Feb 24, 2017

The Dawning of the Day

by Elisabeth Ogilvie

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

Abandoned        308 pages, 1954

In Love with Daylight

by Wilfrid Sheed

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

Abandoned           252 pages, 1995

Feb 23, 2017

The Wild Truth

by Carine McCandless

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

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

Rating: 3/5       277 pages, 2014

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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

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Feb 18, 2017

Facing the Lion

Growing Up Maasai on the African Savanna
by Joseph Lemasolai Lekuton

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3/5        128 pages, 2003

Feb 17, 2017

Olive's Ocean

by Kevin Henkes

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

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

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

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

Rating: 1/5      217 pages, 2003

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Feb 16, 2017

Shadows in the Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3/5     415 pages, 1963

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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