either- he still has setbacks, is poorly treated by his new master once due to a misunderstanding, and acts out whenever new riders abuse him. He's a feisty one for sure. I liked this book enough I'll keep my eye out for any others by the same author I might come across.

I finished this one a few days ago, but had no time to sit down and write until now. From my e-reader.

Rating: 3/5            302 pages, 1933

Dec 27, 2017

Squirrels and Other Fur-Bearers

by John Burroughs

The focus of this book is not squirrels, although it starts out with members of their family- gray squirrels, flying squirrels, chipmunks, woodchucks. Goes on to describe minks and weasels, rabbits, skunks, porcupines, raccoons, possums, two kinds of mice, foxes and muskrats. The brief chapters are all first-hand observations of wildlife made by the author on his farmland or in the forest near. He's a good nature writer, although the attitude towards animals not always kindly- seems to be a product of the times. Had no qualms describing hunting down raccoons with dogs, or stomping on a weasel to make it let go of his chicken, or making a porcupine loose all its quills into a wooden board to see what it would do when left without defense. He once dug up a large segment of a bank, curious to find the end of a weasel's maze of tunnels. Those small creatures really do sound fierce!

On the other hand, he writes about most of the animals with admiration or humor, and tells what he learned of their individual habits in interesting detail. The chipmunks are particularly engaging, and the intelligence of the foxes and woodchucks. There are quite a few illustrated plates by none other than John James Audubon; I wish they were larger it is hard to appreciate them on a screen, but still I'm glad they were included.

I read this one on my e-reader, thanks to Project Gutenburg.

Rating: 3/5          114 pages, 1900

Dec 24, 2017

Bannertail

the Story of a Gray Squirrel
by Ernest Thompson Seton

This is, of course, about a squirrel's life. Early parts of it really rushed through some of the story. The squirrel is orphaned at a young age and kept by a boy who puts it to nurse with his cat's kittens. Then the barn burns down and the people suddenly move away- at least, it felt very sudden- the chapter about the fire and the people deserting the farm was all of one page. I was curious to read more about the squirrel living with its adoptive feline mother, but instead the story moves on and mostly tells how it lives in the forest- taking some time to adjust to the new situation, learn food sources and strategies, but for the most part having an edge over its competitors because after being cared for in captivity it was larger and healthier than the ordinary wild squirrels.

The narrative got intriguing when, as an adult raising young with its mate, this squirrel protagonist Bannertail fell into sinful living and had to learn from his mistakes or die. Yes, it became a moralistic story. The squirrel discovered intoxicating mushrooms in the forest and became addicted. It suffered for a time going back again and again for the mushrooms, acting wildly aggressive to common enemies while under the influence, being sick the next morning and estranging his family. Eventually the effects of the mushrooms almost killed it, and then it learned to avoid them and taught its young likewise.

There's also a very dramatic scene where the entire squirrel family battles a snake. Only one of the young squirrels doesn't make it to adulthood (earlier in the book, not from the snake), and in the end Bannertail is triumphant over all his difficulties, living the life wild and free high up in the treetops with his mate.

The feature illustrations are lovely in detail, and the more frequent marginal drawings very amusing and comedic. Enjoyed it on my e-reader.

Rating: 3/5           260 pages, 1922

Dec 21, 2017

Frost Dancers

A Story of Hares
by Gary Kilworth

Skelter is a blue mountain hare from the highlands. He lives a relatively good life for a wild hare, even though predators and other dangers must be constantly avoided- not far into the book there is a bloody scene of a deer dying, which firmly introduces the reader to the fact this story doesn't shy away from death. Lots of animals die. Even main characters. Just when I was beginning to like them. Well, Skelter is looking forward to the upcoming mating season, when he will box with other hares to earn his right to a female. But men sweep across the fields catching wild hares to use for coursing their greyhounds. Skelters is shut in a cage, transported to the coursing field, has to run for his life. He narrowly escapes and finds himself in the lowlands, a strange countryside very different from the highland slopes he used to live on.

Skelter has to find ways to adapt in the new land. He takes up with some rabbits for a while, then tries to live among some lowland field hares. He becomes companionable with some females and wards off rival males. He has to face prejudices and superstitions galore- in this story, the differences between rabbits and hares are constantly pointed out, hares scorning the smaller rabbits' company. Skelter also lives near a badger's sett, gets to know a few otters and a short-tempered hedgehog. There are foxes that skulk across the fields, farmer's dogs that let them in on what humans are doing, and many other animals in the story. But strangest of all and most threatening is a giant exotic eagle. Through the whole story the eagle is described but never quite identified- the rabbits and hares simply call it a monster- its hunting patterns are different than any other predator they've met, and it threatens them with extinction. Turns out it is a harpy eagle, an exotic pet released when it couldn't be kept. All kinds of implications in that part of the story. The oddest part was that the tower the eagle nested in talked to it. The tower talked. That was a bit much.

Well anyway Skelter the hare goes out on this insane quest to find the harpy eagle's hideout, learn more about it in case it can help them deal with the predator. And I won't tell you more about that part of the story- you'd have to read it. I can see why this book has been compared to Watership Down. Lagomorph leaving its homeland under duress, searching for a way to find a safe new home. It even gives a few serious nods to the other book: in one place some of the rabbits mention a rabbit in a different warren who tells prophecies of the skies and fields turning red with blood. It's as if Richard Adams' rabbits lived just over the hills from those in this book, who heard faint rumors of their doings....

But this isn't as deep a story. Details of the highland countryside are nice, but later such depictions of nature are less frequent as the story has more action. The characterization isn't nearly as good. There were some inconsistencies in the story that bothered me- a hare feeling indifferent to one thing, then hating it later on with no real explanation for the change in attitude for example... Also a few odd spellings or words combined into one- chickensfeet isn't really a word, is it? And I’d never seen the word small used as a verb before: “Skelter smalled himself as much as possible.” Maybe some of it was error in the formatting for e-reader?

There were other things that seemed not-so-well thought out. The mythology and culture of the rabbits and hares just had too much going on. In the beginning of the story there was an info dump on hare beliefs- something like a hell full of tempters that dead hare spirits pass through while trying to reach heaven- and I was ready to buy that, to accept it as part of the story. But there’s also ghost-hares that guide the living, hare spirits that get turned into flowers, racial memories that some of the animals access when in a kind of trance (like in Nop’s Trials). In addition, the hares and rabbits have tons of superstitions including human-made objects seen as good luck items. Really reminiscent of The White Bone. It was just a lot of various belief systems and mythologies going on when I would have rather sunk deeply into just one.

It was nice that things were shown solidly from the animal perspective. They observe a murder that happens on a farm, but don’t know what's going on, although the reader is able to piece it together. They see a new feature arrive on the land, and something described as a "rigid bird" which I thought was an albatross (for a few pages). All the animals speak, although in different languages and dialects, and humans are the ones who make meaningless, superfluous sounds so the animals assume they communicate by gesture only. While reading this book I learned a new term, that applies to stories told from non-human viewpoint (be it animal, alien or other): xenofiction.

I almost feel sorry to give this book a low rating, but I really had to force myself to finish it in the end. There's an overly dramatic chase scene and a last-minute encounter with the harpy eagle that ends with unexpected suddenness. I have to say the way the author worked that final encounter into the story was quite clever. I feel like I’ve said quite a lot now, especially for a book that in the end, I didn’t care for that much. If you look on Goodreads, there’s someone who really goes on and on about it.

Read it on my e-reader.

Rating: 2/5          400 pages, 1992

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Dec 16, 2017

The Overloaded Ark

by Gerald Durrell

Once again this author delights and intrigues me. This book is about his first wildlife collecting trip- to Cameroon in Central Africa- with a colleague John Yealland, who specialized in birds. It starts off with what I found lacking in The Bafut Beagles, an introduction to what he was doing there and all the preparations necessary. Just as interesting as his descriptions of tracking and catching the wildlife are his accounts of travel into remote areas, encounters with native people, working to build cages, feed and tend to the creatures, some of which had never been kept in captivity before. Also his efforts to educate the public on how to bring him live birds and mammals without damaging them- stress and injury would do them in long before they made it back to England.

So many curious creatures Durrell found- the Calabar ground python whose head looks like its tail, the giant otter shrew (the internet tells me it is not a real shrew but a tenrec), the beautiful gaboon viper whose back is marked with a row of perfect rectangles, the rare and coveted angwantibo- a lemur not to be confused with the potto, the brush tailed porcupine which led him to a nasty encounter in a cave. Durrell crawled into a lot of caves in this book. In particular looking for bats but he founds lots of other wildlife in the dark. Also tromped around the thick forest after nightfall to catch nocturnal animals, and followed packs of dogs in the hope of catching a serval- he saw one close at hand but never caught one. The dogs several times tracked down giant monitor lizards instead. There are lots of monkeys mentioned, beautiful birds of many sorts, chameleons, great snakes and diminutive antelope. Last of all a chimpanzee named Chumley. I'm sure I've read about Chumley in one of his other books, probably it was Encounter with Animals? I was sad to read of his end in this one... Curiously, Durrell states in here that monkeys don't groom each other's fur in search of parasites or fleas, but to pick off salt dried on their skin from sweating. He once again mentioned the black-eared squirrel, but I'm puzzled that none of the images I find of this animal show it with the greenish fur on its back that Durrell describes.

There's so much more. Description of the landscape and surroundings are very detailed. The book closes with a short account of his trip home on board ship with the collection. He took a lot of care over their health and handling, and only had a few losses. With relief at the end of the journey he finally saw the animals loaded onto zoo vans, headed for their new homes.  It's nice there is a little index in the back listing all the species mentioned in the text. The ink illustrations by Sabine Bauer are lovely.

Rating: 4/5          238 pages, 238 1953

Dec 15, 2017

Poisonous

Poems on self-love and spiritual blackmail, vol. 3
by Angie Outis

I really like the very first poem in this volume, which speaks metaphorically of her faith as a slab of meat in the fridge, of all things. Her voice is so acerbic. She writes about further disintegration of her faith, and her marriage. Of challenging behavior patterns and rules. Of questioning the status quo. Asking for help from one who was supposed to be in a role of spiritual leadership, and being shut down. Gestures of anger, striking out against sacred symbols. In the earlier volumes it wasn't as clear, but this one makes it obvious which particular belief system the author had issues with.

I should point out, these poems are for adult readers. The author isn't shy about speaking of conflicts she had with her husband, regarding intimacy. And some of the poems are quite sensual in nature. The writing is raw and eloquent, but there were a few poems I just didn't get. Something was left out, leaving me guessing as to what the title really pointed to. Or perhaps I'm just a bit dense (poetry isn't my usual genre, after all). And I wish there was more! The moment I turned the last page, I wanted to pick up the next book and keep reading.

I received a copy of this book from the author.

Rating: 4/5           22 pages, 2017

Dec 14, 2017

The Drunken Forest

by Gerald Durrell

Note: there's a spoiler in my third paragraph.

I'm pitching into my newer acquisitions of Gerald Durrell, and this one does not disappoint. It's from early in his career as a wild animal collector. This book describes a trip in 1954, to Argentina and Paraguay. It was not, in the eyes of Durrell and his wife, a great success in terms of bringing animals home- but the description of their travels, the local people they met and of course the native wildlife are still fascinating reading. Durrell is a great storyteller, and he made me laugh out loud a good number of times in this book. I have to say, Durrell is one of the few writers I would put on par with James Herriot, when it comes to describing animals and their care.

Quite a few of the species mentioned in here were unfamiliar to me- the viscacha- a rodent with a striped face, which they were unable to catch. The douracouli, a nocturnal monkey which looks a lot like a lemur with its owlish face. A crab-eating raccoon, which could work open any kind of latch or lock the Durrells secured its cage with- that cracked me up. A beautifully marked tiger bittern- their description of doctoring its broken wing was very lively. Other things of note: I didn't know that armadillos eat carrion. Durrell got hold of a young bird that it turns out would only eat freshly masticated spinach leaves- and he convinced his wife to do the chewing. They told about catching a large number of brown guira cuckoos, which they thought were rather dumb birds. Years later they visited a zoo where a number of these cuckoos now lived, and were surprised that the birds obviously recognized them. It made them think again their initial assessment of any animals' intelligence, especially under duress in captive situations. The author also debunks some common misconceptions about wild animals. For example, he tells how he caught a large anaconda- a funny account, especially as he compared his experience to the lurid tales spouted in popular literature of the time (jungle thrillers).

He also refutes the frequent criticism he received at shutting up wild animals in cages. True, many of the animals initially try to escape. But there was a very touching chapter in this book, where at the end of gathering their collection and meticulously caring for them, they were forced to suddenly leave the country due to civil war. Normally the animals would have been transported home by ship- but since they had to go in a small plane, could now only take a few of the rare species, and those too young to survive if released. All the others were let go. The reptiles and some of the birds took off immediately. But most of the birds and small mammals hung around the camp for days, expecting to be fed again. Some even tried to get back into the cages. It was obvious they appreciated the free meals (and maybe the comfort and attention) they had become used to receiving. The Durrells had to harden their hearts against the animals' begging, and chase some of them off to force them to go back into the wild. They worried that the animals were now accustomed enough to people they would be friendly to strangers and get themselves killed (lots of the natives seemed to have misconceptions about the wildlife. Their housekeeper in particular was terrified by any animal).

I find it kind of amusing that the cover of the book depicts Durrell as an older man with a paunch and a white beard, whereas the lively pen illustrations inside (by Ralph Tompson) clearly show him as a young man. I guess the paperback was published later in his career and they wanted someone people could identify with his TV persona on the front. All the mass market paperbacks I have of his seem to play up the humor of his writing, in the cover illustrations.

Rating: 4/5            203 pages, 1956

Dec 11, 2017

Word Freak

Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players
by Stefan Fatsis

My favorite game is Scrabble. But I play it casually compared to the people in this book. The author is a reporter who took an assignment to write about Scrabble tournaments. Enjoying the game himself as a "living room player," he quickly became an insider in the odd subculture of Scrabble fanatics. Hung out with the "parkies" in New York City, went to Scrabble clubs, learned from some of the best how to study word lists, and worked his way up to the level of the pros.

So the book is a mix of descriptive journalism and personal endeavor to master the game, character studies on some of the top players (fairly eccentric people), history of the game itself (invented during the Depression by a guy named Albert Butts- that chapter was really interesting), involvement of the two companies that own rights to the game, how Scrabble tournaments are conducted, difference between acceptable words in American and British English, arguments between players about acceptable words and best methods of study, and so on.

Early on I realized that making notations of all the curious words I don't know that cropped up in the book, was really bogging me down and squelching the enjoyment of reading it. All the words used in games described in the book (or in verbal word-games played by people as part of their study) are in all-caps, so it was easy to thumb back through afterwards and jot them down. I ended up with a sheet of notebook paper filled with four columns of words on each side. And that's just a drop in the bucket compared to the lists of words serious players work at learning (many of which are no longer included in any extant dictionary- having fallen out of use long ago). I'm just curious what they mean, I don't think I'll ever seriously study up on lists like the pros in this book do.

Reading about the tournaments and worldwide competitions was pretty intriguing. It's not the same now, with online versions of the game that let you immediately look things up. During the time period Fatsis describes, word lists were tediously worked out by hand, serious top-level players poring through the dictionaries to compile them. The kind of mental gymnastics people play with anagrams, finding letter combinations and learning strategies to make the best play based on probabilities are beyond me. I never write down my racks throughout a whole game to study missed possibilities later, or play games against myself for practice. But the book didn't spoil it for me either (I already knew I'm not that good): after finishing the read I invited my teen daughter to play a round of Scrabble, and it was just as fun as ever.

Rating: 3/5                372 pages, 2001

Dec 2, 2017

The Inner Lives of Animals

by Peter Wohlleben

This book explores the emotions of animals, and their thinking capacity. Its conclusion is that humans are nothing special when it comes to having feelings, so we should treat animals with consideration and kindness. It reminds me a lot of What A Fish Knows, but the main focus here is mammals and birds. Even ticks, house flies, tardigrades and very tiny beetles in the weevil family are mentioned.

Among the many examples Wohlleben gives are squirrels who adopt orphans (but only if they're related), wild boars who show evidence of fear (knowing where it is safe during hunting season), goats who teach their offspring good behavior, birds who cheat on each other (and a rooster who tricks his two harrassed hens into mating with him), rats who dream about their tasks in a research lab, corvids that play games and identify each other by name, deer who grieve their lost offspring, dogs and other animals who suffer dementia in their old age. There were some familiar anecdotes and research studies referenced in here, and many others I read about for the first time. Notable things I learned: why moths are so furry, the exact reason rabbits (also gerbils, hamsters, etc) eat their own droppings, that cities are becoming preferred habitats for many animals because the monoculture of cultivated land lacks diversity, and that deer will often starve if they are fed by well-meaning people in the winter (they will burn more energy than they gain, having to raise their body temperature for digestion. Better to live off their stored body fat). For some reason the description of a slime mold outlining the routes of a subway system in Tokyo made me think of the carnivorous lichen in William Sleator's Interstellar Pig.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5       277 pages, 2016

Nov 30, 2017

Dun Lady's Jess

by Doranna Durgin

This story features another world, parallel to ours, that has magic. Technology isn't developed because they use magic for everything- from keeping bugs out of the house and starting fires to sending messages and travelling far distances. But anything done with magic can be felt by other people with magical abilities- and intercepted by magic as well. To avoid that, important items are written down and carried by couriers on horses. When the book opens, a new and possibly dangerous spell is being taken on horseback from a magician's hold to his ruler- and the courier gets attacked by men who want the spell for someone else. In the confusion of a fight, the courier invokes a charm that should protect him- it does, by transporting him and his horse to our world.

His horse is somehow turned into a woman. Two people walking in the woods find her there alone and unconscious, naked except for the horse's tack, saddle and blanket. They take her home intending to call authorities in the morning. But after arguing about it, decide she has suffered some kind of trauma and they'd rather help her personally, than see her locked up by police or committed to an insane asylum. She still has the mind of a horse, so she acts very strangely for a person. She has a limited use of language, which gets better with some practice. Once over her shock, she is very anxious to find the man who was her courier- but it so happens that his attacker was also transported to our world. So the horse-woman gets her new friends involved in trying to find the courier and help him return to his own world, while evading "the bad guys" as I kept thinking of them...

I expected going into it (from some other reviews) that this book was a little weak in points, so I was able to overlook some of that. There were a few typos, occasionally a phrase that didn't quite make sense. The e-book edition I read has some odd formatting, worst of which was the title of contents included as the last pages of the book, instead of at the beginning where it would actually be useful.

Hardest to get around were the poorly-written characters- human characters, that is. The horse-turned-woman is very convincing. In fact, she's the best aspect of the entire book, and the main thing that kept me reading. The author obviously knows horses, and her idea of how an animal suddenly transformed into a person might think and behave was excellently done. But the other people in the story often had me baffled. They frequently jumped to conclusions in an unbelievable manner- convenient for advancing the story but frustrating the reader. Their arguments with each other felt flat and unconvincing, dialog was awkward. Sometimes I was completely confused by decisions they made and responses they had to situations. Personalities did not stand out well- in fact, I didn't even care when one of the group got killed. The two main villains were unbelievable as well- their statements and actions often didn't make sense. Parts of the storyline that had to do with conflict between the courier's side and "the bad guys" in the other world really started to bore me, so much that I almost quit halfway. However the description of this alternate, magical reality was interesting, and the details about horses so well done that I'm considering reading the sequel- although prepared to roll my eyes at what the people say and do, and just pay attention to the animals in it, haha.

It's overall kind of an odd mix. Parts of this book feel like an action/thriller, parts like urban fantasy, and then it starts to lean towards being a romance as well. Not strongly any one thing- except for the horses.

Rating: 3/5             295 pages, 1994

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Thistle

Nov 26, 2017

A Wayside Tavern

by Norah Lofts

This is the story of a place. The home of a wine-seller at a crossroads. When a group of Roman soldiers moved through the area they left their wounded leader behind, and he found an ill slave girl locked in a room (for her safety). Together they struggled to survive in the lonely place- all other inhabitants in the nearby villages having fled. By the time the Roman soldier had healed enough to leave, he didn't want to- had found acceptance there- even when people antagonistic towards Rome moved in and he had to hide his identity. What began simply as someone's home became an important locale in the community; eventually it became a tavern and inn. Over the centuries the building with its specially tiled floor served many different functions, but always remained in the hands of the same family, originally formed by that Roman soldier and the slave he rescued from starvation, so long ago.

I liked a piece of historical fiction written by this same author which I read many years ago, so I'd always hoped to have more of her books. Unfortunately I didn't care for this one. The initial story of the slave suddenly finding her freedom and together with the Roman finding ways to stave off starvation until the settlement was populated again, when they became prosperous- was interesting. But then suddenly the woman was old, invoking vaguely understood rituals the Roman had mentioned to her, baffling her companions. And the storyline quickly moved on to other characters, all introduced very briefly as the book tells of how this place remained useful through the centuries. It just wasn't keeping my attention at all, by page 95 I simply lost interest.

Abandoned               376 pages, 1980

Nov 22, 2017

Caribou Island

by David Vann

I didn't like this book. Halfway through I started skimming so much I really ought to call it Abandoned. It's about a couple in Alaska trying to build a log cabin on a small island, while their marriage is falling apart. The husband, Gary, has always rushed headlong into projects without adequate planning and then gets frustrated at the inevitable failure: this cabin is no different. It was really ridiculous that the island already had a cabin- one that Gary admired and tried to copy, but couldn't. Why didn't they just live in that one, cut down some trees for the view? It made no sense. Through all their difficult work (in endlessly bad weather), the wife is suffering from debilitating headaches that doctors can't find a cause for. She's bitter at being dragged into the building project which she doesn't care about, and seems to harbor years of resentment against her husband. There's a lengthy side story about their grown children, one of whom is cheating on his girlfriend with a tourist. I don't know why that was such a large part of the plot, it felt pointless. I didn't care about any of these people. I did like the descriptions of the wide landscape. Nature was beautiful, but the weather terribly oppressive- the cold, wet and relentless wind are emphasized. It's full of miserable people wallowing around in their unhappiness and ineptitude with relationships, career choices, building projects and all. The ending is horrible. (Something awful happens right on the last page).

Oh, and I was once again thrown off by the sameness of conversation and thought. This book has no quotation marks whatsoever. I suppose it heightens the sense of unease, not being able to trust your own senses, not knowing for sure if something is spoken aloud- or maybe it's a style thing, to make it feel seamless. But on the heels of a different book which overused quotation marks to the same effect, it was just annoying.

I should have known better. I picked this up off a library shelf recognizing the author- I did like his book Aquarium not so long ago. But I had a sense from other reviews that most of his works are very dark, and they weren't kidding. I don't think I will pick up any more by this author.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 1/5                293 pages, 2011

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The Asylum

Nov 21, 2017

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita

by Rumer Godden

Middle-aged Englishwoman Fanny has always done the right things. She cares for her home and children, socializes with her friends, she is kind and patient, never improper. Her husband often travels for work, so she is alone and rather bored when the children go off to boarding school. A film company comes to their village to make a movie, and Fanny catches the director's eye. Rob takes her out to the theater, for drinks, to dinner. She thinks she is just keeping company and having a bit of fun, but it turns into an affair. Fanny finds herself happier than ever with Rob- sees a new life opening up with delights that she'd never imagined- so she leaves with him for Italy, filing for divorce.

Her children are shocked. They have to leave their country home and live in a small London flat with their father. The youngest girl is forced to sell her beloved pony. The children are unhappy with all the changes- big and small- in their routine. Suddenly refusing to accept the situation, two of the kids run away to find their mother in Italy, intending to make her come back home. Things in Italy are not exactly what they expected, the situation is of course strained. Rob wants to send the children back to their father immediately but the boy falls ill and his mother won't allow him to travel. So Rob brings his own daughter (who has been raised by her grandmother) to stay with them as well. She is also opposed to the new relationship. Although not quite on friendly terms with each other, the children band together against their parents. Their presence makes Rob show another side of his personality, opinions about raising children quite different from Fanny's. They're all discontented in the end.

Sadly, this is not one of my favorite Rumer Goddens. I read through this book rather quickly, intrigued by the characters and their interactions, but in the end felt dissatisfied and don't think I will return to it. It is very slow going at first. Lots of description of time and place- which is enjoyable in its own way- but the details of Fanny's unfolding affair made me feel bored and impatient. I suppose it was to show how gradually it all happened- how she excused the little deviations of her behavior until they piled up into one big thing she couldn't extricate herself from, but I wasn't terribly sympathetic. The story got a lot more interesting once the children were in the picture. But the writing sometimes felt a bit awkward- it shifts back and forth between recollections and present events without clear indications. As the characters' spoken words and thoughts are both framed with quotation marks, sometimes I didn't know if someone had said a phrase aloud or not; I'd have to read a sentence over again to make sure. It's a shame, because I really do like this author and her depiction of how kids think -in this case especially, how acutely they are affected by divorce- is very astute. I was glad the children decided to stand up for themselves, but when all was done, I wouldn't call it a happy ending.

Side note: the prim young Italian girl would absentmindedly sing while reading crime novels. That small detail baffled me. I do have a habit of fiddling with the pages while reading (my hands can't keep still), but I can't imagine singing. I often hum, whistle or sing while painting or doing chores- but reading? How do you divide your brain like that.

Rating: 2/5            254 pages, 1963

more opinions:
Leaves & Pages
Desperate Reader

Nov 17, 2017

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

by John Boyne

Another story that depicts a horrible situation through the eyes of a child. Bruno is upset that his father's job makes them move from their nice home in Berlin to what he at first assumes is the desolate countryside. He mispronounces the name of this new place as 'Out-With' but the reader can soon guess the real location. Also the identity of his father's seldom-seen boss, of whom everyone is very much afraid- 'the Fury'- is very clear to the reader, but then we are seeing it all through hindsight. In the middle of the story, nine-year-old Bruno is just angry and bored, squabbling with his sister, questioning the maid and finally wandering outdoors. Where after a very long walk he finds another boy sitting on the opposite side of a tall, barbed-wire fence. He slowly makes friends with this boy, all the time innocent of what is really going on. Who his father really works for, why are those hundreds of people standing around on the other side of the fence, looking terribly thin and all wearing the same clothes. There's a very real sense in this book, of how people- especially a child- could have been blind to what was going on during the Holocaust, how they started to deliberately not see- for fear of their own lives- when it became apparent what was really happening. Brutality. And this kid just wants a friend.

I read it in just two sittings. The ending is chilling.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5            216 pages, 2006

more opinions:
Vulpes Libris
Booknotes by Lisa
the Literary Omnivore
Parchment Girl
the Wertzone
Musings of a Bookish Kitty

Nov 16, 2017

Room

by Emma Donoghue

This is another book that was all over the blogs some years ago. I think I avoided it back then because I assumed the subject matter would be too harrowing: it's about a college student who was kidnapped and locked up in a storage shed refurbished into a dismal prison cell. Her captor kept her there seven years. While held prisoner, she bore a child. Keeping her son as healthy and safe as she could in such oppressive circumstances gave her a reason to live. She taught and entertained him. The eleven-foot space and his mother, were all that he knew. They had a television, a few books, a glimpse of the sky and occasional 'treats' brought at their captor's whim- that was about it. The story works because it is told through the boy's perspective, at the time just five years old. He thinks everything inside the television is pretend, and personifies all the objects in the room- Table, Rug, etc. At night he hides in Wardrobe when his mother is visited by their captor, dubbed Old Nick. His energy and questions start to stretch the limits of their world, and his desperate mother finally tells him the truth of their confinement and makes a move to break out.

I was glad that the story moved quickly, that the filter of a child's mind kept the worst of horrors from being too stark, that a lot of the book is about how the boy and his mother struggled to adjust when they finally escaped to freedom. A huge shock to the child, a different kind of stress for his mother. He had never felt rain, never played with other children, never seen a real dog. He was smart in the things his mother could teach him- math, spelling, literature even- but completely baffled by so many ordinary things. His close relationship with his mother strained by their suddenly expanded environment, by so many other people crowding around. There are, of course, a lot of really disturbing aspects to this story- but it is also a tender one of hope and resilience, in spite of the dark premise.

There's a lot more depth to this story- and many other readers have detailed it better- see some of the links below. It was a good read, very compelling. Hard to put down and a lot to think about afterwards.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5           321  pages, 2010

more opinions:
Farm Lane Books Blog
You've GOTTA Read This!
Rhapsody in Books
Love, Laughter and a Touch of Insanity
Write Meg!
Reading Through Life

Nov 14, 2017

Our Native Fishes

the Aquarium Hobbyist's Guide to Observing, Collecting and Keeping Them: North American Freshwater and Marine Fishes 
by John R. Quinn

This book on fishkeeping addresses a very specific aspect of the hobby: catching and keeping wild fish in the aquarium. I suppose it all started once when an angler or fisherman caught a particularly pretty specimen and decided to take it home alive as a pet or for study. The book is focused solely on fish species that can be found in North American waters. It details the best methods used to catch native fish- varying according to the habitat and the behavior of the species- and where they can usually be found (without naming exact locations). Also information on how the fish should be handled to avoid damage and stress, what they will eat and their husbandry needs. Only those suitable to be kept in a home aquarium are discussed- fishes too large or otherwise unable to survive in healthy condition are omitted; a few endangered and protected species are identified so the collector will know to release them if caught. Explanations of the laws regarding collection are detailed, although the book is more than twenty years old by now, so regulations may have changed. I like the way this author writes, the book has an engagingly friendly, matter-of-fact manner. He was formerly an editor of Tropical Fish Hobbyist magazine, one I happen to subscribe to.

I had only one small disappointment with the book- the inked illustrations identifying the many fishes in the species profiles are nicely done- but it would be lovely to have color plates. This was one of those books I read with a computer close at hand, so I could look up fish species I wanted a better visual of. Also, the author frequently advocated keeping certain fishes for a short time and then releasing them again in the location where they had been caught. (Because some would outgrow a reasonable aquarium, thus only suitable to be kept as juveniles). However I thought this practice was generally frowned upon: a fish once kept in captivity should not be released again due to the risk of introducing pathogens into the wild population.

Aside from that, it's an excellent book regarding a very specific interest. I have never kept native fish and I don't know if I would ever collect my own, but I found it pretty interesting reading.

Rating: 4/5                  242 pages, 1990

Nov 13, 2017

The Wild Robot

by Peter Brown

I've enjoyed quite a few of this author's picture books with my youngest, so when I saw he had written a chapter book (for middle grade readers) about a robot that interacts with wildlife, I was definitely intrigued. The story is fairly straightforward: a cargo ship wrecks in a storm, and of all the crates that wash up on the island, only one is intact. It contains a robot, packaged new from the factory. The robot's first awakening is when an animal accidentally turns her on. She has never known any other place- but the island is a hostile environment for sophisticated machinery. The robot (nicknamed 'Roz') has been programmed to assist humans, but must adjust to her life on the island. Roz has an acute sense of survival, and also the ability to learn from experience. The wild animals, for their part, have never seen anything like her. She is immediately labeled as a monster. It takes her some time to shake free of that stigma and integrate herself into the life of the island.

This book has a lot of great stuff going on. The contrast of technology and nature. The clever adaptability of the robot (whereas a lot of the animals are much slower to let go of their assumptions and trust Roz). The big question of what defines life. Roz can learn, she needs to take in energy and to rest, she can show compassion, she can be destroyed- but she's not alive. This baffles the animals. She even takes on motherhood, raising an orphaned gosling- you can imagine the awkwardness of some scenes- a goose raised by a robot who can't even get wet! By the end of the story, Roz has gained the admiration of the animals on the island, even the bears who at one point were her worst enemies. So when the company that lost the cargo ship discovers her location and comes to retrieve their property, the animals all rally in her defense.

I really liked reading this story, I just wish I loved it. The interplay of nature and the computer-brained robot is really cleverly done. It does a good job of showing how the lives of the different species on the island are dependent on each other, how the ecosystem is balanced and parts are thrown off by Roz's presence. I think the robot aspect would get a lot of kids reading this book who aren't necessarily interested in nature or animals- and it does teach a lot of facts about wildlife (although I was a bit irked that some were very stereotypical- birds singing to greet the day, for example). The ending has a lot of heightened drama- which I'm sure will appeal to kids but I found it a bit tiresome. I really like Peter Brown's artwork in his picture books, and this one has plenty of interior illustrations, but they're all black-and-white which I found a tad disappointing. Just doesn't appeal to me as much, when it's monochrome.

There's a sequel; I'll be looking for that one. I borrowed this book from the public library.

Rating: 3/5               277 pages, 2016

more opinions:
James Reads Books
Jen Robinson's Book Page
Waking Brain Cells

Nov 12, 2017

My Sin

Poems on self-love and spiritual blackmail, vol. 2
by Angie Outis

Continuing from Sorry So Sorry, the author writes about her painful awakening to something very amiss both in her marriage and in the community of her church. With the conformity and expectations to always seem pleasant and content, while her frustrations grew. Instead of being supported and encouraged, the tiny snippets shared in these poems show that she felt belittled and criticized. I try to imagine how she must have felt- the overwhelming sense is one of being stepped on. Constant reiteration that men were superior, important, women a secondary role. Her husband sparked with anger at small things that were wrong, and hid the large ones. She tried to shield her young children, tried to pretend everything was okay. Until a missive arrived from her husband's employer, which obviously held a dirty secret. I have to admit I'm really curious to read what was revealed- maybe in the next chapbook of the series she opens the paperwork. Why do we always want to know each other's pain, to know how bad the worst of it was? I think it was very brave of her to write these poems about the disintegration of her relationship, all the little things that occurred in private to bring her down.The writing felt a lot more vivid to me in this volume. I was especially struck by the poem titled "Why I Write" that personifies her fear of emotion.

I received a copy of this book from the author.

Rating: 4/5            23 pages, 2017

Nov 8, 2017

Identification Guide to Freshwater Tropical Fish

by Frederick William Pitcher

This is an outdated aquarium book that I swapped for, sight unseen. It's old enough that it talks about angle-iron frame tanks with all-glass aquariums being the new thing. There is no mention of an actual cycle, although it recommends to 'age' the water. I was a bit shocked to find no warnings against ammonia poisoning and it said ok to introduce fish when nitrites test at three or four ppm. Wow. So the info in here about husbandry, growing plants and the like is fairly basic. I'm keeping the book because I like the illustrations. It's fun to look at the paintings in the guide that makes up most of the volume here. I amuse myself by guessing the species name before reading the text- some have them have changed in form and color over the years of selective breeding. There are a few- must have been popular or common for aquariums at the time- which I didn't recognize at all. I compare the notes on fishes with my own experience: this book says serpae tetras will only eat live foods and are difficult to breed. Not the case anymore. (Other old books I have on the subject note that serpaes are entirely peaceful: NO! and another that they are so prone to disease that not worth keeping. And in contrast I've often read they're supposed to be really hardy!) This book: nice for the pictures if you like art and fish, fun for a bit of comparison to how things used to be.

Rating: 2/5           60  pages, 1977

Nov 6, 2017

This I Believe

Personal Philosophies of Remarkable 7th Grade Students Vol. II

I feel a bit conflicted writing about this book. But I paid for it, so I wanted to actually read it, so I'm making notes about it. It's a collection of essays written by seventh-graders in my daughter's school. Printed near the end of last year and I have taken all this time to read it, dipping in and out of it now and then. The inspiration comes from an NPR program "This I Believe" which has now turned into a series of books, containing essays written by famous people, published authors, and everyday folks on their personal belief systems.

The students here- there are about 150 essays- write about what is important to them. You can tell for the most part, these are great kids. They have adults in their lives who care for them and teach them good things. They write about learning to appreciate family and friends, to value their time, to work hard for grades. They write about the grief of loosing pets and family members- so much pain! They write about sports: teamwork, practice and hard work pays off. (A lot of essays involving sports. This would have bored me after a while but I discovered many of them didn't mention what the particular sport was- so I would attempt to guess by the description of how the team worked and movments on the field, what they were playing). There were also a few essays about making and keeping friends, being true to yourself in the face of peer pressure, moving to a new house, or a new town- or country, dealing with bullies, discovering individual talents, attempting new skills, taking opportunities, staying positive in the face of failure, overcoming fears and learning to appreciate the beauty in life. A lot of wonderful messages. Some of them were even infused with a good sense of humor.

A few that stood out to me: several essays involving swim practice and meets. I've been there. There were two essays where the kids wrote about keeping fish, and the pain of loosing them to illness or due to a mistake- how I could relate to that. One wrote about his love of books. Another about learning from experience, to be careful when making online purchases. A girl wrote about trying to teach her hamster tricks after seeing a demo video online. She got frustrated her hamster wouldn't do what the hamster in the video did. Then realized her hamster had a different skill, and encouraged it to do that as a trick instead. I really liked this essay (and not just because it was about an animal). Another student wrote about sustaining an injury during sports practice and continuing to work through the pain- they found out the next day it was a broken foot. I was appalled that a student would feel pressured to continue practicing while in so much pain. There was another essay written from the perspective of a student who claims she was falsely accused of bullying. It was a very emotional and confusing piece of writing. Another very personal one was about overcoming the fear- as a second-grader- of using public restrooms (I know those self-flushing toilets are very loud- my youngest has always been terrified of them as well).

According to the forward in this book, the students had a required reading assignment Trash by Andy Muillgan (which I haven't read), which was inspired by a real dumpsite in Manila. Proceeds from the students' book "has allowed for them to donate to a charity that helps those whose lives and experiences inspired the writing of Trash." So it's for a good cause. And of course I was going to buy a copy: my daughter was ecstatic to tell me her essay was being printed. At first I was told only the best essays made it into the book though: later it sounded like all the essays from the class were included. There was no selection of the best? The writing quality was very uneven: that's to be expected and for the most part I tried to overlook it and enjoy the message the individual students had to share, and their voices.

But it was really hard to ignore the massive amount of errors, especially in the first two sections of the book. Typos, spelling mistakes, bad grammar, missing or wrongly used punctuation, sentences that made no sense. It has all the bad characteristics of self-published books. My kid told me that her teacher didn't correct the essays- the students proofread each other's work. Seems very sloppy. Some of them sound like they just poured out a bunch of unorganized thoughts and never went beyond a rough draft. I was really disappointed in that regard. I don't mind the exaggerated phrases and overused metaphors, after all these are young writers. I can tell when the writer's first language is not English, and the misuse of grammar in that case doesn't bother me. It's the pile of little things that should have been caught by an editor: in this case, the teacher. My guess is that the final section of the book did get correction from the instructor before printing: there were very few errors and even though a lot of the themes were still repetitive, I was able to finally enjoy the stories and think about what the students had to say, instead of getting jarred around by bad writing.

This is the type of book probably no one is going to read unless their kid is included in it. I wonder how many other parents and family members read all the essays, and not just those by students they know.

Rating: 2/5                 329 pages, 2017

Sorry So Sorry

Poems on self-love and spiritual blackmail, vol. 1
by Angie Outis

These very personal poems were written by a young mother of three during the time that her marriage fell apart. They revolve around a singular incident that opened her eyes to the violent nature in her husband's personality- something I gather she had been blind to for years, or unwilling to admit/confront, because of what it would mean to their relationship... It's also about a crumbling of her faith- all the rules she'd been taught to follow, the promises that things would work out, be okay, if she lived in a certain way.

Through the verses that relate conversations between friends and close family moments, I felt like I was peeking into someone's private slice of pain. Some of the lines are so precisely descriptive in a fresh, new way. When I find poetry that speaks to me, this is especially what I like about it. Of a neighbor's stunning beauty: her smile could eclipse the sun. Of her husband's sudden, shocking violence: His profanity was a jackhammer / that splintered my reality. 

It did not quite feel complete- but there are other volumes in this poetry series, so I have a sense that more is told, the story comes full circle with further reading. I'm not sure I understood what the 'spiritual blackmail' is referred to in the subtitle- but I guess that would become clear with further reading, too. I finished it in one sitting but went back to revisit twice, it had that much of a quiet impact.

I received a copy of this book from the author.

Rating: 3/5            24 pages, 2017

Nov 3, 2017

new books!

My box came from Powell's today, and a few other packages, results of birthday spending. As you can see, most of it is Gerald Durrell: I can't wait to read. Two are sequels to books that have long been favorites of mine: Ariel and Paddle to the Amazon. There's also an illustrated edition of All Quiet on the Western Front which I have wanted to own for a very long time. I think I first found this particular edition at a public library. Alongside the text it has actual photographs from WWI, which really helped bring the narrative to life for me.

I like Powell's because: they are a used bookstore that isn't amzn. Their used books are in good condition and they ship them securely- mine always come shrink-wrapped to a cardboard sheet on the bottom of the box, so nothing slides around and gets banged up. The price labels have low-tack glue, so they peel off easy without ripping the cover or leaving sticky residue. Small things, but they make a difference!
And because Bermudaonion asked, here's a little bit about The Book Thing. It's a place in Baltimore, MD. I found out about it when I lived there- years ago when we first moved to the east coast. Their mission is "to put unwanted books into the hands of those who want them." The story I heard is the founder is a bartender. It was known he liked books, so people kept giving him books. He noticed that college kids struggled to pay for textbooks, so he started collecting texts to give away to students. The donations increased to where at one point he was giving away books from a van. Then eventually got more space- the property has three rooms full of bookshelves (organized by subject) and a large area where donations are processed. As far as I understand it, a very small percentage of books and CDs they receive are sold to pay for the minimal overhead cost. All the people who work there sorting and shelving books are volunteers. There are some articles on their website that have more detail.

I love the place. I don't go very often any more because I now live further away, and when we do we are always sure to donate some books- it's only fair. The only condition to picking up free books is: you can't sell them. They are all stamped "NOT FOR RESALE This is a Free Book" on the inside cover or first page.

When we went a few weeks ago, it was the first time I'd taken my kids. My youngest was excited to go to "the book store where you don't have to pay for anything" as she kept saying. My older daughter laughed when we finally turned around the corner on Vineyard Lane and saw the sign painted across the top of the building: "It's really called The Book Thing?" All this time she'd assumed I called it that because I couldn't remember the name of the place! The parking has improved since I was last there, and the rooms are nicely painted and cleaned up. I like there's a window through the wall from one room to another. There used to be a page on their site featuring odd things found in books, or strange, obscure titles. I miss that, it was kinda funny.

Nov 1, 2017

Marvels and Mysteries of Our Animal World

printed by Reader's Digest

Very much like a recent read, this oversize book is a collection of short articles about wildlife. It was a lot more satisfying, in fact I looked forward to reading each selection. More than just a recitation of facts, the writings include descriptions and real-life incidents. The articles seem to be extracted from a variety of periodicals and include such authors as Jean George, Alan Devoe, Roy Chapman Andrews, J.D. Ratcliff, Leicester Hemmingway, Donald and Louise Peattie, Max Eastman, Archibald Rutledge, Ivan T. Sanderson, etc. The variety of animals too great to list, but it seems to cover all the orders and classes of life- insects, birds and mammals, shrews to elephants, wolverines, camels and ground squirrels. The sociability of gulls. The baffling migration abilities of monarchs. Of course it is still an old book, so a few things that were unknown at the time, have now been puzzled out- how birds navigate, why female mosquitoes need blood. The only selection that I found disappointing was the one on horses. I was most fascinated to read about coelocanth- which prompted me to look up further information on this ancient fish. Sometimes it was a bit opinionated- a few of the authors liked to say one animal or another was very ugly- which I didn't always agree with. It tried to give a positive look at other animals I find repugnant- like the indestructible cockroach.

There was a piece near the end titled "Wildlife on the March" by Peter Finch which discussed how many species of bird and mammals seemed to be spreading into new territories over the proceeding forty or fifty years. Cattle egrets, cod, mockingbirds, coyotes, meadowlarks and possums are mentioned. The armadillo was once apparently rare outside of Texas, but at this writing it had expanded its range into Oaklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and some (escaped pets?) were living wild in Florida. Someday perhaps it will reach the southern areas of my state! The author said "Weather records from around the world indicate that temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere are rising at an average rate of three degrees a century.... The Gulf Stream along the U.S. coast has warmed up about five degrees in the last 60 years.... In eastern Canada the tree line, slow to react to climatic change, has nonetheless advanced northward two miles in the last 30 years." It was rather sobering to read that- written in the 1960's without a hint of alarm- it came across as just being a point of scientific interest.

I happen to really like this photograph featured on the back cover, by Russ Kinne

At the back there are several appendixes- including a chart detailing classification of the entire animal kingdom, and an A-to-Z presentation of animals with small tidbits of text, very nice illustrations by Lowell Hess. Index is thorough. The photos are a great improvement over my last read of this kind. I'm keeping this one.

Rating: 3/5               320 pages, 1964

Oct 28, 2017

Memoirs of a Polar Bear

by Yoko Tawada 
translated by Susan Bernofsky

This is a story of a line of three polar bears who live at different points in the Soviet Union, Russia and Canada. The first story is of a bear at the end of her career in the circus, writing her autobiography. It shifts between the story as she writes it- from her younger viewpoint- to the tale of the writing process, how an editor tried to cheat her, how the public received her words and then her book slipped into obscurity. The bear for the most part acted human, but often pondered how human ways were different from things she preferred or perceived. It was strange.

The second part is the story of Tosca, the first bear's offspring. Tosca seems more like a real animal, and most people half-treat her like one, albeit with some respect for her stature. Tosca was an actress but left the stage because she was turned down for a role in play, and went to the circus. However her story is mainly told from the viewpoint of a woman who works in the circus- here the story also shifts back and forth between past and present. As a child, this woman was fascinated by the circus and volunteered to help feed the animals. Eventually she got an actual job there and became animal-trainer. She created an act with Tosca that became a huge success. Most of this section of the book seems to be about how they kept trying to come up with a good act, politics within the circus, how it was viewed by the public and the government, and the woman trainer's obsession with the bear (her husband was jealous).

The final part is shortest, and this one runs in a straight line. It is about Tosca's son Knut, who grows up in a zoo (because his mother is too busy writing her own memoir at that point to raise him herself). Knut describes his slowly opening awareness, his attachment to the man who bottle-fed him, his delight in finally being allowed outside into an enclosed space, and to take walks around the zoo until he is large enough to be considered dangerous. Then he wonders why he has to spend all his days shut up alone in the enclosure, and tries to find means to entertain himself and avoid the summer heat. He is also anxious to keep his audience, and devise means to keep humans who come to see him entertained- although other animals he meets at the zoo deride this practice. I was disappointed at the ending of this tale- it kept mentioning that Knut would soon meet his estranged mother, and then be introduced to a female polar bear the zoo hoped would be his mate. But the story stopped short before those events happened.

In all these stories the bears are more than animal- they understand human speech, they sometimes talk to people, and are sometimes understood. They learn to read, to write, recognize human tools and concepts that are beyond a real animal's understanding. They puzzle over their similarities and vast differences from humans, they long for the cold and snow-covered land of the north. In the all of the stories there is mention of social class issues and other very human concerns; the final story also has worries about global warming and polar bears going extinct. Through it all I got a very distinct sense of place and culture.

The book is really about the fine line between animal and human nature- how much can animals understand? what makes us human, compared to them? what rights do we have to treat them the way we do. But some parts of it really puzzled me, and fell into a dreamlike category. Its tone reminded me of Animal Crackers, and the meandering, strange feeling was very reminiscent of Kafka. In fact it has some references to Kafka, which I almost didn't catch at first. Someone else compared it to Dog Boy in the comments on Stefanie's blog (see link below), and I can see that too.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                           252 pages, 2014

more opinions:
James Reads Books
So Many Books
Sorry Television

Oct 26, 2017

Nature's Wonders in Full Color

edited by Charles L. Sherman

One of those larger picture-filled nature books I picked up for free, on the chance it might be good. Maybe once this was something to wow readers, but not anymore. I read the forward, where it was really apparent the authors were proud of the color photography selected for the book- but all the images are small and the quality leaves a lot to be desired. The afterward is full of advice for the wildlife photographer who wants to produce good color images, but I think it is really outdated.

In fact, I skimmed a lot of the book. When it was printed, the Audubon Society had a habit of disseminating knowledge to its members via printed pamphlets on various subjects, sent out through the mail. Then they had some writers compile info from all those pamphlets and write it up into a book. So it reads just like that- a bunch of little snippets of knowledge piled into chapters. The subjects include 'animal children', song birds, wild flowers, seeds and seed pods, flowering trees and shrubs, etc. Some were so dull and limiting in their info on each species I basically skipped over it. There are three chapters that discuss the inhabitants of a particular habitat: ponds, shallow seawater (tidepools and shorelines) and the Everglades. I did find the chapter all about eyes- from simple to complex- more interesting, and the one on camouflage. Also the one about different structures animals build, and another about 'inventions' of the natural world that mankind has copied (reminiscent of a particular scene in Encounters with Animals!) I also read the chapter about butterflies and moths in its entirety.

Some of the interesting facts I gleaned: freshwater dolphins that live in the Ganges river are blind. They have no lenses in their eyes. The water is too muddy to see, they probably evolved to just use echolocation. Thanks to this book I finally identified a large tree that grows in my sister's backyard. It has very long, beanlike seed pods. From the description, I bet it's a catalpa tree. I thought that painted lady butterflies came to my yard for the flowers- I often find them at the tithonia. But I learned that the caterpillars feed on turtlehead plants. So I shouldn't mind the holes in my turtlehead, if it means more pretty butterflies! Also, they tend to live in a small area, so I will probably have regular residents.

But I also came across a few lines of misinformation. One author states that camels store water in their humps, for example. (They don't. It's fat.) And I don't know how many other falsehoods are in here. This was an okay read for curiosity sake, but it's going in the donate pile now.

Rating: 2/5             252 pages, 1956

Oct 25, 2017

book piles and thoughts

It was my birthday last week. I found, to my delight, that the Book Thing of Baltimore had just reopened (they were closed for a year due to a fire). It is basically a free book exchange. The place holds over 200,000 donated books. I asked my husband if for my birthday treat, we could stop there (for several hours) on the way to visit family. He obliged- and I wasn't the only one who got books! We donated, too- my kids and I all cleared some space off our shelves. We gave the Book Thing three boxes full of books, and brought home five in return. My six-year-old picked out nine books (in good taste- some Little Critter, a few Golden Books and a picture book about collie puppies that I remember fondly from long ago), my teenager got about fifteen (YA fiction and some cookbooks- she's honing her skills), my husband found just over twenty- mostly on history and languages. I combed all my favorite sections: sci fi/fantasy, general fiction, travel, classics, biographies, gardening, biology, animals/nature, women's studies, anthropology and staff picks. Here's my glorious haul. I don't at all feel bad for adding so many piles to the floor in front of my TBR bookcase- it will probably be a year or more before we visit that place again.

The first two in this stack I have actually read, and been on the lookout to add to my collection. The rest, I am familiar with the authors so eager to try more of their work:
These are ones I instantly recognized because they're on my listed TBR:
A few oversize/ photography heavy books:
The ones I got just because they looked interesting:
and a few possible oops- I already had a copy of (still unread) Thirteen Moons- promptly sent this one out in the mail thru Paperback Swap when we got home. I know I have tried Mary Renault several times and not really enjoyed it... and I am pretty sure I once had a copy of Wild Animus, tried it and discarded onto the swap shelf. I guess the cover blurb caught my eye for the same reason again!
The book love didn't stop there. I received a few gift cards- one for Powell's! -and after getting a few items for my aquarium, I mostly used the rest to round out my collection of Gerald Durrell. The first one arrived today- Ark on the Move (with photos!) Thumbing through it I fear I made a mistake: it has chapters about pink piegons and bats, so I think this is another case where one of his books was published under two different titles. I've also ordered Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons- and I bet it's the same text. Will have to make a few returns... I wish I could find a list somewhere of his titles pointing out which have alternative titles.

While I was updating my LThing catalog today, I took the time to add in all the titles I have on my e-reader. I didn't realize so many. One hundred. I've only read seventeen of them! It feels odd to put them in my catalog. Do you count e-books, when you're tallying up your books? They feel intangible: I often think- if my device suddenly quit working, or got lost or destroyed -all those books gone in an instant (I should copy all the files to my computer as backup). And yet there's a plus to that: if there were a fire, and I wasn't preoccupied with getting my kids safe out of the house, I'd probably grab my sketchbooks and the e-reader. It would only save a fraction of my library, but it would be something. There's so much unread stuff on it because I tend to forget they're there. Upcoming travels, it will finally see some use again.