Nov 4, 2019

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

by Mildred D. Taylor

This is a book that has been on my TBR a very long time- and before that I had definitely heard of it. It won a Newbery in 1977. I think I may have seen a film version when I was a kid- one of the scenes where the family and their neighbors fight a fire in the cotton field at night, beating the flames with dampened grain sacks, was suddenly visually familiar to me. It's about the Logans- a black family living in Mississippi during the thirties. Cassie's family owns their land, but is surrounded by black families who are sharecropping, barely able to make ends meet. The nine-year-old narrator tells about all the inequalities she experiences and witnesses- from sub-par segregated schooling to suffering insults and snubs in public, to watching her family struggle to hold onto their land as white people in positions of influence and means make life hard for them. At first this is subtle, and Cassie's parents resist by equally subtle means- encouraging the black community to boycott the local white-owned grocery store, for example. But gradually things escalate into violence- beatings, theft, shooting, threats of lynching. Even the kids get involved, trying to sabotage the school bus (I thought this was funny) and Cassie cleverly (but in a rather backhanded way) gets even with a white girl who once forced her off the sidewalk and humiliates her in school. While the racism and violence is disturbing to read about, Cassie's family bonds tighter through their troubles- the kids definitely stick up for each other- and the parents share wise words to counsel their children. I can see why this book is taught in schools and considered a classic, but somehow I did not really feel invested in the characters. Might just be the other distractions around me IRL right now. Actually the two characters that interested me most were outside the main family- one a black boy who has a cocky attitude and winds up in bad company- a gradual thing but you see it coming. The other a white kid who is something of a loner and walks with Cassie and her siblings to and from school- he tries to befriend them but they are wary. I liked this kid, wish he'd been more a part of the story. The book is part of a series about the Logan family- but unfortunately I don't really feel interested in seeking out any of the other volumes.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                276 pages, 1976

more opinions:
Valentina's Room
the Literate Mother
anyone else?

Oct 31, 2019


by Larry McMurtry

Brief memoir by a writer who is also known for his movies but his real passion was dealing in used books. Especially high end collectibles and rare editions. So of course he tells how he came to be a reader, and his love of books which any bibliophile would enjoy absorbing in these pages. However this volume felt a bit choppy to me, as he tells about part of his childhood, then where that led to or some related aspect of his adult life, then drops back into the chronological narrative again. Every other page nearly, as the chapters are mostly only one or two in length. It didn't bother me too much, though. I've liked before many memoirs written by readers or writers, but this one is really about being a dealer. A book scout. Mingling with wealthy and monied people (they have the best private libraries) and what finds he had (or missed out on). How some copies resurfaced years later, or were re-bought and sold when you wouldn't expect them to be. Lots of titles I recognized fondly, and many many more I didn't (my reading tastes are not quite the same). Loads of name dropping which did nothing for me, but I skimmed through that, interested regardless. Plenty of interesting snippets of stories about curious customers or individuals met while seeking out fine book collections. He tells about when secondhand bookshops were thriving, and how he watched them slowly begin to decline in the seventies. This account wraps up just when online selling was becoming a thing, in fact the last chapter is a sort of obituary list of defunct bookshops- many of which he'd acquired the complete stock when they went under. He also noted how computers are gradually taking over space in public libraries, saying though Book selling will never quite expire unless reading expires first... Civilization can probably adjust to the loss of the secondhand book trade, though I don't think it's really likely to have to. Can it, though, survive the loss of reading? That's a tougher question, but a very important one.

Aside from the bookishness, I also enjoyed reading about places- I've lived briefly in San Francisco and Baltimore, and now am near Washington, D.C.- all locations McMurtry tells about thick with book dealing and bookshop visits. Made me want to visit more of them, before they disappear. (McMurtry says of D.C: What depressed me most in D.C. was that the various great houses I was invited to contained so few books.) !

I haven't read any of McMurtry's novels yet, but have wanted to try Lonesome Dove. Which he says he wrote as a western version of Gone with the Wind. Another one that's on my list!

My favorite quote: Very quickly.... I realized that reading was probably the cheapest and most stable pleasure of life. Sometimes books excite me, sometimes they sustain me, but rarely do they disappoint me- as books that is, if not necessarily the poetry, history, or fiction that they contain.

This amused and saddened me: I'm proud of my carefully selected twenty-eight-thousand-volume library and am not joking when I say that I regard its formation as one of my most notable achievements. Yet, when I walk along the rows of bookshelves now, I feel that a distance has opened between me and my books.... I think sometimes that I'm angry with my library because I know that I can't reread it all. I would like to, but the time is not there. It is this, I think, that produces the slight sense of alientation that I feel when I'm together with my books now. They need to find other readers soon- ideally they will be my son and grandson, but if not them, other book lovers.

Rating: 3/5                   259 pages, 2008

Oct 28, 2019


One Man's Struggle to Establish the World's First Jaguar Preserve
by Alan Rabinowitz

I'd heard of Alan Rabinowitz before, a leading scientist in big cat conservation, but this is the first time I read one of his books. After university he studied black bears in the states, then met George Schaller who asked him to go to Belize and do a survey of jaguar numbers. Rabinowitz spent two years in the Cockscomb basin in Belize trapping and tracking jaguars while living with the Maya people. It was extremely difficult work in rough conditions, frequent misunderstandings with the locals, terrible diseases, parasites, bad or non-existent roads, deadly snakes (encountered many times) and so on. The study site was a logging area, so there were conflicts there to deal with as well. One time he survived a plane crash, and had to deal with the PTSD of that in order to continue working- as it was often only possible to locate the jaguars' tracking signals through the air.

In spite of all the hardships and suffering, the author fell in love with the place, especially the jaguars. The people did not understand this. He tried to work closely with them- lived alongside them, learned some of their language, ran a small clinic out of his house providing medicine for common illnesses they had no access to otherwise- and hiring men to help him maintain roads, trap the animals and track them through the forest, but they still didn't get it when he got upset that one of his study animals had been killed. He took every opportunity to educate the people about wildlife- showing them sedated ocelots up closer, for example- but it took a long time for this to make an impression, the people had deep-seated beliefs and fears about the animals. Reading about their traditions, lore and native remedies was interesting too. He also shares some Maya history and while tracking jaguars through the jungle sometimes came across ancient ruins. Discovered the site called Kuchil Balum which sounds very impressive in scope (he contacted an archeologist to come and survey the ruin). So the book is just as much about the place and the locals as it is about the wildlife, a full picture of what the work was like, and I enjoyed it very much. Rabinowitz doesn't shy away from sharing his own frustrations and failures. When he left the area after two years, he wondered if all the effort had been worth it; it's hard to enforce laws protecting animals when the local policeman brags about killing a jaguar with his car! But the afterword, very much appreciated, shows that it did work after all. He returned years later to find the preserve intact, wildlife abundant and the attitudes of the people markedly changed. Great read.

This quote from the book sums up the author's work and urgency very well:
We sit by and allow massive destruction of the jagura's habitat, forcing it into situations where death is the inevitable conclusion. Yet even as we are destroying it, we admire the animal - in zoos, on television, in books- and we wonder how it lives, what it eats, not even stopping to think it might soon no longer be living or eating at all. Then when the jaguar's gone from the wild, we'll carve its image in stone and speculate about how magnificent it must have been. Is there hope for animals like the jaguar? In our greed and fear we are destroying them, as the ancient Maya were subjugated and destroyed. 
Though remnants of the spirit of both the jaguar and the old Maya still survive in isolated pockets, how long can they last? . . . When the jaguar no longer walks the forests, there will never be anything like it on earth again.
Just have to say, this kind of book is a big step up from Pink Boots and a Machete. While the former is probably accessible to a lot more readers who wouldn't normally be interested in depictions of scientific fieldwork, this one is a lot more satisfying to me.

Rating: 4/5              378 pages, 2000

Oct 24, 2019


Revised Edition
by M. Brock Fenton

I've been reading this one off and on since Darkwing. It's a hefty coffee-table sized book with loads of great photographs and tons of interesting data. My copy came from a library sale and I can see why it was discarded- heavy water damage with warped pages which made handling it feel off- reading books can be such a tactile experience for me- and the page numbers don't match the index or cross-references- but that didn't dampen my enjoyment too much.

I did not realize how numerous and varied bats are until I read this book- over 900 species! Aside from all the basics like flight mechanism, diet, roosting habits, reproduction, conflicts with mankind and so forth, this book details the many differences and curiosities in the bat species. I always thought that most bats eat either insects or fruit, but it turns out that some eat leaves, or nectar, or small mammals, even other bats. There's a species that specializes in catching fish. And they're not all restricted to one type of food item, either- a few have a more varied diet, eating plant material and insects. There's the famous vampire bats too- only three species but how large in the human imagination- that chapter was pretty interesting. A lot of the information about how bats navigate and echolocate was fascinating, too. They use different frequencies to avoid interfering with each other's signals, or their own hearing. Some are actually audible to humans. Many bats make vocal noises too- squeaking at each other. While most are strictly nocturnal, lots of them have very good eyesight and use it. Their faces are so curious- flying foxes are my favorite, they look very endearing and familiar- but many have huge ears or fleshy flaps and extensions on their noses, or odd wrinkles that make them appear very alien. One that's really strange-looking is the ghost-faced bat. I think my favorite section was one of the last chapters in the book, about how different cultures perceive bats, with examples from ancient art and legends. Not all fear bats- Chinese symbols use bats to represent happiness and joy, and have names for them like "embracing wings" or "fairy rat." A lot of this book is focused on providing information to show how intriguing, well-adapted and even vulnerable bats are, dispelling many myths people have of them so they can become protected instead of mistreated. It certainly taught me many new things. Don't ever handle a bat- yes the risk of rabies from a bite is real- but they needn't be feared and loathed as much as they are.

Rating: 4/5             224 pages, 1992 and 2001

Oct 17, 2019

Green Hills of Africa

by Ernest Hemingway

I could not like this one. I tried really hard- read a third of it. It's about a safari trip Hemingway made to East Africa with his wife (referred to in the book only as P.O.M. - Poor Old Mama- took me a while to figure that out) and a few friends, to hunt big game. Their goal was to get as many large animals as their license permitted during the allotted timeframe- rhino, lions, kudu, giraffe, zebra for their hides, etc. Hemingway was obsessed with getting a larger rhino than his companion, a kudu with bigger horns, etc. He took pride in making a good, clean shot- and while I can admire the skill- I found the attitudes overall very distasteful. Even though he describes in one passage having suffered a terrible war wound in the past, so he knows what it feels like to have been shot- and thus is determined to always make a clean kill so the animals don't suffer long. Yet he describes in detail how one of his companions always laughed hilariously at the sudden contortions animals made when hit hard from a far distance- stunned, in shock and agony, flipping head over heels or spinning in circles- I didn't find that funny at all. I've read other hunting accounts that were interesting and showed enough respect for the animals, enjoyment of the challenge that I was okay with it. Yes, these were different times and attitudes but still. It was too crass for me. The descriptive writing of the landscape, environment and native peoples did not make up for that. The cursory manner Hemingway used to refer to his companions- barely describing them at all so I rarely knew who was who- and half the time had no idea what their conversations were about- didn't redeem it for me either. I did like reading his opinions on other writers- in the evening, after stalking and shooting at animals all day, Hemingway and his companions would sit around the camp getting drunk, reading books and discussing literature. Really full of their own opinions. Some great thoughts in there and pointed observations, but if I wanted to read literary criticism I'd much rather have a book about just that, without all the amusement on the part of animals dying with their hides blasted open so he and his friends could get all the trophies they'd paid for. I'm feeling sore about this, as you can tell. Don't care for Hemingway now.

Abandoned                  207 pages, 1935

Oct 16, 2019

Pink Boots and a Machete

My Journey from NFL Cheerleader to National Geographic Explorer
by Mireya Mayor

Daughter of Cuban immigrants, Mireya Mayor was raised by three strong women and it's really admirable how she lived her own life- outside of all expectations and stereotypes. She professes to being a "girly girl" but also had a strong love for wildlife and adventure, even as a child. She was a professional cheerleader (that practice regimen sounds demanding, let me tell you) but then took an anthropology course to fill a credit in college, and realized she really wanted to go to exotic places and study primates. So she did. Without giving up her designer labels or beauty products. She talks about how hard it was to break into the field due to her different background, and "not looking like a scientist", how her feminine products came in handy on exploring treks in unexpected ways, how she worked for her PhD while being a mother. There's chapters about many different expeditions- to Madagascar to study lemurs, the Congo in search of gorillas, diving with sharks, hiking through deserts, travelling on food to the very spot where Livingston was once found (and nearly starving en route). Lots about the difficulties and hardships in remote locations, the tedium and logistics nightmares. The writing is light and conversational, a bit short on the kind of details I usually appreciate, but quick to get through and probably appeals to a broader audience, too. I did start to get tired of one final chapter where she went with a small team that was being filmed- a kind of explorer's survival reality show- and most of it was about their constant disagreements. I would have liked to know more about the actual research done on the various trips, and more description of the animals encountered. But that's just me. This book is a great inspiration for any young woman, to just go for your dreams, no matter how they match up with anyone else's ideas.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                   304 pages, 2011

Oct 10, 2019

White Dog Fell From the Sky

by Eleanor Morse

It's the 1970's and South Africa is deep under apartheid. One of the main characters, Isaac, witnesses the death of his activist friend- shoved in front of a train by members of the South African Defense Force- and flees the country, terrified the repercussions of his presence at the scene will cost him his life. He is smuggled across the border into Botswana and finds the relative peace there surreal. He finds work as a gardener for a white woman, even though he has no experience (was previously a medical student) but an old man who works at another household gives him some tips. Later he's left in charge of the house when the woman goes on a research trip to the Okavango Delta- and when she returns he's suddenly gone missing. Alice has been facing the disintegration of her marriage, is feeling unsettled from an unplanned tryst she had with a colleague on the trip, and is baffled at Isaac's unexplained absence- she hadn't known him long but it's very out of character. Especially because the white dog who had attached herself to him is still at the house, half-starved, waiting his return. Although acquaintances around her caution Alice to forget Isaac and not get involved, she can't let it be and tries to find out what happened to him. Meanwhile her new love interest has also gotten himself into trouble, returning alone to take personal action against what he sees as an outrageous atrocity- the stock fence put up to supposedly prevent hoof and mouth disease from spreading to cattle, blocking a migration route and causing thousands of wild animals to die of thirst. This man's impulsive actions, spurred by anger, reminded me of Mark Owens- probably not coincidentally, as the debacle of the fence was actually discovered by the Owenses when they were in the Kalahari. The details of Alice's ex-pat life was like Rules of the Wild, but more serious here. I didn't find her story quite as interesting as Isaac's, and the romance in the middle of everything seemed a bit- unrealistic? but not enough so to bother me. It was a slow one for me to get into, but once I did I found this story, these lives weaving together in subtle ways that gradually intertwine stronger, very compelling. Part of the story takes place in a Jo'burg prison- it is atrocious and horrific, but thankfully there are not too many details of the suffering, more about how it affected someone very long-term. Honestly, I don't often get emotional reading a book but this one moved me to tears at least twice. There's also parts in it about the native San people, which I liked very much- I kind of wish there had been more about them. The heat is consistently oppressive and palpable, the landscape very real in all its emptiness, wildness and fierce kind of beauty. I would definitely like to read more by this author.

Rating: 4/5                 368 pages, 2013

Oct 3, 2019

Secrets of the Savannah

by Mark and Delia Owens

This one picks up where Eye of the Elephant left off. Most of the previous book was about their efforts to stop poaching; while they had made great strides it was not wiped out completely. So this book continues to tell about the conflicts with poachers and govenment corruption- although on a lesser scale, it did ultimately prevent them from returning to Africa. It's also more about the animals- lions, baboons and wildebeest but mostly of course the elephants. How the years of poaching had decimated the population, removing adult breeding males and females alike- and what effects that had on their social structure. Also that they saw increasing number of tuskless elephants born in the population because of the poaching. I remember just recently reading about this happening in Mozambique; the Owenses saw it in Zambia in the early nineties. This book also tells a lot about the continued programs that supported village industries and also has chapters about each of the author's childhoods. So I have mixed feelings about it. I found most of the book interesting- in some ways I actually liked it better than Eye of the Elephant. It was good to learn about the author's backgrounds- what led a farm boy from Ohio and a girl from South Georgia to spend decades of their adult lives fighting for elephants in Africa. But I can see how other readers found this book disjointed- it not only switches POV every chapter, but also veers from telling about the anti-poaching work, village life and wildlife studies in Africa to relating childhood memories. Pertinent, yes- but also a bit abrupt. Also, I found the title and jacket blurbs a bit misleading. The back cover would make you think this book is all focused on the wild animals, but it's not. And I didn't find the data they gathered about how elephant populations rebound from poaching (or natural disasters) so big as to be considered a 'secret' revealed. Title had me expecting a lot of details about the private lives of the animals, and I just didn't get that.

There's also, in hindsight, all the stuff they left out. Which I discovered upon reading more about the Owenses online- this article in particular is disturbing. I wasn't even aware that Mark had a son, you'd never know it from the book- but it appears he was heavily involved in the anti-poaching efforts too, which were far more volatile than the books let on. And that's the least of it.

Rating: 3/5                230 pages, 2006

Sep 27, 2019


by Kenneth Oppel

I don't remember where I first heard about this book- it's been on my TBR list since 2010! I'm glad I finally got hold of a copy to read, it really had me turning the pages. Darkwing is set far back in prehistory, when the dinosaurs are dying out and mammals are starting to fill the gaps in the ecosystem. The main character, Dusk, belongs to a colony of 'chiropters'- an imagined species that precluded the bats (all the other prehistoric animals in this book are based on real species). Dusk is different from his companions- he has weak, stunted hind legs and a stronger chest and forelimbs as compensation. The chiropters cannot truly fly- they glide between trees and then climb the trunks to a higher vantage point again. But Dusk- also born with near-naked wings (the chiropters call them 'sails') and larger ears- feels a strange urge to try flapping his forelimbs. He is fascinated by the birds that fly above- the upper reaches of the trees are forbidden territory, belonging to the birds. He also discovers later in the story that he can use his echolocation not only to hone in on insect prey, but to 'see' in the dark. Needless to say, Dusk does not quite fit in, and his community finds his differences at first suspicious, then later on an outright threat. Now there are more beasts stalking the land, as the dinosaur species die out- and when some felids (weasel-like precursors to cats) that have developed a new taste for flesh find their colony, the chiropters might need Dusk to help them escape to safety and find a new home.

Even though some aspects of this story felt a bit simplistic- how convenient was it that Dusk had not one unusual characteristic, but all three making him one of the first true bats- I found it really intriguing. The world of the batlike chiropters is pretty believable, and their conversations didn't upset my suspension of belief too much. The idea that the dinosaurs died out not only from sudden climate change upsetting their world- too cold for their bodies that can't regulate temperature, lack of food sources weakens them and disease becomes widespread- but also because of actions taken by the smaller, weaker mammals- was a new one. The parallel storyline from the viewpoint of a felid that moved beyond their normal died of insects, larvae and eggs to eating other animals and got exiled by his fellow felids who were horrified by his new cravings, was just as interesting to me. Eventually the paths of the chiropters and felids intersect, as Dusk's colony set out on a journey, encountering all kinds of dangers and new strange animals. Really, the conflicts piled on thick and fast near the end, but it wrapped up pretty tidy.

This book reminded me of so many others. I'm not alone comparing it to Watership Down. I couldn't help but think of Ratha's Creature- prehistoric talking animals, one has a new ability that threatens the established way of the group. And even oddly enough, Stellaluna came to mind- the bat that interacted so much with birds, struggling with self-identity. As Dusk is seeking his own way- can he suppress his desire to fly in order to fit in? why is he so different? - he's torn by loyalty to his family and deeply troubled at growing friction within his colony as he learns more about their past and the group disagrees on how to face their future when all the dangers seem overwhelming. Darkwing is shelved among juvenile fiction, but I would say it's for older, mature readers in the age range. There's some brutality, descriptions of animals attacking tearing apart and eating each other, and other frightful scenes. Also really serious stuff about loosing family members, challenging the status quo and more. Oh- and reminding me of Bannertail, there's one scene where Dusk eats a psychoactive mushroom, and another where the young bats eat tea leaves enjoying the jittery feeling (which their parents frown upon). Ha.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5            422 pages, 2007

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Sep 24, 2019

Beyond the Bird Feeder

habits and behavior of feeding-station birds 
when they are not at your feeder
by John V. Dennis

This is a nice enough guide to bird behavior. Unlike the subtitle claims, there's actually quite a lot in here about behaviors seen at bird feeders, but that's always a starting point to lead you to see what birds are doing elsewhere in the yard, edges of forest or city parks. The chapters cover migration patterns, what attracts birds to feeding stations (including what color catches their eye quickest- according to this author it's white), what foods different species prefer, why they would choose human-offered foods, what kind of space makes a feeder more likely to be visited, how birds use provided water, how they take dust baths or sunbathe or deliberately fly through smoke or even put ants on their skin (reasons for this unclear). How they warn each other and mob up against enemies, what types of friction or aggression you will see among common birds, how they use plants and specific habitat types for shelter and natural food sources, and avoid or suffer through bad weather. Also how they utilize houses and other building structures. Differences in bird-feeding tendencies between America and Europe. The author lives in the Eastern side of the United States, so happily a lot of his personal observations and notes on habitats and native plants used by birds were very relevant for me. It does feel a bit dated and simplistic- the author quotes Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz as making recent observations in the field- and this comment made me raise my eyebrows: Since around 1850, North America, as well as Europe, has been in the kindly grip of a warming trend. Thanks to the milder weather, a number of animals have pushed their ranges northward . . .

The illustrations are nicely done. Although not as detailed or scientific as some other books I've read on bird behavior, I think this one would be appreciated by anyone who enjoys watching birds in their yard and wonders about their interactions with each other and other various behaviors.

Rating: 3/5                  201 pages, 1981

Surf Monkeys

Choose Your Own Adventure
by Jay Leibold

I never thought I'd give a book meant to be all fun a low rating, but this one had me rolling my eyes and impatient to finish. Read it with my kid at bedtime last night, not at all interested to try another storyline on my own. Mostly because it doesn't really seem to follow the format of Choose Your Own Adventure books I recall. Usually they have a page or two setting up the premise, and then nearly every page there's a choice at the bottom. This book had many many pages of setup- and not all tidy in the beginning either- I was flipping from front to back to middle to font again, without ever having made a choice. I got annoyed and fanned through the pages looking at the lower margins- surprised to find that nearly all of them said Turn to page -- instead of If you choose-- or Do you choose-- ? It's only got nine possible endings with pages and pages of straight reading to get to them, and I bet none of the threads intersect each other. The storyline is fine considering it's aimed at kids- you're spending the summer on a California beach with a laid-back uncle who lets you do whatever you want, learn surfing and try to chum up with a surfer gang when a friend goes missing. There's possible shark attacks, friendly dolphins, suspicious men on an oil rig offshore and bad weather to be dodged while you try to find out what happened to Jorge. There's just not enough choices for the very specific genre this book is supposed to be. I was annoyed because it didn't meet my expectations, and not interested enough in a surfer detective story to try again.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5                144 pages, 1992

Sep 21, 2019

The Magic of the Unicorn

Choose Your Own Adventure
by Deborah Lerme Goodman

My eight-year-old has recently discovered Choose Your Own Adventure books. I hadn't read any since I was a kid myself, until now. In case you're not familiar, these books have alternate endings and threads of storyline; when you get to the bottom of each page there's an option: do you follow the path or climb the hill? or whatever- and you turn to a different page according to your choice. Some choices lead you to a happy or satisfying ending, in others you fail to succeed, or die. In this book there was one ending where you simply forgot about the mission and got distracted by something else, leading an entirely different life. Sometimes what seems like the safe or rational choice leads you to disaster, while the risky-looking option obtains the goal. It's unexpected. Which adds to the fun. Sorry for a few spoilers below.

So, the main premise here is that you live in a medieval village, there's a drought and the well has been tainted by a dead rat. An old woman tells you that a sorceress could help, or a unicorn could purify the well with its horn. The rest of the book is a search, either to find the unicorn or the sorceress and magically clean the well. I admit after doing one or two reads for fun- picking options I would imagine myself choosing in the situation- I read through the book methodically, choosing every possible variance to see where they all lead. In some, you end up tramping through the forest following different suggestions where to find the unicorn. The unicorn has inevitably lost its magic and needs your help to restore it. In other scenarios, you go searching for the sorceress in unlikely places, or follow another path to rumors of someone possessing a unicorn horn who might let you use it. In one instance, you end up stealing the horn from a wealthy duchess! In another, you end up crawling through a tunnel under a church to follow a bat- weird. There's not only a sorceress in this book, there's also possible encounters with an evil warlock, or an old witch. One thread leads you to meet a griffon, in another you encounter a dragon (not good endings). I was kind of surprised how many endings had you finding a cure for the poisoned well that didn't involve the unicorn at all, but some other magic. Some threads lead you to find the unicorn dead from its loss of magic, you didn't make it in time. But there's plenty of options where you do find the unicorn, help it out, and in gratitude it fixes the well. In one ending, the unicorn ends up your pet. My favorite was the one where you don't find the unicorn at all, but get turned into one yourself!

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5            118 pages, 1985

Sep 20, 2019

A Useful Dog

by Donald McCaig

This is a tiny little book, the first thing that surprised me about it. It's a collection of writings about sheepdogs- mainly border collies the author keeps and works with in Virginia but there's also one part about large white guardian dogs helping to move huge flocks in Montana. Most of the pieces- a few pages each- are about personal experiences with the dogs and the sheep, at home bringing lambs in from bad weather, facing down wily ewes, or working sheepdog trials. I liked all that. I found it interesting and thoughtful. But at least half the book diverges to talk about dog breeding, how shows have changed the animals, how they might have evolved in the first place and what DNA studies have taught us about dog origins. Which I've read about in much greater detail in other books, so I rather would have preferred more personal stories by McCaig about his own dogs. Oh well. It does make me remember that another of the author's books Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men has long been on my TBR list and I will probably like that one better.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5              80 pages, 2004

The Time in Between

by María Dueñas
translated by Daniel Hahn

I saw this at Indextrious Reader, and wondered immediately if my nearly-fifteen-year-old would like it. It has a lot of elements my teenager enjoys in books: romance, a bit of drama, intrigue and spying. This is a war story, set during the Spanish Civil War. The main character, a young seamstress-in-training named Sira, flees the turbulence in Madrid and goes to Morocco with her fianceé. Where she gets unexpectedly stranded, betrayed and burdened with a heavy debt due to someone else's reckless behavior. She turns to her sewing skills to get herself out of the mess, and it evolves into something else, leading to connections that get her involved in espionage.

I didn't quite get that far. I read about a third of it and then began skimming, loosing interest and not willing to push through six hundred-plus pages. It's a good story, with a strong female character who remakes her life several times over, but I just didn't find anything I could quite connect to. The political events all felt like flat background material and Sira's personality never really felt alive to me. I suppose it could be the fact that the text is translated, or it could be that it's just not my usual type of read, so I didn't find it exciting. I did, however, get enough of a feel for it to surmise there's nothing I'd object to my teenager reading! although I don't quite know if the author's style will be appreciated more than I could.

Borrowed from the public library.

Abandoned                   615 pages, 2009

more opinions:
Fantasy Book Club
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anyone else?

Sep 17, 2019

The Eye of the Elephant

by Delia and Mark Owens

Many many years ago I read Cry of the Kalahari- the story of this couple's studies in an untracked African desert, and I was enthralled with the descriptions of close encounters with wildlife and rough living. Now I finally read their following book, and it was- not the same. Eye of the Elephant isn't as much about wildlife behavior as it is about human behavior. Poaching. After having to leave the Kalahari, the Owenses searched for a new wilderness to make their home, hoping to study lions and other animals again. They thought they had found the perfect spot in a remote valley in Zambia. It was rugged, difficult to navigate, sparsely populated, full of lions, rhino, crocs, antelope etc. But they were puzzled at the scarcity of elephants, until they started finding piles of bones. Dismayed and -on Mark's part- enraged at seeing the elephants killed in huge numbers, the Owenses took it upon themselves to stop the poaching. They tried to encourage game patrols, to teach local villagers that wildlife was worth more alive than dead (many other animals were killed in addition to elephants- for bush meat), to give the people jobs and support them in creating cottage industries- all to save the wildlife. Really it's amazing what they went through, literally bending over backwards to turn things around. Never having time to just sit and watch the animals. Doing things that threatened their own health, driving themselves to exhaustion, many close calls with wild animal encounters and flash floods, not to mention the dangers of facing down heavily armed poachers keen on protecting their habitual livelihood. There was a lot of corruption, they faced death threats, and several times were nearly trampled by buffalo. Some of Mark's tactics against the poachers surprised me, and his flying at night sounded hair-raising. At one point Delia couldn't condone the direct approach Mark was taking and set up her own separate camp. Not surprisingly, their relationship suffered somewhat. In the end they finally accomplished a sort of peace after a lot of difficulty, hardship and frustration. What descriptions of animals there are, I found intriguing, but because of all the focus on their efforts against poaching, this book reminded me far more of The White Bushman than of anything by the Adamsons. The parts Mark wrote about flying his plane made me recall Beryl Markham.

Rating: 3/5              306 pages, 1992

Sep 13, 2019

An Elephant's Life

An Intimate Portrait From Africa
by Caitlin O'Connell

The author spent some twenty years doing research in Etosha National Park in Nambia, and wrote this book about the social lives of elephants. It's really a grand photo essay. The observations were all done from a research station set up next to a water hole, and while some of the book is about how that was conducted, their daily activities and hardships living out in the bush, most of it is about the elephants. Their interactions, tender and threatening gestures, friendships and enmities, shifting relationships as they age and elephants move in and out of the herd. New births, mother's guidance, the matriarch protecting the group from other elephants that encroach on the water rights (as elephants perceive them). Also against predators- lions hanging around. Mostly, though, the focus is on the male elephants- how the young adult males start to show their independence, until their behavior becomes obnoxious and the females push them out of the herd. How they form alliances with other young males, or shadow adult bulls. How the bulls compete for water and access to females- but also surprisingly spend a lot of time just in each other's company or supporting one another. The final chapter details the fall of one older bull from power, when he sustained an injury that weakened him. It was all pretty interesting because I never read so much about the social interactions of male elephants before, always assumed them to be loners except when it came time to mate. I think the author put a lot of focus on the males to change these assumptions.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5               196 pages, 2012

Sep 12, 2019

Arctic Tale

Narration by Linda Woolverton, Mose Richards and Kristin Grove
Adapted by Donnali Fifield

Another book of striking photographs and brief paragraphs. I haven't seen the film this is based on, but it doesn't matter, it was a nice read by itself. It follows the lives of two predators in the Arctic- polar bear and walrus- from birth to independence. Shows a bit of family life, learning skills, social interactions, hunting attempts and so on. Mostly pictures, and the majority of those are good quality. There's images of other animals that live in the same region too, as their lives cross paths- arctic foxes, harp seals, caribou and various seabirds. Theme is on the struggle for survival- especially in the face of warming oceans which shrink the sea ice these animals depend on- the walrus as a secure resting spot, the polar bear as it gives access to food sources. I especially enjoyed reading the final chapter, where the filmmakers and photographers described how much work it took for this production, what they learned from it, their impressions and experiences of the arctic. Now I ought to get the DVD and watch it with my kids.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                 160 pages, 2007

The Mating Lives of Birds

by James Parry

Seems that this book has also been printed with a different title- The Mating Game: Bird Courtship and Display, which I find more descriptive. It's very accessible and general- an easy enough read, with a wide variety of examples from many species in different bird families. It's all about the interesting and curious behavior many birds use when trying to impress a mate or ward off rivals, as well as the beautiful plumage they grow during the breeding season. There's sections on how birds find and select mates, their often-stunning methods of showing off to each other, the varied types of relationships they form and maintain, territory defense and colonial living, nest building (presented in order from the simplest- a dry scrap on bare ground- to the most complex woven nests or mud-daubed structures), and how the eggs and young are cared for. Each section really only has a few pages of text, more space being taken up by large, striking photographs. Most of the birds mentioned in the text are shown in the pictures, which I definitely appreciated. Very nice book showing how birds manage one of the most intense events in their lives- finding partners and raising a family. Sample of the pictures- vivid throat feathers on a hummingbird:
Adult cuckoo:

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5             160 pages, 2012

Sep 11, 2019

The Genius of Birds

by Jennifer Ackerman

Birds are smart. They can be resourceful, curious, inventive and opportunistic. It is true that many show limited responses to novel situations, or avoid them altogether- living in a narrow band of specific habitat where their needs are met, following set behavior patterns. But other birds can vary widely in their habitat use, discovering new food sources, solving problems and inventing new ways of doing things. Like the blue tits in Britian that learned to skim cream off milk bottles on porches- and the behavior spread as birds learned it from each other. This book looks into things like exactly how birds learn to do things like that- what parts of the brain are used, what kinds of behaviors do they copy from each other. Which species of birds learn by mimicry, or by being actively coached (some parent birds give their offspring practice and guidance in learning certain skills). It discusses a ton of other stuff too- the complexity and variety of birdsong- in some cases akin to language. The ability of some birds to navigate hundreds of complex social relationships in colonies. How they can steal, cheat, deceive and conversely, console one another. How they can remember thousands of locations where they hid food. Recent findings that poke holes in many long-held notions about birds: many monogamous pairs (including swans) actually perform myriad "extra-pair copulations on the side" (and speculations on why they do this). How they perform astonishing feats of navigation- the details of this are still not understood. From the angle of the sun, position of the stars, magnetic field of the earth, visual landmarks and even olfactory memory- it appears to be a combination of it all. The intricacies of nest-building. The artistry of the bower birds. And the astonishing ability of some birds to make tools for specific uses- the New Caledonian crow will even save a tool it has made, and carry it around to use again later. The book doesn't just describe observed behavior about all these things, but specific studies done to investigate what types of skills birds could learn and how they managed to solve problems. Points out that scientists have discovered that birds' brains are organized very similarly to humans', and in some cases their intelligence level is on par with that of great apes. Pretty amazing.

Except that I've read a lot of it before: see Bird Brain by Nathan Emery. And it took me a while to get through this one because I found the writing a bit uneven. The introduction, in particular, is very redundant and it almost put me off reading the rest of the book. I was also sometimes dismayed to read how the experiments were done. Some simply presented wild birds -caught and kept in aviaries for a short time- with problems to solve and then released them to see what they did back in their natural environment, with their new skill. Fascinating. Others used birds in a lab, studying what parts of the brain lit up when certain behaviors or emotions were active - not hard to imagine what that really entailed. More disturbing was when researchers trapped birds during migration, cut a nerve that communicated a certain sense or organ with the brain, and then released them to see if they could still navigate. I guess that's a way to see what the bird relies on most to find its way, but I couldn't help feeling bad for all those individual birds lost and wandering because of their inflicted disability. They never found their way home.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5               340 pages, 2016

Sep 4, 2019

Fresh Eggs

by Rob Levandoski

Kind of a modern fable. It's fiction, with all the horrors of factory farming, and the tenderness of a young girl's heart. The main characters in the story are father and daughter- Calvin Cassowary has an abrupt career change when his father suddenly dies, leaving the family farm in sad state. Calvin doesn't want to sell the farm to developers to be turned into housing, as some of his neighbors have done. But he can't keep it running the way his forefathers did, there's no profit. Instead of growing multiple crops and raising a variety of animals, he signs a contract with a huge corporation that produces eggs, and builds layer sheds on his land. His young wife keeps a small flock of hens in the yard and sells eggs to the local customers, while the confined company hens - literally a million of them- keep the farm afloat. Until they don't . . . Meanwhile, Calvin's daughter Rhea loves tending her mother's chickens, but is horrified by what she sees in the layer sheds. As her father starts to sink under growing debt, falling egg prices and strict company rules that never allow him to get ahead, Rhea becomes more involved with the chickens and more determined to do something about those million layer hens locked up in the sheds, forced to produce for a mere eighteen months before they are turned into pet food . . . Calvin's wife passes away, and Rhea carries on her memory with the small backyard flock, and then something very strange happens which draws the attention of local media. There's lawsuits and drama galore. I can't say what or it would spoil the story for any of you. It's disturbing and intriguing and by the way it all has a very tidy ending. Unrealistic maybe, but nice- and why not, for such a quirky story.

The tone of the book kind of reminds me of Jane Smiley. There's a slight mix of fantasy and reality akin to Tender Morsels (although this book doesn't  have such heavy topics). There's a part that takes place at the county fair, reminding me a lot of Geek Love. It's also a story of young first love, and a lot of it is about how the daughter's relationship with her father changes over the years, and how she finds acceptance with who she is.

Side note- one interesting detail is that Calvin's second wife suffers from multiple allergies and sensitivity to chemicals in the environment. Basically everything makes her sneeze or itch or both and she's always miserable except when having sex- it's the only time when her allergic symptoms abate. Oddly, there was another character in the story who had an unusual physical affliction, which only started to go away after the loss of virginity. I keep trying to figure out what the author meant by this, if there's some symbolism to it.

Found this one at a used book sale.

Rating: 3/5                  252 pages, 2002

Sep 1, 2019

Winging It

a Memoir of Caring for a Vengeful Parrot Who's Determined to Kill Me
by Jenny Gardiner

Story of family life with an african grey parrot. When the author was newly married, she and her husband had always wanted a parrot. They couldn't afford a captive-bred bird, and felt dubious about acquiring a wild-caught one. So they got a dog. Who turned out to have tons of health problems- allergic to everything, including dog food. The family was advised to put the miserable labrador to sleep, but they insisting on keeping their family pet, in spite of its chronic health problems. Then a relative came home from a stay overseas and brought them a parrot. A frightened, unhappy, feather-plucking vicious young parrot they named Gracie. They tried to give Graycie the best care, but unfortunately whenever things happened in the family (leaky roof during snowstorms, multiple kids with chicken pox at the same time, frightening episode of seizures complicated by their daughter's adverse reactions to medication when she was older, etc) the parrot got ignored. In boredom it self-mutilated and destroyed whatever it could reach- including pulling tiles off the wall. Not to say they didn't speak kindly to it, provide it with veterinary care, research proper diet, etc- and recorded plenty of amusing moments, the kids' delight in the bird's antics, amusing incidents when Graycie repeated phrases in appropriate context- scolding the dog or the children, for example. But I have to say overwhelmingly it sounded like keeping a parrot is a ton of work and trouble, constant cleaning of messes, and not very encouraging when the bird never warms to you and is always ready to attack. It is admirable that the family never gave up on Graycie, nor on any of their other pets that turned out to be troublesome (after the hyperallergic lab, they had a dog with a penchant for biting). The author relates how caring for Graycie taxed her patience and sanity, but also taught her kids responsibility to other living things, a firm commitment to the creatures we take into our lives. It all cements my impression that parrots don't really make good pets. Similar read, but with a parrot that actually liked its owner: The Parrot Who Owns Me. Similar read in tone, but about a dog. In the end, I found this one disappointing. While the stories about the family's trials and challenges made me sympathize with them, I wish there had actually been more page space given to the bird, except that I was feeling bad for the bird, so maybe not.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5                240 pages, 2010

more opinions:
Bibliophile by the Sea

Aug 28, 2019

The Wild Robot Escapes

by Peter Brown

Sequel to The Wild Robot. My kid brought this one home from school, and we were reading it together as a bedtime story. But then of course she read ahead, finished first, and I had to catch up later. Sorry, there are a few spoilers below.

Picking up straight where the previous book left off, Roz the robot has been refurbished and sent to work on a farm. The farm is mostly run by technology- this farmer rarely leaves his house- but has fallen into a lot of disrepair. Roz is there to fix it all up. But she's no ordinary robot, she remembers acutely her old life on the wild island, and misses the animals especially her adopted son the goose. Roz starts having conversations with the dairy cows on the farm, but can't let any humans know of her ability to talk to animals- she'll be seen as defective and sent back to the factory. She comes to befriend the farmer's children, who help her make a plan to run away, and return home to her island. When the moment comes- after a lot of difficulty- Roz is suddenly torn- having grown attached to the children, the cows, the farm itself. Ahead of her is a long, dangerous journey. Migrating geese find her and spread the word, so eventually she comes in contact with her 'son' again and they travel together. They have to face down wolves, a ram that randomly bashes anyone with its horns, human hunters and terrible storms. They see other farms, some operating with greater efficiency than the one Roz worked at, but at greater suffering to the animals- this isn't elaborated on, it's kind of mentioned in passing. As is the presence of an abandoned mine, the idea of humans living on a space station, working conditions for other robots, and so on. Lots of big issues, gently skirted by.

Eventually Roz and Brightbill the goose have to travel through cities, where the robot tries to blend in but eventually attracts attention and has to run for her life again. Flocks of city pigeons mobilize to help her, a rat leads her through the sewers, but she ends up back at the factory anyway- where she meets the very scientist who made her. The doctor is adamant that Roz must be destroyed- the public fears her aberrant behavior- but first she insists on having a few long talks with Roz, and finds the robot's way of thinking fascinating. Will Roz be melted down into parts? or will she finally find a way back home to her island. There, I left you something to find out!

Borrowed from the school library.

Rating: 3/5          278 pages, 2018

Aug 27, 2019

Zoo Story

Life in the Garden of Captives
by Thomas French

Picked up another book from my shelves, on the same subject matter. I was a bit surprised how very similar they were. In both books, the same animals get a lot of focus- tigers and elephants. This one also has a lot about a certain chimpanzee who had lived in the zoo a very long time, seen many changes- but started his life raised in a private home, so he had some confusion including a fixation on human females instead of his own species. The shuffling of hierarchy among the half dozen chimps at the zoo as some aged and younger ones came in, was pretty fascinating. The tiger- beautiful and always fierce- even to the older, larger male tigers they bought in hoping to be her mate- met a tragic end after getting out of her enclosure one day. Main thread going through the book was about the elephants- brought over from Swaziland to spare them from being killed in a cull (the area they lived in had too many elephants, no room to roam, and they were destroying the habitat, running out of food. This felt very familiar to me- I think I read about the same elephants in Animal Wise). The zoo's acquisition of these elephants caused a huge outcry from animal welfare groups. There was also a lot of conflict among the zoo staff- some wanted direct contact methods used with the animals, others pushed for new methods that kept the keepers and staff safer from the elephants. This book, like the other, also had a lot about how inner operations and politics, but it felt more focused. Quite a lot about the zoo director's decisions and actions, how it impacted the workers, the animals, even how his wife felt about things.

Some other animals featured in the book are the manatees which the zoo rehabilitates and releases into the wild, patas monkeys that escape off their island and run around the outskirts of the city for weeks, and endangered frogs being bred in captivity. It's all based on six years of research- four of which the reporter spent in visiting the zoo and going behind-the-scenes. The appendix has detailed notes about sources for all the described scenes and conversations, very thorough. Most of the time I appreciated the author's attempts to imagine what the animals were thinking, feeling or perceiving in certain moments, but I found his constant comparison of human behavior to chimpanzees (especially in terms of males seeking high status) annoying- it just started to get old. Although he made a good point to reiterate what zoo staff told him about how they help endangered species and work for the good of the animals, a lot of what's in this book made me feel dubious about zoos for the first time- usually I enjoy visiting them. Now I'm not so sure.

Rating: 3/5                 288 pages, 2010

more opinions:
Bibliophile by the Sea
who else has read it?

Aug 22, 2019

The Peaceable Kingdom

a Year in the Life of America's Oldest Zoo
by John Sedgwick

A reporter spent a year at the Philadelphia Zoo and then wrote this book about it. He talks just as much about the keepers, administrators, construction, repairs, management problems and so on as he does about the animals- getting a lot of behind-the-scenes look at how the zoo operates. For me, these details about how the people and politics in running the zoo weren't nearly as interesting as the animals- so I ended up skimming quite a lot, especially in the beginning. I even skipped an entire chapter (two pages) that was all about the budget. That, and the fact that much of the humor missed the mark with me, is why this book rated low for me. On the other hand, I did enjoy reading about all the wildlife- attempts to breed a rhino, raising baby animals rejected by their parents- kangaroo, binturong, marmoset- veterinary procedures, moving gorillas from old bare cages into new outdoor habitats, tricky work with dangerously strong elephants, bringing in a new zebra to replace one that had died, making a stubborn camel move into its shelter from the winter weather (it didn't want to go indoors), watching interactions among the group of wolves. There was a koala on loan that was a star attraction for weeks- even though it slept ninety percent of the time on exhibit. Some of the descriptions are very brief, others- the wolves, elephants, rhino and gorilla in particular- are longer or revisited through the book. You might want to know there's a several-page very detailed account of the rhinocerouses mating. The author seems to take delight in nonchalantly describing the animals' sexual endeavors, including the tiger, the gorilla, and a tortoise (who kept mounting boulders). He also keeps mentioning how dangerous certain animals are, or how stupid others, without much attempt to see beyond this sensational or disparaging attitude. This was the era when zoos were just starting to recognize the importance of conservation and captive breeding as a means to preserve species, rather than just have more lion cubs to show off to the public. There's a bit of history and side stories about collectors (but with none of Durrell's charm) which unfortunately only detracted from the main narrative for me. It's certainly a piece of its time, an honest look at what a zoo was like in the 1980's. Rather sad how ineffective most of the veterinary attempts were- there seems to be more mention of animals getting ill or dying than of new births and successful treatments- but maybe they just stood out to me more.

Rating: 2/5                 299 pages, 1988

Aug 18, 2019

Finding My Distance

A Year in the Life of a Three-Day Event Rider
by Julia Wendell

Daily journal of a horsewoman, she and her husband owned a farm in Maryland. There are racehorses, and retired racehorses turned to show jumping or breeding, but her main focus is three-day eventing which entails dressage, steeplechase and show jumping. Seems a very demanding sport for one horse to learn but I gather that's the point- it requires skill, finesse, endurance and guts. Some of the jumps are set up specifically to test how brave a horse (and rider) can be. The author tells about her daily challenges and struggles, not only with the horses, their training and constant upkeep- especially dealing with injuries, wow the legs seem to need a lot of attention- but also with her family, her grown children (one newly off to college and the other travelling India), her poetry-readings (she includes some of the poems in this book), and just life in general. Coming to the sport late, in middle age, she relates the learning curve, working with different instructors, trying to build up her confidence, and all the hard choices that come with keeping and showing horses. It's always one thing after another and there's lots of discouragement but her passion for it blazes through. It's rather strange to read a book written so intimately about a world so different from my own- and yet with striking familiarity- I live the next state over and know the locality. I've even driven on the road past Morven Park- but without any reason to ever go in. I like reading about it for the glimpse of it all- but I bet this book would really be loved by anyone in the horse world. It feels so honest and real.

I found there's a sequel, Come to the X, which I'd also like to read- particularly I want to know what happened with several of the author's horses and how her progression went in the sport. You can read a sample of her writing style here.

Rating: 3/5              399 pages, 2009

Aug 11, 2019

Indian Saddle-Up

by Glenn Balch

Two young Native Americans from the Comanche tribe are out hunting pronghorn and bison when surprised by enemies from the Ute tribe. As one youth runs back to warn their tribe, the other decoys the enemy. When he finally evades the Utes and makes it back to camp, all his people are gone except for an elderly man they call Old Man Crazy, because he speaks of things no one believes- people with white skin who wear armor and travel on the backs of animals. At this time none of the Comanches had ever seen a white man and horses were unknown to them. So the youth and the crazy old man travel alone together, and they come across a small band of horses, (escaped from the Spanish Conquistadors). At first they find the strange animals frightening, then are eager to learn how to possess and ride the horses themselves, so they can take these new valuable animals back to the tribe. It isn't easy, particularly as the natives don't have any idea how to approach or control the horses, but they are smart in the ways of wild animals, and quickly learn by observing how different horses are from wild game (being domesticated, and already accustomed to humans). The younger Comanche is particular invested in the attempt to use horses because he has a lame foot which always slowed him down; this will give him an advantage among his people. But he has to face a lot of unexpected challenges, and looses the guidance of the old man too, ending up on his own to figure out how to ride the horse and then find his own people again.

This was a really well-told story, with good descriptions, realistic animal behaviors, engaging writing style and an interesting plot that surprised me a few times. I suppose its quality really stood out to me following close on a just-okay book, but it reminded me why Glenn Balch is still one of my favorite authors.

Rating: 4/5            210 pages, 1953

Aug 10, 2019

Horse Tradin'

by Ben K. Green

I know I read this book long ago as a teen, found at the public library. So when I came across it recently in a discard sale, snatched it up eager to see how it compared to my fond memory. It was a good read- enjoyed all over again.

It's a collection of short stories written by a man who traded horses and mules for a living, back when they were the major form of transportation and power in America (although a few stories feature early cars, or tractors first coming into use). The stories are mostly with a little twist- where the man thought he made a good trade but found out the horse had a hidden fault or behavior problem, sometimes thought he had sneakily played a poor horse off on a better trade, only to discover the animal he'd acquired wasn't as advertised, either.

There were mules painted to look like young, grey dapple, a gypsy mare trained to lie down and groan when saddled, a spoiled lady's riding horse that wouldn't go more than a few yards from the barn. Many times the author showed how he could make the best of a poor situation, due to his understanding of equine behavior- train them out of their bad habits, or cleverly corral a bunch of wild mules that he'd been given in trade because the prior owner assumed he would never be able to catch them. Most of the tales take place in Texas, a few further south- he traveled a lot in his work. There's one story of a match race on a native American reservation. Sometimes, Green couldn't make good on a bad trade, and foisted the poor quality mule or horse off on another unsuspecting person. But there are good, honest transactions in here too, where both parties were well satisfied and respected each other.

I was kind of shocked to read an instance of wasted, sickly horses fed arsenic to fatten them up (and have since read online that inorganic arsenic is commonly used in animal feed to make hogs and chickens grow faster). And the last story surprised me with a little detail that made sense of a totally unrelated book I also read and loved as a kid, An Edge of the Forest. In that one, a herd of deer feeds in a valley that makes them all sleep like death. I always puzzled over that. Here in one of Green's stories, some wild unbroken horses were put to graze in a valley of "sleepy grass" so they could be pawned off as tamed and gentle. There was something in the grass that made the animals lethargic. I've looked it up, and it's a real thing. In some ways, this book also reminded me of Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour.

Rating: 3/5             304 pages, 1963


Stallion of Broken Wheel Ranch
by Albert G. Miller

Fury is a stunning wild horse, viciously aggressive to anyone who approaches his herd. Two ranchers manage to catch him and pen him in a corral. Joey is an orphan boy who loves horses; he sneaks into a rodeo show, almost gets caught and hides in a vehicle going back to that same ranch. When he arrives, of course the ranchers insist on taking him back, but he really wants to see the wild horse first. The first moment they meet, this wild stallion is tamed by the boy's touch. The kid doesn't even know how to ride, throw a rope or shoot (basics for ranch kids) and yet he is able to calm Fury. It winds up he stays at the ranch, they're going to adopt him. Adventures ensue with the wild horse. The boy starts to learn ranching skills and is very happy in his new life. Then the stallion starts breaking out of his corral at night, and neighboring ranchers complain that someone is stealing their mares. They blame Fury. Joey is knows Fury isn't the culprit; there's another wild stallion out there taking mares, and Fury simply keeps busting out of his corral to go fight the other stallion. But nobody else has seen the white stallion, so how will Joey convince them?

It's quite a lively story but I'm afraid this one suffers from its age. Aside from the golly-ghee-whiz attitudes, and the penchant of grown men to want to beat up their rivals (especially a con man who shows up on the ranch at the end of the story claiming to be Joey's true father) there's the entirely unrealistic behavior of the horses- Fury in particular. The taming could have been a little more plausible if it hadn't happened so instantly. But there's quite a few scenes where the horse acts like he understands human speech and motives. I have the two sequels and started to read the second one, but was dissuaded when the horse started acting like Lassie the dog- eagerly leading people to those in trouble, snorting and prancing as if he understood human jokes. It was a fun read at first, but oh well. I guess I'm just too old for this one. Moving on.

Rating: 2/5                   190 pages, 1959

Aug 8, 2019

Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons

a Journey to the Flora and Fauna of a Unique Island
by Gerald Durrell

This book predates the one I just read- it's about a collection trip Durrell took to Mauritius (near Madagascar in the Indian Ocean), in particular visiting several tiny islands- Round Island gets a lot of mention- where species of snakes, birds and lizards live that exist nowhere else in the world. These species were nearly extinct due to introduced rabbits, goats and monkeys which either denuded the vegetation or destroyed the native animals' young. When Durrell visited the island, less than forty pink pigeons remained, there were only eight Mauritian kestrels known to exist, and the Round Island boa numbered seventy-five. Their purpose was to get an estimated count of the various endangered species, capture just enough individuals to set up a captive breeding program, and ascertain what could be done about the invasive animal problem. A lot of it of course, is about the mishaps and struggles working in remote, foreign conditions- in this case under constant blistering heat with little shade. Giant land snails invaded their tent and ate their sandwiches, shearwater chicks kept them awake at night screaming and trampling on everything, and mosquitoes swarmed in hordes. While the focus of the trip was the golden bat, pink pigeon and Mauritian kestrel, a lot of the text describes the numerous and beautiful lizards- there being plenty of those to observe. The phelsuma day gecko in particular has gorgeous colors (look it up!). Apart from the collecting efforts, Durrell also describes the beauties of the reef, as they spent several mornings snorkeling. The descriptions of the dazzling variety of fishes, corals, invertebrates and more is just wonderful. Unlike most Durrell books I've read, this one is illustrated with photographs (as well as some nice pen-and-ink drawings).

Happily, a bit of online search reveals that Durrell's efforts were the first of many (the Mauritian government, various other conservation groups and zoos became heavily involved), and they have paid off to save the species in Mauritius. While still vulnerable, the pink pigeon population now has over 400 birds, the Mauritius kestrel numbers about 200, the golden bat more than 20,000, the Round Island boa around 1,800 but the burrowing boa Durrell described is now considered extinct.

Rating: 3/5                       190 pages, 1977

Aug 7, 2019

The Aye-Aye and I

by Gerald Durrell

Charming little book about the last collecting trip Durrell made to bring rare, endangered animals back to his European zoo for a breeding program. His main purpose in visiting Madagascar was to find the aye-aye, a strange nocturnal lemur at risk of going extinct. They also searched for and collected snakes, endemic tortoises, gentle lemurs, a jumping rat and spiny-tailed iguanas. As always, Durrell's writing is interesting and humorous. He describes the difficulties they had navigating bad roads, finding accurate sources of information, getting local men in power to allow them access, dealing with breakdowns and scant supplies, etc. All the logistics involved in finding, feeding, and safely transporting the animals home. Coaxing newly-caught, frightened lemurs to eat. Scrambling to find medical care when one of the team members became ill. The descriptions of the red, pothole-strewn roads, the upright brick houses and the gentle native people are vivid. He also describes beginning attempts at conservation, the plans they made with local government to set aside wildlife refuges, do something about severe deforestation and protect the wildlife- many animals were illegally caught to be eaten or sold as pets, with no law enforcement in place. Aye-ayes were often killed outright by local people, who had strong superstitious fear of the animal. They did a lot of work to educate the people on the true nature of the wildlife, and to teach the local children about animals they had heard many fables of, but never actually seen. I think my favorite passage of the book was Durrell's description of a fossa- he was sitting quietly by himself one day while the team went ahead, when the animal walked into the road, treating him to a personal, rare encounter.

The end of the book has a sudden switch to the island of Mauritius, where Durrell and part of his team stopped on their way home from Madagascar, to check on a program they had put in place there years earlier to save some rare animals, especially the pink pigeon. I haven't read the book about the Mauritius trip yet, although it's on my shelf. Finally, Durrell sees the newly acquired animals safe home from their trip, settled into quarantine quarters at the zoo. There is an afterward by a Mammal Keeper from the zoo, who gives more details on how the animals fared after the expedition, and more information on the conservation and breeding programs set in place by Durrell.

Rating: 3/5                184 pages, 1992

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Read Warbler

Aug 5, 2019

Fillets of Plaice

by Gerald Durrell

Five short stories, wonderfully descriptive and intriguing, often had me laughing. While I (mostly) enjoyed reading them, I think it's really best to start somewhere else, if you're new to reading Durrell. They don't have a lot of introduction, are unrelated incidents that Durrell realized later in life he had never fit into any of his other books, so he put them together here. His brother suggested the title, as a joke- it has nothing to do with the contents.

'The Birthday Party' is a story from Durrell's childhood on Corfu, where his family decide to give their mother a birthday outing in a boat, which turns into a huge mishap. I felt sorry for the woman, and the only reason I could laugh during this one was I knew that it all came right in the end. It's packed with amusing (or insufferable, however you like to look at it) characters, but it's really more funny if you already know how these people relate to each other from the Corfu trilogy.

'A Transport of Terrapins' - This was my favorite of the stories. Set later on, when Durrell's family had returned to England, and he found his first job as assistant in a pet shop. He loves the animals and wants to enrich their dull cages, but has to find a way to do so without offending the owner (who doesn't have a lot of interest in or knowledge about the animals himself, but as the boss has his pride). Later in the story Durrell meets another eccentric shop owner in town who keeps birds, with a curious way of running his shop. Then there's an older gentleman he meets on the bus over a spilled box of baby turtles, who invites him to his house to play a game. He is at first suspicious of this man's intentions, but it turns out to be honest and they strike up a nice friendship over strategy games with tin soldiers.

'A Question of Promotion'- Jumping ahead years, this one takes place in Africa, when Durrell was in the Cameroons collecting wild animals. That's not the focus. Most of the story is about plans he helped an acquaintance make for a dinner party to impress a visiting District Officer. There's pages and pages of conversation between Durrell and the other people he gathered together to help plan the meal- difficult because they lacked supplies- but it is lively and amusing enough. When they event finally takes place, all their careful planning meets with one huge accident. It was hilarious. However this was during time of British colonial rule, so there are unfortunately some attitudes towards both native servants and women, which I know some readers would find offensive.

'A Question of Degrees'- the one story that had me cringing. Durrell is ordered by his doctor to take some rest, sent to a place he calls 'the loony bin' but the doctor insists sternly is 'a highly respectable nursing home that specializes in nervous complaints'. So, mental health in-patient. While there, Durrell suffers a series of very bad nosebleeds, that won't stop, so he is sent to the hospital. Twice. The first time, the taxi takes them to the wrong place. The doctor is careful and efficient, and it's all over quickly. The second time, the doctor is very rough with crude methods that leave Durrell in worse pain than ever- and it ends with him staggering back to his bed in the inpatient facility, given a shot of drugs to wipe out the pain and fall asleep, wishing he'd gone to the wrong hospital again instead. I guess it was supposed to be funny, but it had me feeling sick the way some 'Mr. Bean' episodes do.

'Ursula'- The last story is about a young woman Durrell dated for a time. She was incredibly vivacious, with a loud animated way of speaking that always drew attention whenever they went out. Durrell soon found himself in a number of embarrassing situations, especially the day he took her to a Mozart concert and she brought a dog in a basket. Of course it escaped. The nice thing about this story is that Durrell comes to see the tenderhearted, kind side of Ursula, even though her manner is sometimes off-putting to others. I had a very personal reaction to the this one. Like the main character, I sometimes use the wrong word when speaking. In my case, it's often mispronunciation rather than the malapropisms Ursula frequently uttered- but I could oddly sympathize with her. I don't angrily insist I'm always right, like she did- but I do feel criticized and sometimes made the fool, depending on how the correction is worded. So the end of this book made me feel oddly unsettled and uncomfortable, because I identified with a character I felt the author intended us to laugh at.

Rating: 3/5                 216 pages, 1971