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 that 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

more opinions:
Becky's Book Reviews
Books in the Spotlight

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

Feb 12, 2017

Sex, Drugs and Sea Slime

the Oceans Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter
by Ellen Prager

The oceans contain a mind-boggling array of diversity. Odd shapes, unusual ways of locomotion or obtaining food and especially, strange methods of procreation stuff these pages. The wide variety presented means that details are rather lacking, which only fired my curiosity and sent me to the computer countless times to look something up- usually the appearance of a creature, sometimes more facts about it. The author is definitely passionate about marine life, and made an obvious effort to include the most titillating facts about the most curious things in the ocean. (Did you know the box jellyfish -it's square- has true eyes with retinas, corneas and lenses and yet it has no brain, so we don't know how it processes visual information. Just one of the many things I learned about.) Unfortunately, the jokes and efforts to make things relevant to the 'layperson' by including popular culture references really fell flat with me. Every time such a phrase came up it jarred me out of the factual narrative. I like learning all the tidbits of info- quite a few were new and surprising to me- but too much of the prose was just irritating. The 'why it matters' sections felt incomplete and repetitive. Overall too shallow- not nearly enough depth to satisfy.

Rating: 2/5         184 pages, 2011

Feb 9, 2017

TBR 65

The Wild Girl by Jim Fergus
Stoner by John Williams- Shelf Love
After Disasters by Viet Dinh- Reading the End
Miss Jane by Brad Watson- Farm Lane Books Blog
Paradise Sky by Joe A. Lansdale- Book Chase
Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick- Opinions of a Wolf
The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee- ditto
Waste Free Kitchen Handbook by Dana Gunders- Vegetable Gardener
Dancing Fish and Ammonites by Penelope Lively- Hogglestock
Golden Apples of the Sun by Ray Bradbury- Book Chase
Close Enough to Touch by Colleen Oakley- The Last Book I Read
Cheyenne Memories by John Stands in Timber
They Called Me Uncivilized by Walter Littlemoon
My Summer in a Garden by Charles Dudley Warner- Commonweeder
Women of the Asylum by Jeffrey Geller and Maxine Harris
Wooden Leg: a Warrior Who Fought Custer by Thomas B. Marquis
The Captivity of the Oatman Girls by R.B. Stratton
The Nearness of You by Amanda Eyre Ward- Book Chase
The Permaculture Promise by Joe Neiger- Commonweeder
Garden Revolution by Weaner and Christopher- ditto
The Forest and the Farm by Vance Huxley- Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales
Leveling the Playing Field the Democratization of Technology by Rod Scher- Bookfoolery

Who am I kidding with all these lists? I chip away at them so slowly. Recent splurge at the library sale plus a few swap books that have come in the house this week finally tipped my personal collection over one thousand. That feels like a milestone, an accomplishment- or just too much!

Feb 8, 2017

What a Fish Knows

the Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins
by Jonathan Balcombe

We don't know much, relatively speaking, about fishes- that's my grand impression from this book. Science is just starting to get an idea of what a fish can sense, know, remember and feel. It's hard to think of a fish feeling anything- probably because they lack facial expressions we can read, and don't make a lot of sounds we can interpret. So it's hard to empathize with them. But just because an organism has been around for millions of years without changing its outer appearance much doesn't mean it is dim-witted or simple- on the contrary, it's probably very successful. And many fishes have- according to this book- surprisingly sophisticated inner lives. Some examples of their powers of reasoning and problem-solving are on par with that of rats or apes. This book is so full of examples (most of them too brief to really satisfy my curiosity) of the varied and complex abilities fish can demonstrate that I have no way to share them with you here. I was expecting some of it to echo material from Fish Behavior, but there was a lot more new information here, much of it recently discovered. I was especially intrigued by the complex relationship and social memory skills cleaner type fishes have, and the deviousness other species use for their own ends. It is also very alarming to read about how much we have depleted the oceans- don't think that by eating farm-raised fish you are necessarily protecting wild populations . . .

The sample of a puffer fish creating artwork out of sand still boggles my mind- I first saw it presented in a documentary. And the many studies that scientists have made to test fish abilities and reasoning skills are very ingenious- although sometimes you end up feeling bad for the individuals, especially if they do have the level of awareness this book posits.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5         288 pages, 2016

Feb 4, 2017

One Thousand White Women

the Journals of May Dodd
by Jim Fergus

At a peace conference in 1854, a Cheyenne chief asked authorities in the U.S. Army for a gift of one thousand women, to be brides for the warriors of his tribe. Because the Cheyenne have a matrilineal society wherein children belong to their mother's tribe, the chief saw this as a perfect means to merge his people into the encroaching white man's society. In real life, it never happened. The Cheyenne's proposal met with outrage and the peace conference fell apart. But what if it did go through? In an alternative history, this novel thoroughly explores that idea. (I paraphrase here one of the opening paragraphs in the book's introduction).

May Dodd is from a family of high society, so her liaison with a man of lower social status is deemed highly inappropriate. When she defies her family by living with the man she loves and having his children out of wedlock, she is forcibly consigned to an insane asylum. It is misery there- but to her surprise one day she is given a chance at freedom: to volunteer in the "social experiment" of becoming a wife in the Cheyenne tribe. All the women sent to the plains to join the tribe must go of their own accord and finding a serious lack of volunteers, the government acquires recruits from insane asylums, prisons and 'houses of disrepute'. Thus the company May keeps on the train West is full of interesting, colorful characters from all walks of life. Her story unfolds alongside that of a dozen other women she keeps in close contact with. It is similar in many ways to the story of another recent book I read- gradual learning of a new culture, seeing the world from the natives' point of view, running up inevitably against the white men forcing them off the land (in this case, the tribes had been granted 'forever' the land of the Black Hills- until gold was found there and the whites wanted it back).

I prefer perhaps, a more personal narrative that focuses on one person- this one although written in style like a series of journal entries and letters (unsent), tells the story of well a dozen women which makes it feel less intimate. It is really interesting to see how the various characters struggled to adjust to their new life- some of them who really were intent on converting the Cheyenne people to christianity or teaching them to be more like the europeans, failed bitterly and were dissatisfied with their situation. Others like May Dodd who came with a more open mind and were willing to learn from their new companions became content with their new lives.

May finds that the tribal people are more kind and forgiving in some ways than the whites who despise them, but in other ways they act very cruel- especially to enemy tribes. Given the reason why the women went to live there, there is an awful lot of preoccupation with sex- I swear almost every chapter it was discussed in one way or another. But the voice of the main character, telling everything in her journal, sounds very true to its time, so she describes everything with a certain amount of discretion. It never gets terribly distasteful. Just tiresome. There was plenty of material about the toil of everyday life, new skills they had to learn, efforts to find game, friction with enemy tribes and white soldiers, etc. But you can never really forget what the main subject matter is, she brings it up all the time.... Overall, a very interesting story.

Rating: 3/5       436 pages, 1988

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Jan 30, 2017

The Tales of Beedle the Bard

by J.K. Rowling

In the Harry Potter series (which I have not read in over a decade now- wow, it feels like a long time ago) most young witches and wizards are familiar with the tales of Beedle the Bard- moralistic fairy tales of the magical world. I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed this little book. It adds something to the backstory and worldbuilding. The short stories feel like authentic fairy tales, and the "commentary" by Albus Dumbledore adds another level of meaning. Sure I would have picked up on those subtle lessons about magic/nonmagical relations, greed, kindness, common sense, etc but it's fun to read the extra explanations. Particularly amusing were the many instances Dumbledore pointed out how the stories fictionalized magical abilities, or how non-magical people would misunderstand them. Gave historical context from the wizarding world, and tied them into "current" politics and events, with some side notes remarking on his contemporaries, students, and a particular witch who 'dumbed down' the stories to make them more palatable (ie saccharine) for wizard children. Some of it has to be taken in context with the Potter stories, but a lot is standalone.

I guess I ought to tell you what the stories are! Everyone who's read the series (or seen the films) will recognize the final tale of three brothers who try to cheat Death. There's also a story about an unpleasant young wizard who is forcibly taught lessons of compassion by a magical pot his father leaves him, a tale of three witches and an awkward knight who strive to reach a magical fountain- overcoming obstacles reflective of their true characters along the way. A wizard who scorns women at a young age and uses magic to safeguard his heart, but his plan backfires. This story has shockingly gruesome ending- it reminds you of how unpleasant and brutal the original Grimm's and Perrault fairy tales are. Not a pretty story... I think the one that amused me most was the tale of Babbity Rabbity- it's about a foolish king who wants to learn magic and a charlatan pretends to teach him- trying to blackmail a local witch who is a washerwoman into helping when things go awry- but she has the last laugh in the end.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5      112 pages, 2007

more opinions:
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The Literary Omnivore
Books, Time and Silence
Write Meg

Jan 29, 2017

book splurge

Yesterday the library branch next town over had its annual sale. The two branches closer to me raised their prices the last sale I went to, but this one still had hardbacks at $2 and softcovers $1 each. I don't mind spending when it supports the library! Here's my haul, with a few notes:
I've still got a mild fascination with sailing and fishing operations. Thus Fishdecks. Nature Wars is about how urban sprawl is mixing with wildlife that adjusts to human presence -kind of like that book that called them 'weed animals' I'm thinking, only a lot more current. I'm finding that the more gardening I do, the less instructional and encyclopedic books appeal to me, but gardening narratives sure do. Those in this stack appear to be more of the narrative type, except for Success with House Plants. It just looked so thorough I couldn't pass it up, and the pictures are very clear. Ditto with the aquarium fish book. I probably don't need another bonsai book, I haven't even read or applied the use of the ones I already have, but this one was very attractive. The horse book here looks a bit dated (especially in quality of photographs) but it seems to be full of stories illustrating the various points, so I thought it might be good. I'm gradually adding to my Calvin and Hobbes collection. But I haven't paid attention to which of the volumes are compilations of several others, so I probably have a duplicate or two.
These I all got just because they looked interesting. The Wild Truth is about Chris McCandless, told by his sister. I wasn't aware that she'd written a book! A Wayside Tavern is a duplicate- oops. I have another copy of that one picked up at the last sale. Caught my eye for the same reasons... I have not yet read any James Fenimore Cooper so here's a go with The Deerslayer. I just looked it up- it was the last book he wrote of his series, but it's a prequel to all the others- so probably a good one to start with! Alien Animals looks interesting, although another old, dated book- about introduced wildlife in various areas of the world and the problems they cause. Unicorn Mountain is an older fantasy novel about unicorns that are discovered living near a ranch and someone wants to get footage for a wildlife tv program but then they find out the unicorns have a disease so should they intervene? I like the straightforward-sounding approach to unicorns (the story doesn't appear to have magical elements). Backyard Giants is about competitions to grow the biggest pumpkin. Castaway appears to be about some guys who deliberately lived on an island to see how they could survive there- reminded me of Thor Heyerdahl's books when I thumbed through it- due to the writing style and age of the photos.
And these titles caught my eye because I've seen them on your blogs and they are probably all on my TBR lists here somewhere. I'm reading One Thousand White Women right now. It will be interesting to come back here in a few months (or years, who am I kidding) to see how my actual reading of these compares to the initial impressions that made me pick them up.

I also got a few knitting books for my twelve-year-old.

Jan 28, 2017

A Woman of the People

by Benjamin Capps

When she is only nine years old, the small homestead where Helen lives with her family on the edge of the frontier is attacked by a Comanche band. Helen and her little sister are taken captives. At first they fear for their lives, but are sold by their captors as slaves into different families within the band. Helen wants to escape but soon realizes how hopeless this is as they travel farther away from white settlements. She steels herself to make the best of her situation, to appear compliant so she can gain the trust of the Comanches and take an opportunity in the future. Helen gradually learns the language and customs of the band. She comes to be treated more as a family member than a slave. She watches her sister grow up among the native children- too young to remember her origins. As the years pass, opportunities present themselves for her escape, but Helen hesitates each time- wanting to bring her sister, waiting for a better moment- until at last she finds she is completely assimilated into the tribe, no longer sure she even wants to escape.

I was surprised at how much I liked this story, even though the writing is rather straightforward and the timeline passes quickly. At first I thought it might be considered a YA or even J Fiction book, but it turns out there are a few brutal scenes that were difficult to read. Helen finds that the Comanches are not 'dumb savages' as her father's folk used to say- but neither are they all kindness. They have their own prejudices against other tribes and torture captives. Larger events pass by and Helen hears rumors of warfare among the whites- later they notice the wildlife is diminishing in certain areas and acting strangely in others. They hear even worse rumors of other tribes being forced to leave their land by "treaties" made with the whites. Helen never dreams that these rumors will affect the life she has come to know.

Mostly it is a story of everyday life among ordinary people. The family relationships, the daily work for food and shelter, their travels to different parts of the territory at various times of year, their interactions with other tribes. The games that children play, the stories they tell. One of the more interesting characters I though was the medicine man- who apparently wasn't a very good medicine man at all- how his standing among the tribe began to slip and how that affected his son who was coming of age. Also a shift in leadership. And Helen's own act of bravery when she saw all their work for winter food being despoiled by a warrior from a rival tribe . . .

A very good story, one that has me looking for other books by the same author.

Rating: 3/5      247 pages, 1966

Jan 26, 2017

Two Little Savages

by Ernest Thompson Seton

Yan is an unhappy boy at home. He longs to be in the woods. He's all about nature- eager to sketch animals, lingering to stare in front of a taxidermist's shop, making himself a hideout in a thicket, wanting to learn all about local wildlife and plants. But those around him dismiss his interests; he is supposed to stick to his schoolwork and help with chores. However after struggling with a long illness, his parents send him to live with some relatives on a farm, in hopes of improving his health.  He is very surprised and pleased to discover that his cousin is also 'keen on woodscraft'. The boys have very different temperaments and skill sets, but become friends through their common interest. They play in the woods any chance they get, and eventually gain permission from their parents to spend a few weeks camping out.

With the help of an old trapper who befriends them, the boys make a tipi and set up a proper camp. This trapper had once lived with a native american tribe, so the boys pester him to teach them all he knows about 'being Injun'. And he does. They learn how to make arrows, start a fire with sticks, track game and all sorts of small details like how to make smoke draw properly out of the tipi, how to skin an animal, tan hides, stuff a bird, make moccasins, set a live animal trap etc....  They have a strict code of conduct among themselves- predators and animals considered pests are fair game, but killing things like songbirds is forbidden. However sometimes they get carried away with their sport and cut down trees to try and capture squirrels, for example. They make up all sorts of games to compete and improve their skills- really their marksmanship with bows and arrows are laughable at first. The detailed game of taking turns hiding and finding a dummy deer they made out of burlap and straw was delightful. By the end of the story they have befriended several other boys and even brought their disinterested parents into the camp to admire their accomplishments.

Aside from all the details about making a temporary living in the forest, the book is a good story about a bunch of kids, just being kids. They have their moments- staunch camaraderie, teasing and heated quarrels by turns. I really appreciated that each kid had a very distinct character. There is a sharp contrast between Yan and his brothers earlier in the story, too. The characters are drawn so nicely I wonder if Seton wrote them after people he really knew (or himself as a child?). It is also a great picture of what life was like for people in rural, relatively poor areas over a hundred years ago. Yan's family is not well off by any means, but he finds there is another level of poverty altogether when he visits an 'old witch' who lives in by herself in the woods. He admires this woman for her knowledge of herbs, but when he asks her for information finds that a lot of her lore is mixed with superstition, and when she invites him to stay for dinner he is horrified at the blatant lack of hygiene when she prepares food. The written vernacular can be a puzzle- it was amusing to read it out loud when sometimes I couldn't figure out in my head what people were saying. Especially the poor folks with their heavier slang and rough talk.

There are also ghost stories, a distracted coon hunt, and a bit of mystery to solve that exonerates a man who had for years been shunned by the community, righting a long-standing wrong. And so much more, but I've got to stop writing.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It's not as long as the page count might make it seem- the print is fairly large and there are tons of drawings- bird tracks, animal prints, diagrams showing how things are made or built, profiles of ducks, humorous sketches and full-page illustrations. Incidentally, Seton's drawings of ducks showing how the species could be identified by characteristic markings seen from afar inspired the first bird field guide by Roger Tory Peterson.

Rating: 4/5     552 pages, 1903

Jan 20, 2017

Roughing It

by Mark Twain

In 1861 Samuel Clemens accompanied his brother west on a stagecoach, apparently because he had nothing better to do. His brother had a new appointment as Secretary of Nevada Territory, and the author tried his hand at lots of odd jobs- including mining, labor in a silver mill and editor of a small newspaper. He kept going west- stopping a two days in Salt Lake City, spending time in California and finally taking a ship to Hawai'i (then known as the Sandwich Islands). He wasn't quite yet a writer by trade, and the stories are kind of rough. Lots of tall tales and anecdotes told many times over by other folk. Tons of exaggeration, which can be laugh-out-loud amusing or just plain tedious. I was intrigued to read his description of traveling by stagecoach and of the early Pony Express, of frontier life, of the craze for silver mining prospects in Nevada, of his visit to Utah where he reports that he met Brigham Young- his description is not very flattering but then he makes fun of most of the people he meets in this book. He writes about the lawless situation in the territories, and there are many episodes showing how people tried to enforce law or impose order on desperadoes, outlaws and swindlers galore. The accounts of trials and hangings got to be long-winded and boring. The detailed descriptions of mining assessments and operations were interesting only to a point, then I didn't want to read about that anymore (I was astounded that they would handle 'quicksilver' or mercury- in their hands while using it to extract silver from other base metals in the crushed rock- it ate the ring off his hands). The native americans are portrayed as being weak and depraved, but the vistas of wilderness are full of grandeur. The description of a visit to Lake Mono and a claim on Lake Tahoe (where they started a fire that burned up the camp) was particularly interesting.

Most of the stories are funny, if you can wade through all the flowery prose and rough vernacular to get to the punch line.

Even though I read the last few chapters to the end, in all honesty I have to mark this book as 'abandoned' because I skipped well half the middle of it. In fact, if I hadn't seen a few other readers' remarks about how interesting the section on his travels to Hawai'i were, I might well have ditched the book sooner. Glad I didn't though, it was a pretty interesting account! A mix of introduced 'civilized' culture and 'pagan' native ways, many of the Hawaiians were still not used to things like wearing clothing. Twain tells some curious stories about how they abandoned their traditional gods for christianity, accepted european ideas of government, and how they loved ceremony- yet so many traditional ideas and superstitions obviously still believed in regardless of how much they appeared to have adapted to 'white man's ways'.

Abandoned        421 pages, 1872

more opinions:
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Jan 18, 2017

Aquarium Plants

Mini Encyclopedia
by Peter Hiscock

I bought this book over a year ago when I started keeping a planted tank, and then never read it! So a lot of the info I've learned by now, it was review- conditions that plants require, planting and propagation methods, pruning techniques, maintenance, etc. There are several nice spreads showing what plant selections would go nicely together according to needs (water hardness) or a biotope display. Second half of the book is plant profiles. Nice clear pictures although sometimes the little informational snippets in the margins didn't actually correlate to the part of the picture indicated, which I found kind of amusing.

I did encounter some new plants here that I've never heard of, and learned why a few of mine haven't done well- hydrocotyle species seem to prefer softer water so probably that's why mine is failing (it wasn't a plant I got on purpose, but a freebie piece that came mixed with some others). I added a few to the list of plants I want to try. There are over a hundred and fifty species profiled in this book, but it seems to be an abbreviated version. The author has published another, much more extensive aquatic plant encyclopedia and that's the one I really want to have on my shelf.

Rating: 3/5    208 pages, 2005

Jan 17, 2017

The Biography of a Grizzly

by Ernest Thompson Seton

Note: there are SPOILERS in this post.

The story of a grizzly bear, different from Monarch the Big Bear of Tallac. The opening scene shows the bear cub gamboling charmingly with his siblings, the mother bear nearby. In the next chapter the mother bear is shot by a man, and only one cub- later named Wahb- survives. He is just old enough to make it on his own, but missing some crucial instructions he would have received from his mother, goes through a lot of struggles in his first year. Which ends up making him a sullen loner. Several run-ins with mankind leave him with a permanent limp and a deep fear and hatred of humans. The story shows how the bear holds his territory and drives out other, smaller bears. He even manages to drive men from his range- terrorizing them at homestead claims until his name becomes known and folks simply avoid the area. The bear is pretty smart- when first caught in a trap he accidentally treads on the spring that releases it; remembering this is later able to free himself from other traps. Further on in the story he finds a hot spring and discovers that soaking in the pool relieves the pain of his old injuries and he visits the pool many times for this purpose. In another part of the book the bear makes Yellowstone (then a very new park) part of his summer haunts, and there is even brief mention of the sick cub that fed on trash outside a lodge there (told in greater detail here).

For once, the main animal character in the story meets a peaceful end. The final chapters of the book was actually my favorite part. It describes how a younger bear seeking its own territory comes onto Wahb's land. This bear can tell that Wahb would be a formidable enemy, so it sneaks around for quite some time. Then it discovers a means to trick Wahb into thinking it is actually a larger bear. When the resident grizzly finds these marks, the apprehension of meeting the younger bear worries and wears on him. It was a really interesting description of the psychological conflict the two rival bears could have, one gradually pushing the other out even though they never had a direct encounter. In the end, Wahb goes into a gully where noxious gas seeping out of the ground makes him fall asleep, never to wake again. This is an actual place and I bet the description of dead bears found there gave Seton material for his story- he based most of his writings on observations or accounts of real wildlife.

My book is a 1914 edition, the story was first published in 1900. It seems to have been reprinted with several different titles- the image I show here is a newer edition which includes reference materials and historical information about the area Wahb lived in. I've also seen an older edition titled King of the Grizzlies which I think is the same story.

Rating: 4/5     167 pages, 1900

Jan 16, 2017

Beach Music

by Pat Conroy

This is rich storytelling, and heavy reading. The novel is narrated by Jack McCall, one of five brothers who is living as an ex-pat in Rome with his daughter, and has vowed to never see his family again, or let them be part of his daughter's life. He is convinced to return by one thing: his mother is dying of cancer. Going back home- to South Carolina- is facing a rocky past. And not just his own past, but that of his parents, and their parents, and his wife's parents, and his childhood friends and so on. It covers so much pain, and so many dysfunctional relationships. Jack has one brother who is mentally ill (his heated parts of conversations stood out to me- the other brothers really blended together I forgot who was who constantly), a drunken father, and a mother who coldly manipulates everyone- or so they all said, frequently proclaiming their hatred for her. I never really got that part, though. Events that happened among friends when they were all students- yeah. Fear and loathing of his father who bullied them- yeah. The bad character of his mother- where were the stories about that?

There's so much going on in here it's hard to keep reading. Family secrets and betrayals. Pogroms in the Ukraine and the horrors of the Holocaust. Student riots during the Vietnam War. An old friend hiding from the law in Rome, in the guise of a priest. Rich cooking- Conroy does like to talk about food, doesn't he? Dirt poor living conditions in an Appalachian valley- I'd never read descriptions of people who worship by handling live poisonous snakes before. Oh, and sea turtles being rescued. By the protagonist's mother. That part really felt unrelated to anything else- was it just to show a sympathetic side to that character... ? Ramblings in the low country, a near-disastrous fishing trip where they encountered a giant manta ray- that part felt really far-fetched. But I have to say, Pat Conroy is a darn good storyteller. For most of the book I rolled with the ebb and flow of shifting storylines, curious to see how each character's past had made them what they were, how it affected and influenced all the others in turn- until I suddenly didn't care anymore, because well, it was just so much to take in and I didn't particularly like any of them.

I almost didn't finish. All this buildup to tell the pivotal, ruinous event that had occurred when the friends were at college, and when I had a hundred pages to go I just didn't want to read more. The political turmoil of the Vietnam War era wore on me. The mock trial staged in a theater where all the characters involved were brought together to air their grievances and explain themselves- felt so overly convenient. In the end, the big reveal didn't seem like a huge deal compared to all the rest of the brutality that happened in the book. I must temper that by saying there is plenty of love in these pages, too- and moments of bravery, unlooked-for compassion, people standing up for what's right, even humor. But I skimmed the last few chapters just because I couldn't bear to call a 700-plus page book abandoned if I lost interest near page 672.

Rating: 3/5            773 pages, 2009

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Jan 11, 2017

Golden Hamster Saga

by Dietlof Reiche

A while ago I read this cute book about a hamster- I, Freddy. My daughter has the first four books in the series, so looking for another fun read I tried the second and third.

I just couldn't get into it. The established premise is that Freddy can now read and write with ease- he is in fact writing (his life story and some fiction) on his owner's computer, and also using the computer to communicate with the man who seems to find it normal to talk to a hamster now, but keeps it a secret from everyone else. Freddy in Peril pitches immediately into a mystery of sorts- someone is trying to break into the apartment and Freddy suspects it is to steal him. This would-be-thief has learned of Freddy's communication skills and wants to use the hamster in some scientific experiment. Of course Freddy and his companions- a cat and two guinea pigs- have to thwart the plan and save Freddy.

It was just implausible from the very beginning. I enjoyed the first book which only stretched a little bit from the normalcy of a hamster becoming used to a new environment and getting along with the other pets. This one goes a lot further- talking hamster solves a mystery and saves the day! I can see how kids would really like it, but it's obviously aimed at them and not me.

I opened the third book Freddy to the Rescue just to see, as this one had a premise that interested me a bit more. Freddy learns that a nearby construction site threatens the lives of a field hamster population, and he intends to save them. But it was really tedious to find that so many things were reiterated in the first chapter as in the other books: the guinea pigs fall over whenever Freddy surprises them with his snarl. The cat is full of himself but Freddy knows better. The humans are clueless as to what is really going on and Freddy will figure out how to fix it all- despite his small size. The incessant jokes and rhymes coming from the guinea pigs were tiresome. The writing style did nothing for me. Oh well.

Now I'm diving into something thick instead.

Abandoned         208 pages, 2006

Jan 10, 2017

Razzle Dazzle Unicorn

by Dana Simpson

It's nice to have a slew of fun, easy reads sometimes. I'm still enjoying these unicorn comics. More adventures of Phoebe and her best-friend unicorn Marigold Heavenly Nostrils. Quirky, amusing combination of reality and fantasy, poking gentle fun at stereotypical ideas regarding girls who love unicorns. Phoebe is definitely a nerd and into things like role-playing games, but she also likes girly stuff on occasion too. She's not a flat character at all. (A nice touch is the variety of hairstyles and clothing she sports in the comics, there's even a "breaking the fourth wall" moment in one of the strips where she makes a comment about how most comic book characters always look the same- as if they never change their clothes. Haha.) She goes through all kinds of usual kid trials- facing tests at school, popular kids teasing her, misunderstandings with her friends (but never with the unicorn- they question each others' ideas and poke fun at human/unicorn characteristics, but never yet have I seen them have an argument!), generation gap moments with her parents, summer camp. But also things like meeting the monster in the lake again, and another new unicorn (this one is pronounced plain though he doesn't really look it). Helping out her frenemy with a goblin problem. I think my favorite bits were the part where she had to read a book for school, and the very brief joke about origami (my twelve-year-old is into that).

Borrowed from the public library. I think there's only four volumes published so far, so now I will have to wait for another compilation, or start following the daily strip online. Have an idea to go back and read some old Calvin and Hobbes collections I have, just for the fun of it. And the comparison, of course.

Rating: 3/5       184 pages, 2016