Jun 30, 2018

Queen of Shaba

the Story of an African Leopard
by Joy Adamson

Joy Adamson, famous for raising the wild lion Elsa of Born Free, went on to raise and release a cheetah as well. Her final ambition was to do the same with a leopard, which had never been attempted before and many cautioned her against it, because leopards were a lot more unpredictable and considered more dangerous than lions and cheetah. It took a long time for her to obtain a leopard cub (with permission from wildlife authorities). The first orphaned cub she acquired died from an overdose of a vaccine, the second one she got seven years later, and it died when left in a hot car too long - very sad. The third orphaned cub that came into her hands remained healthy, and she named it Penny. First it was kept in an enclosure near her home in the bush, but after a lot of consideration she an her small crew of helpers found a suitable location to release the leopard, and they basically moved there and lived out in the bush, letting the leopard roam and keeping tabs on her. They fed her regularly, and supplied her with water to keep her from frequenting the river where they feared she would get taken by a crocodile. They put a radio collar on her (it looks crude and bulky in the photos) but it often fell off so they spent hours searching for the leopard and calling, to find her location and provide for her. The leopard must have learned to hunt eventually, because often she appeared well-fed, but Joy continued to support Penny by taking her food at her regular haunts, even after she birthed a pair of cubs in the wild. She rarely got a glimpse of the new leopard cubs; this big cat was secretive and didn't bring her young to visit her surrogate human mother as Elsa had done.

Joy obviously cared a lot about her cats. During the time she was working with Penny she also took charge of an abandoned lion cub for a brief time, and an adult male leopard who was later released into Penny's territory in hopes he would become her mate- and she devoted all her efforts and time to their care and watching over them. I'm amazed she did all this work even though her health was becoming frail- when she first got the cub she suffered a broken ankle from a fall, and had hip replacement surgery. She seemed prone to injury and the leopard itself often turned on her- I can't count the number of times she wrote that she was stroking Penny- who appeared to solicit the attention- when the leopard suddenly turned and tore her skin, or bit a hole in her arm! It didn't deter Joy from continuing the project. She was careful to keep other people at a distance, only one or two men who worked directly with her became trusted by the leopard; Penny remained wary of other humans and Joy made sure to stay away from areas frequented by tourists or tribesmen, so the leopard would remain as wild in behavior as possible. (In the case of the wild male leopard, nobody at all handled it, that one was fed at a distance from outside the cage until it was ready to be released).

A fascinating true account of one woman's relationship with a wild leopard. But, as reading material goes, I'm sorry to say the book itself is rather dry. I know the author took pains to avoid anthropomorphising the animals she wrote about, so that her words would be taken seriously- she was afraid that otherwise, nobody would believe her stories. So that means her books are very factual accounts, without a lot of emotion or descriptive writing. I'm debating if I should keep this one on my shelf- I feel I ought to, to make my collection of Adamson's writings complete- but I doubt I'll ever read it again (this was the second time).

Rating: 2/5            180 pages, 1980

Jun 28, 2018

The White Bushman

by Peter Stark

Stark grew up in South West African and lived in Namibia most of his life. He was an accomplished horseman, received strict German training in dressage, and a skilled builder as well. But his true passion was hunting. At a very young age -seven or eight years old- his mother bought him a horse and basically allowed him to wander around the bush by himself with his rifle. He became fascinated with lions and adept at hunting them. Not just to remove lions that were killing people or livestock, but often he went hunting just to see if he could get one. The way he talks about hunting and catching live game (usually young animals) to sell to wildlife dealers, you read between the lines and realize he was a poacher. A renowned one, in fact. He knew the bush very well and was on close terms with the bushmen, able to speak the language of a local tribe, spend days out in the bush and survive off game and plants like they did. He learned from them. Later his skills at hunting and his understanding of the native people served well, when he became a game warden, turning about to protect wildlife in the game reserve, and hunt down the poachers.

So his book is all a retelling of hair-raising incidents, many close calls with lions, elephants and other dangerous animals. I was astonished at how many risky encounters he came out of alive. The man was no doubt very bold and knowledgeable, he led a wild kind of life and obviously loved what he did. He talks about the people he met, adventures they had, run-ins with poachers, frustrations with tourists, love of various dogs he kept over the years, and fine horses. But he also has no qualms mentioning his fierce temper, his need to take revenge on people -and animals- who had shamed or wronged him. He would often track down a lion just to "teach it a lesson" and once harassed a pair of lions until they fled into a tree, whereupon he drove under the tree and pulled the lion's tail. It defecated on him. I thought he well deserved it. I can't say I admire the man very much, his attitude towards animals put me off. He definitely respected the power and intelligence of the lions, but only a few times seemed to actually feel regret at killing them.

The writing is very straightforward, a bit dry- but it's an incredible book when you sit down and take in that his stories are all true accounts. I was really interested in the part that describes how he trained bushmen on horses to herd elephants out of farmland when they strayed from the Reserve- very dangerous work that sounded. I felt sad for his wife and children- they are barely mentioned at all, were it not for a few photos of his family in the center pages, I would not have realized he'd been married at all. I'm not surprised that at the end of the book he mentioned that he had ignored his family, being all the time in the bush, and his marriage failed. I wonder what kind of tale his wife would have to tell, of raising four children basically on her own.

It's a bit amusing, how I came by this title. My husband recently took a trip to Namibia, where he found this book in a shop. He bought the copy in Afrikaans (mine is translated into English by Jan Schaafsma) because he wanted to read it in the original. Back home he was often relating to me surprising stories from the pages, and I was a bit annoyed because it seemed like just the type of book I'd enjoy myself! So he surprised me, purchased a copy online so I could read it too. Very kind.

Rating: 2/5           223 pages, 2008

Jun 26, 2018

Two in the Bush

by Gerald Durrell

If Durrell really wrote a book about every trip he went on to film or capture wildlife, I am happy there are so many yet for me to read! This one is from earlier in his career, when he was part of making a wildlife documentary for television. With a small film crew and his wife, he spent six months travelling through New Zealand, Australia and Malaysia to look at wildlife conservation efforts in those countries. Of course, having a short time frame in which to find elusive, often very rare animals and get good footage of them, often made for hectic schedules and amusing situations, such as when they captured "flying lizards" (gliding lizards in the Draco genus) and released them over and over from the top of a stepladder while the cameraman lay on his back below, to get it on film. Banter among the camera crew and his wife constantly interjecting caution (the cameraman in particular would take alarming risks to get the footage needed) interesting observations on culture and local people in the places they went, make for a lively read. As always, I was most intrigued to read first-hand descriptions of animals in their native habitat (for the most part- a few they saw in captive breeding programs). Some of these included the royal albatross, king shag, takahe, malee (two rare birds), platypus, mudskippers (not rare, but very interesting) and leatherback sea turtle. They witnessed a kangaroo birth and apparently were the second to ever get it on film. (The first footage made, by scientists at a place that studied kangaroos, was deemed unfit for television use). Durrell was apparently quite fond of wombats, but considered koalas to be dim-witted and dull. I wasn't aware that black swans were (at the time) considered an invasive species in New Zealand. Durrell makes a continual point how mankind has changed natural landscapes and many species are in danger of extinction. His final chapter is a plea (repeated in most of his books) for people to pay more attention to the needs of wildlife and support conservation efforts. It's nice to know most of the conservation programs he visited at the time, have since shown a good success rate.

Rating: 3/5           256 pages, 1966

Jun 23, 2018

Home Ground

A Gardener's Miscellany
by Allen Lacy

Enjoyed this one very much. It's another collection of little gardening essays, a man speaking from his own experience. He is obsessed with daffodils, praises or criticizes a great many other plants, expresses irritation at silly-sounding plants names in catalogs and limited selection in nursery stock. Describes many doings in his own yard and garden, and also describes a few others that he knew well- even if he never met the gardener. Each little essay feels too short- but rich with insight and lively with humor (even if he's poking gentle fun at himself). I definitely want to find more of his writings.

Rating: 4/5           259 pages, 1980

The Message

Animorphs #4
by K.A. Applegate

The five Animorphs get some strong hints that a piece of an Andalite spaceship may be crashed in the ocean nearby, and the alien enemies are zeroing in on it. Two of them are also having strange dreams, hearing calls for help. They decide they must find what's in the ocean, so they morph into dolphins. They handle the time constrictions a little better this time around; Tobias-the-hawk carries a watch now so he can remind them when they've been in animal form too long. They manage to travel long distances without getting stuck in dolphin form by flying partway as seagulls, and stowing away on a cargo ship as themselves. Still some awkwardness in their plans, complications they just don't think of beforehand. As dolphins they run into sharks, and get help from a whale. I suppose since the Animorphs can communicate mentally, receiving messages in dreams and speaking telepathically with real whales shouldn't be so odd, but it still struck me as a little out there. What they encounter in the ocean- well, let's say the last few chapters did take me by surprise. It looked like they were doomed to fail, but the aliens showed a surprising vulnerability. And they find a young Andalite (Ax is the shortened name they give him) who had been left behind when all his companions died in the war. That character caught my interest again- his apparent standoffish manner, the gulf of their understanding. It made the last two chapters better than all the rest, the foil of alien nature. There's also a kind of moral dilemma arising in Cassie's mind- she feels uneasy with her struggle against the animal nature when morphing, compares it to how the aliens enslave humans. Others point out this isn't a fair comparison: they are acquiring DNA and becoming a new animal individual, not actually taking over the mind of an existing animal. Still, it's something to think about.

Yet for some reason, I didn't enjoy this book as much as the others so far. The writing is not quite as good. There were several parts where the phrasing seemed downright juvenile- not as if it were aimed at a young audience, but as if the writing wasn't polished. The animal transformation scenes didn't captivate me as much, either (and those are really what I read it for). If this is a hint of quality to come, I don't know how far I'll keep reading in the series. The opening scene where Cassie morphed into a squirrel to spy on a fox- that one was a bit funny in spite of her panic.

Borrowed from the public library

Rating: 2/5                154 pages, 1996

Jun 21, 2018

Betrayers

Poems on self-love and spiritual blackmail, vol 5
by Angie Outis

I didn't realize there was a fifth book out in this poetry series, until it came into my hands. It wraps up the story of what the author went through leaving her husband and filing for divorce. Seeking family help, which wasn't there. Finding cold shoulders and blame, instead of helping hands. Telling the kids, fielding their tears and confusion. Desperately packing the car and moving out when her spouse wasn't home. Scrambling for options. Mourning loss, recovering from fear. Her children gradually realizing what it all meant, expressing some of their own fears. Her awkwardness around men, in raw, new situation as a single woman...  And I thought when closing the book: so few pages, to hold so much pain. I hope she's in a better place now.

I received a copy of this book from the author.

Rating: 3/5         44 pages, 2018

Jun 18, 2018

The Education of a Gardener

by Russell Page

This volume is about the career of a landscape architect. I am not familiar with the author, but apparently he is renowned in gardening circles. He spent his entire life designing outdoor spaces for the wealthy after creating his first garden at age 18. I read the initial chapter where he tells about how he first became interested in plants and gleaned knowledge from all his neighbors who gardened, and then struggled to stay with the book. It's very strongly focused on design, on balance and form and how the eye is led through a landscape. Stuff on a grand scale. While the principles are something I'd probably benefit from understanding better, personally I found the reading rather dry. And over half the plants were unfamiliar to me. All the photographs are in black and white, which I suppose is okay because you see the form and composition of things, instead of being wowed by beauty and color- but it felt rather flat and dull. I skipped around trying to find something a bit more engaging, but even when he was describing design problems and how plants or sketches solved them, it failed to keep my interest. The last chapter, where he imagines a garden he would build for himself, was more intriguing, however only for the first few pages.

I'd like to like this book, but I don't. Why is it that whenever I don't care for a classic, I feel disappointed in myself? Urg. It's quite dense, and not just with the words- it's also surprisingly heavy for the size of a standard hardback book- so I became physically weary of handling it. Nothing against the author for that, but it did make it harder to try and appreciate a book I just didn't want to be holding for long.

Abandoned          382 pages, 1962

Jun 17, 2018

Onward and Upward in the Garden

by Katharine S. White

This gardening book is a compilation of articles originally written as a column for The New Yorker magazine. It took me by surprise. The individual essays are not actually about gardening per se, but are for the most part, reviews of seed catalogs. I have done this once myself, so I was a bit intrigued. It turns out Mrs. White is quite opinionated about gardening and the development of new plant varieties- especially how showier flowers and bigger produce seem to be all the seedsmen are aiming for- at least that was her take on it. She disparages a lot of trends in the seed catalogs, which makes for some amusing reading. Here and there she mentions her own experiences with certain plants, which were the parts I really enjoyed. She doesn't just talk about plants, though. She criticizes (or praises where it was merited) the paper quality, choice of typography and clarity of photos in the seed catalogs. Later in the book are a few reviews of different types of publications regarding plants- field guides to wildflowers and oversized gardening books meant to be decorative (I call them "coffee table" books). I admit I was totally uninterested in the two chapters about books on formal flower arranging, styles in flower arrangement, and flower shows. I kind of skimmed through that. I puzzled a bit at how often she made a point of telling which supplier had what particular variety of a species, until I recalled the publication date: there was no internet back then. You couldn't just do a search and find where to buy the rose your grandmother used to grow or anything. So of course she made notes on which seeds suppliers grew, developed and sold what particular strains of plants. Specializing in roses, or azaleas, or herbs, etc. Helpfully, in the back of the book is a listing of all the catalogs and suppliers mentioned, with brief notes if they are still in business or have changed their focus. Only the last two chapters review gardening books of the kind I like to read- and here I did note down a few titles that sound particularly good. And on a different note, the introduction is written by her husband, a lovely portrait of Mrs. White and some of her gardening habits.

Rating: 3/5         362 pages, 1958

Jun 13, 2018

the Nature Notes of an Edwardian Lady

by Edith Holden

I am not familiar with this author/illustrator, but I do know she has written a Country Diary, which this compilation predates by a year. I expecting something like Wildlings, but this book is much simpler and I admit to being slightly disappointed. While it does have daily notes, where Holden jotted down the wildflowers and bird species she saw on walks through fields and hedgerows, it's really just like a list. Very few and far between are any actual incidents or descriptions of wildlife behavior. Most of the text is a collection of poems and quotes about the seasons, or flowers, or the beauties of nature. Wordsworth, Longellow, Shakespeare, Tennyson . . . . but I don't read a lot of poetry, especially this type, and personally I did not care for much of it. There are a few interesting tidbits about where the names of the months originated, or special holidays and folklore particular to each season. It was slightly reminiscent of the Treasury of Flower Fairies.

What I really like about this book is the artwork. The detailed paintings and drawings of many different types of wildflowers (quite a few I recognize, considered weeds in my yard!) and birds are just lovely. Delicate, lively and carefully done. It's apparent from her notes that Holden carried flowers and foliage home to study and paint from; I wonder if she just had a quick eye or some other means to attain the accuracy of her bird sketches. A few mammals: rabbits, ponies, one fox, but mostly it's birds and some butterflies. They really are very nice.

The notes and drawings are from 1905; the book was first published in 1989.

Rating: 3/5             192 pages, 1905

Jun 12, 2018

Antar and the Eagles

by William Mayne

This book has a rather unique premise: a young boy refuses to go to school and instead climbs up to the church steeple, where his father is working on the roof. He is snatched by a golden eagle which carries him off to an aerie on the mountainside. There the boy is raised alongside the eagle chicks. It is a very uncomfortable life, needless to say. Several times he fears he will die. But gradually he adapts to his new situation, learns to stand his own against the aggressive eaglets, and starts to understand the eagles' communication. It turns out they abducted him for a very specific purpose: they have a mission only he can carry out, to rescue a special egg that was stolen. But first they have to teach him to fly.

It's rather weird and delightful all at the same time. At first I thought the dialog was rather stiff, and wondered if the text had been translated. But a brief reference to bison and a quick look at the authors' ouvre made me realize it's probably set in North America, in some unnamed, simple town. Further into the story I began to appreciate how real the characters feel, how very human Antar's reactions to everything, and the odd situations just made it more interesting. I was really not at all sure how the story was going to end. It has a few unexpected turns near the end- in part caused by the fact that the eagles nest close to an active volcano... . . .

Aside from the moment when the adult eagles pushed the young ones off the nest to make them fly, the behavior of the wild raptors in this book felt very authentic. Well, overlooking the fact that they talk to each other, and have a leader, and send a boy to save a missing egg... . . . It was quite a nice mix of fantasy and naturalism, and I liked the writing style enough that I will be on the lookout for other books by this author.

Rating: 3/5            166 pages, 1989

The Encounter

Animorphs #3
by K.A. Applegate

It seems these books switch, each one written from a different viewpoint. Most of the plot in this one is about Tobias' struggle with his fate in the form of a hawk. More and more he feels overwhelmed by desires to live as a wild bird- to associate with a female hawk nearby, to hunt and eat prey. He's still part of the team and involved in their plans, but checks out now and then as he wrestles with his animal nature, sometimes acutely missing the things he used to do as a human, at other times having difficulty even remembering what that was like. In one very dark moment, he despairs about being a hawk forever and attempts a suicide move.

Meanwhile, in the ongoing conflict with the alien forces, the Animorphs discover their enemies' cloaked ship and attempt to sabotage it, but their plan is not very well-thought out and once more they barely escape with their lives, accomplishing nothing. There are casualties in the fight that occurs- although just a side character, it saddened me, because I liked the complexity that individual had raised with Tobias' situation.

There are some inconsistencies, though- now all of a sudden they can't communicate mentally when in human form, only if they are morphed- but in the previous two books whole conversations took place between morphed and fully human Animorphs. The descriptions of them going through stages of morphing are pretty good at making you realize what a disturbing and unsettling sight it would be- but at one point the author gets something very wrong about animal anatomy. There were a few other small details that momentarily jarred me out of the story because they just sounded inaccurate, but for the most part I enjoyed it, and once again found it a bit more complex and gritty than expected. With a nice dash of humor in the banter between characters. The new animal morph in this book was fish- and I was disappointed to not get a more detailed depiction of that experience, as the main character -of course- remained a hawk.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5          154 pages, 1996

Jun 11, 2018

The Visitor

Animorphs #2
by K.A. Applegate

In the second book, the five Animorphs decide to spy on one of their alien enemies, whose host is the parent of Rachel's friend Melissa. Well, Melissa used to be Rachel's friend, but gradually a distance has grown between them and Melissa seems cold towards her, unhappy overall. When Rachel takes the form of a cat to spy on the enemy in Melissa's house, she finds out why. Her mission becomes more than just gathering information, she now feels compelled to help her old friend- even though it means risking exposure, or staying too long in the cat body. The friends discover more about the alien Yeerk's organization, see at close hand how the parasitic Yeerks destroy families from the inside out, and come uncomfortably close to the worst of the bad guys- narrowly escaping with their lives. Unfortunately they don't really save Melissa- her parents are still enslaved by the aliens- but they do prevent a worse fate happening to her.

I can see now why some other readers mention these books are dark. There are battles that can be gruesome, I see moral dilemmas arising, and so far there are no happy, neatly-tied up endings. The kids try hard to fight the enemy, but they are still arguing a lot among themselves, still figuring out how morphing works, and one of them- Tobias- got trapped in the body of a hawk permanently. There's an interestingly dark irony to the fact that Rachel recognizes her struggle to control the animal brain she takes on as a morph, is similar to the struggle the alien Yeeks exert to control their human hosts. The main animal experiences in this book are Rachel's as a cat- her quickness to notice movement, her indifference to things people care about, her supreme self-confidence. There's also a scene where she transforms into a shrew- and has a terrible time controlling the shrew's frantic panic at any threat and desperate drive to find food. You'd think, then, that Jake's transformation into a flea would also be a frightening experience (he found it very unsettling to be in the body and mind of a skittish lizard in the last book) but on the contrary- his senses were so limited in comparison to a human experience- visual input he couldn't interpret, sounds just loud, muffled reverberations- that he couldn't really tell what was going on. I found all this pretty interesting, and although the alien battle storyline still strikes me as rather juvenile, the kids' strong emotional motives to continue the fight (after all, the Yeerks don't know who they are, so they could easily fade back into anonymity if they wanted to) are made to feel very real.

Borrowed from the public library. (This is the only one of the newer issues where the frozen-hologram image on the hardcover works for me.)

Rating: 3/5              174 pages, 1996

more opinions:
Arkham Reviews
Cinnamon Bunzuh!
the Library Ladies

Jun 10, 2018

The Invasion

Animorphs #1
by K.A. Applegate

I think I would have been wowed by this series as a kid. I saw them around and for some reason never read any before. Thistle's review perked my interest so I borrowed the first few of the series from the library. I pretty much agree with her assessment: the plot and characterization is rather juvenile (to be expected, looking at the age group these books are written for), but the scenes where the kids turn into animals are really cool and worth reading it for.

Let me backtrack: it's about five kids who cut through a construction site walking home one day, where a spaceship suddenly lands and an alien grants them powers in a last effort to protect the human race, before he dies. There's a war going on in space; some slug-like aliens crawl into the brains of other species and control them. The Andalites have been fighting them, and this one gives the kids abilities to change into whatever animal they touch, by absorbing DNA material. Sounds hokey, and the kids think so too, until one of them tries it out. Unbelievable, the freedom and far-distant sight of a hawk. The speed of a horse. The lithe power of a cat. The discerning nose of a dog. They realize that nature has powers they can really use. But when they change into animals, they also have to fight that animal's natural instinct, and be careful not to stay too long or they are stuck in the morphed form. For example, when one kid is spying on the bad guys in form of a dog, he has to really concentrate not to get distracted by all the intriguing smells and small creatures to chase and so on. Because yeah, they find out quickly that already many people on Earth have been taken over by the slug aliens (Yeerks) and there's no way to tell who. They have to keep their abilities secret, because any Yeerk who knew would kill them.

But at the same time, they are still dealing with real life: school, family issues and so on. Some aspects of the story felt lame or overly-convenient (how nice is it that one of the main characters, Cassie, has parents who work at both a wildlife hospital and a zoo? so they sneak in and touch all different kinds of animal to gain the abilities to morph into those species)- but I was neatly surprised at how real the dialog felt, and the humor that cropped up now and then. Mostly I really liked the switching perspective- what's it like to suddenly be a lizard smaller than a shoe? or a massive elephant?

I do think I'll continue the series- it's great light reading- until maybe it deteriorates in quality. I see that there's sixty-four books total, but many of the later ones ghost written so I don't know how good those are. And my library only has the first eight... The cover image I posted here is from the original paperback issues- it shows the morphing process (which caught my eye decades ago). My library has newer re-issued copies, with holograph type covers which oddly enough, only work on the paperbacks- you can see the image change when you tilt the book. But the hardbound issues don't have that effect- the image is in-between and rather disturbing on some of them. I happen to really like this version printed in Brazil.

Rating: 3/5            185 pages, 1996

more opinions:
In Bed with Books
Arkham Reviews
Cinnamon Bunzuh!
the Library Ladies

Jun 8, 2018

Coleus

Rainbow Foliage for Containers and Gardens
by Ray Rogers

For a book about plants, this one is informative and engaging. It even made me laugh quite a few times. I like a bit of humor in gardening books. It's all about coleus. I acquired my first coleus by accident- it was an abandoned plant someone gave to me and I didn't even know what it was. I almost killed it with improper care. Then I learned how to take cuttings, and got a few more varieties. Now I have a list- mostly from this book! - of other types I'd like to have. I must be picky, though, because my window space is limited in winter time, to keep them going for spring...

Anyway, this book gives a little history of the plant, explaning why there are so many varieties of coleus out there (with a confusing number of common names as well). It tells, of course, how to care for coleus- some of them are more finicky than you'd expect- and how to take cuttings or grow from seed- if you want something totally unpredictable. Helpfully, there is a wide range of photographs demonstrating how coleus can be featured in the garden- a lot of them have very gaudy, even shocking colors, which can be difficult to harmonize. I don't really care for the appearance of coleus topiary- but if you aspire to that, there are instructions in here. The gallery of cultivars at back has clear photographs and descriptions telling you what plant might actually be another by the same name, what types of sun/shade they can stand, how they behave differently if the lighting or temperature is not to their liking, the stability of pattern throughout a growing season or when taking cuttings and so forth. The notes are brief, but very helpful. Already I noted that a few which caught my eye while reading the book, might not really be worth the trouble to grow long-term.

I also gained some tips on their care, things I didn't know before. I discovered that the oddly round leaf I found on one of my orange-and-red coleus must have been a 'sport'- and I should have cut it to grow out into its own plant! also that the individual plants will drastically change color intensity depending on what kind of lighting they are in. I've seen that happen, too.

Borrowed from the public library. One I'll gladly add to my own shelf, if I ever find it at a sale.

Rating: 4/5          228  pages, 2008

Jun 6, 2018

Killing Keiko

by Mark A. Simmons

When I saw this book on the library shelf, I recalled reading Death at SeaWorld and was curious about another perspective on similar subject: orcas in captivity. This book is about one particular orca that starred in the film Free Willy. Following the film's popularity, people wanted Keiko- the real whale- to be set free in the ocean- he was living in a theme park in Mexico. The attempt was made- with huge donations of money from both the public and private organizations. The whale was moved from Mexico to an aquarium in North America for a rehabilitation period, and then to an oceanic pen on the coast of Iceland where the release was planned. He was led into the open ocean and guided back to the pen many times- but in the end did not make it. Reports say he was weakened by long-term illness and deteriorating skin conditions caused by his decade in captivity. It certainly sounds like the effort of restoring his health and releasing him into the wild again was a complicated, daunting task- some say with little hope of success.

I couldn't read the book, though. I went into it not knowing who the author was, his agenda or background. I was baffled on the opening page, when the author claimed that orcas in captivity behave no differently than those in the wild. I was taken aback by his disparaging attitude towards others around him- both colleagues and renowned scientists. The writing felt awkward and often sounded peevish. It jumps around a lot but usually zeroed in on why the author felt slighted or how his opinion trumped everyone else's- which really bored me. The book itself- as a physical object- felt like a self-published volume- cramped margins, slightly-over-large text, thinly glued binding. I assume my guess was right when I looked up the publisher and found this one book to their name. Just couldn't read any more after that.

Abandoned          398 pages, 2008

For Big Bucks Only

by Jeff Murray

I think I got this book from a library sale. Just for curiosity. As with Ride the Right Horse, I'm not really the intended audience- so the rating reflects my interest level, not the book's actual quality. Reading it as an outsider (although I do have extended family members who are hunters), I couldn't really tell you whether this guy's advice on how to hunt whitetails is good; I don't know if the recommended gear is the best, or if the scientific studies referred to are the latest information. What kept me skipping through (I skimmed some) were the insights into wildlife behavior. Of course to be able to find deer in the woods (especially during hunting season when they are extra wary) takes some knowledge of their habits and responses to threat. Where will the deer go when pressured by different types of hunting methods? how do does or young bucks act different than older bucks. How do they use the landscape, and how can the hunter turn that to his advantage. What types of browse and tree cover do they favor, how does acorn (mast) ripening times affect their movements, what do they do just before and after a storm, etc etc. It was more interesting than I would have guessed.

The chapters detail how to use stereoscopic maps to find promising patches of habitat, how deer movements are tied to their favorite food supply (acorns), where bucks will usually be found in relation to their rubbings or scrapings, tips for hunting deer on farmland, around beaver ponds and in deep forest, scoping out the land before the season, using stands in trees, bowhunting tactics, how deer act in different types of weather, reading and following tracks, the importance of personal stamina and patience, estimating weight in the field and so on. There are some anecdotes and hunting stories in here, both personal accounts and ones the author shares from other hunters. While all the photographs are in black and white, they're pretty good quality. I'd sketch from them if I were still drawing pictures. The writing style is easy and friendly with a light sprinkling of humor that kept me picking it up even when I realized it wasn't a keeper. For my shelf at least. I'm going to give this one to my dad and see if he finds it useful.

It's published by the North American Hunting Club.

Rating: 3/5             216  pages, 1989

Jun 5, 2018

Higglety Pigglety Pop!

or There Must Be More To Life
by Maruice Sendak

I saw this one browsing in the library and picked it up. I thought I'd read it before, but I must have just seen the final panels reproduced elsewhere- the beginning was more or less unfamiliar to me.

The first part is chapter-book style, with full page illustrations. Jennie, a sealyham terrier, has everything she could want in life but feels unsatisfied so she runs away to find adventure. She wants to have a star role in the theater but needs experience. A passing milkman assumes she is the newest nursemaid for a child in a big house nearby- exclaiming one must need experience for the job- so the dog accepts that and does her best to go make the baby eat her dinner. Instead, it's the dog who is eating tons of stuff on nearly every page! she does land the theater position in the end, and the final pages show the performance- a silly nursery rhyme about a dog eating a mop. Yeah, what?

Some other things are really odd- the dog talks to a plant and eats all its leaves until it can't speak to her anymore (she also later talks to an unhappy tree). The family in the big house moved away, left their baby behind, and then promptly forgot their original address so couldn't return to get her. And they keep a lion in their basement to eat the nursemaids who fail at the job (main requirement is getting the baby to eat). A lot of it is just the kind of ridiculousness and skewed logic a child might employ, but I'm not sure if my kid would find this book amusing, or just plain weird!

Myself, I didn't really care for it in the end. But the illustrations, with their detailed pen-and-ink texture, are lovely. They transcend the story.

Rating: 2/5          70 pages, 1967

Jun 4, 2018

Call of the Mild

Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner
by Lily Raff McCaulou

I found this memoir about the author's introduction to hunting as a grown woman thoughtful and heartfelt. She certainly made me question some assumptions I had (prompted by media outrage) about gun ownership in America. A lot of the book is about her family life, and how her job led her to move from big city to semi-rural Oregon where she began to accompany her husband fly-fishing and found she rather enjoyed it. Her interest in learning to observe the river habitat expanded to a curiosity about hunting- would it allow her to see and read the forest in a new way? She had a healthy fear of firearms- in fact never really lost that- but took a beginner's hunter safety course (full of kids) and started by practicing at a shooting range and then hunting birds- pheasant, chukars, ducks, mourning doves, geese. She was fascinated by the role of dogs in hunting groups she went out with- (but the cover image is a bit misleading as her own dog was not a hunting companion). She kept hunting birds but also shot rabbits and eventually worked up her skills to attempt going after deer and elk. All the while wrestling with internal emotions about taking the life of an animal- becoming more conscientious about where the meat in grocery stores comes from, learning how invested many hunters are in conservation efforts, careful land management and wildlife protection. Overall I found it an eye-opening read (although I'm not interested in becoming a hunter myself) and I didn't mind that part of the book was just about family life and emotional upheaval she went through (a period of many deaths near her- elderly neighbors, family members and friends alike)- it made me understand her as a person better. This quote from one of the final chapters sums it up neatly:
Hunting has changed the way I think about the food I eat and my pet dog, not to mention the animals that live out of sight but all around me. It has give me a deeper connection to the fast-growing community where I live. It has changed the way I follow politics. Still, I have only brushed the surface. I have not yet wrung all the meaning I can out of this new adventure.
Borrowed from the public library

Rating: 4/5         323 pages, 2012

Jun 3, 2018

Snapper

by Brian Kimberling

I didn't care for this one much. It's a novel but reads more like a halfhearted memoir, some of the incidents are so odd and displaced they must have happened to a real person, and there's very little plot per se. The main character drifts through life, mooning over a girl who never really pays much attention to him, works in the field for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service counting birds and monitoring their nest sites. The part about his job- I appreciate that he liked his low-paying position, being outside, better than a move up the ladder would have been, putting him in an office analyzing the data- was interesting, but there simply wasn't enough of it. Likewise one of the more interesting side characters- a woman he met who'd had lyme disease that caused neurological damage disabling her arms and hands- was only present in a few scenes. Further on in the book he moves to Vermont for a job in a raptor rehabilitation center- another part I would have liked to read more about- but the work is hardly mentioned as he doesn't like raptors. Observations of eagles and hawks from his songbird-watching job in the forestry service made that clear.

Most of it is really descriptions of odd daily happenings and people around in him in southern Indiana. Which make it sound like a dismal place to live. He's rather disparaging of the people and place. Of Texas, too. Perhaps it's supposed to be funny, but the few times I caught the humor, I already knew the joke so it fell rather flat. One of the oddest scenes was when his dog found a large bone in a cemetary- he guessed it was a human femur- and he couldn't figure out what to do with it, so took it home. Another part is about his friend's disappointment with his work in library sciences. There are parts about meeting up with people he'd known in high school, and realizing he doesn't like them, or they don't have anything in common anymore. Awkward scenes. One includes the other guy catching and teasing a snapping turtle. The guy got what he deserved.

I started skipping some pages just to get to parts that I felt were more worth reading. In the end it's all just really lackluster and leaves you wondering what's the point. Oh well.

Rating: 2/5              210 pages, 2013

Jun 1, 2018

My Gentle Barn

by Ellie Laks with Nomi Isak

This book is about how someone with a troubled childhood found solace and healing in the companionship of animals. She nearly crashed and burned as a drug addict but then pulled her life together and started rescuing dogs from kill shelters to place them in new homes. Lots of ups and downs, struggles with her marriage, friction with neighbors which precipitated a huge move. Eventually she acquired more property and ran a sanctuary, a place to take in mistreated farm animals. She opened her doors to groups of at-risk and troubled teens, hoping that some contact with the animals and hearing their stories would help them on the path to recovery, as well. Apparently she did really well with her operation, learning as she went, nurturing the animals in spite of many setbacks, finding a new husband and raising three kids along the way. Most of all, her love was for the animals. I did enjoy reading this book, although I raised my eyebrows at a few things- she claims to be able to hear animals speak to her mind, telling her their true names, to have been lead by "whisperings" to animals in need, and so forth... The writing is a bit simplistic and lots of details are left out, but this does not surprise me with a book that is co-authored, when after all she's not a writer by trade. I also thought at first that she was just sparing us the worst details, which could be hard to stomach when reading a story about both child abuse and animals being seriously neglected and mistreated. Most of it is uplifting, hearing about how the animals are cared for, most of them recover to enjoy peaceful lives.

But... why does this happen so often? I finish reading a memoir or story like this, hop onto the computer to see who else may have written about it (usually because I want to learn more about the background, find out where things have gone since the book was written, or locate other points of view on the book) and encounter some harsh criticism accusing the author of blatant lies and misrepresentation. Sigh. So now I don't know what to believe, and having found such bitter criticism sours me on the whole story.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5         268 pages, 2014

The Cats' House

by Bob Walker

I'd heard of this house, but it's something else to see it described in text and many pictures. The author and his wife have a family of beloved felines- nine cats at the time the book was written- and they decided to give their cats space above their heads by creating walkways near the ceiling in several rooms and down a main hallway. With cutouts for the cats to pass between rooms at height, secret hideaways inside closets where walkways meet at small hubs, a floor-to-ceiling climbing post, customized staircase and ramp at different locations to let the cats gain their heights. It is all very whimsical and fun (although personally I don't care for the bright, gaudy colors but it fits in perfectly with this couples' decorative choices and their extensive collection of Mexican folkart). Their cats certainly look very happy in the pictures. I'm dubious how many cat owners would literally remodel their homes like this just to provide some entertainment and security for their cats, but in case you're inclined to try, the author offers some tips for design and construction. Fun, quick read.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5      92 pages, 1996