Feb 26, 2019

Animal Wise

the Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures
by Virginia Morell

This book is about scientific studies done to investigate the intelligence and thought processes of various animals. The basis of the idea that animals could be proven to have emotions was scientific discovery of the same chemicals and structures in the brains of animals, that are present in humans- and both activated during the same emotional stress. For the detailed studies cited in the book, the author travelled to different labs and study sites around the world. I found them all pretty intriguing, and in every case I would have gladly read an entire book about it:

Minuscule ants whose entire colonies can live in a petri dish teach their fellow ants where to find a new resource (they don't just blindly follow a chemical trail). Archerfish prove they make deft, precise calculations- and learn by example. Alex the parrot defines colors and shapes, and practices the sounds of new words he's learning. South American parrotlets have individual contact calls- they have names for each other- which are maybe assigned by their parents. Rats laugh when they are tickled, and solicit more fun if you stop. Elephants remember family members they have lost- they have a strong need for social structure and appear to suffer the equivalent of post-traumatic stress when witnessing the sudden, violent death of other elephants. Dolphins recognize themselves in a mirror, and their lives in the sea are not at all peaceful. The last two chapters which compared very closely related animals performing the same kinds of intelligence tests- gorillas and chimpanzees, then wolves and dogs- were very interesting. The apes were doing memory exercises on a touch-screen computer; the dogs and wolves (young ones raised by humans) were participating in a study looking into how they respond to social cues given by humans. It was pretty striking, the difference in behavior between the young wolves and the dogs.

I'm just touching the surface here- there are so many more details in this book- from how the scientists came up with their theories, how they figured out and executed the experiments, what further ideas they have to investigate, and many anecdotal stories of animals demonstrating their smarts and empathy as well.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5                   291 pages, 2013

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Feb 21, 2019

Angelfish

by Laurence Yep

Middle grade fiction about a Chinese-American girl who takes ballet lessons. Walking home one day, she takes an angry swing at her dancing partner Thomas- who always teases- and accidentally breaks the window of a store. Confronted by the angry shopkeeper, she agrees to work off the cost of the window replacement. It's a pet fish store. And the man specializes in raising angelfish. So you can see why I liked this book! The details about how the man cares for the fish- cautioning the girl not to overfeed, changing the water, testing pH, raising brine shrimp for the young fish and so on- is background material here but so familiar I delighted in it. Most of the story though, is about how the girl struggles to keep up with her ballet class while meeting this new obligation. She is cross at first because the old man in the fish shop is critical and insulting. But some of the comments he makes intrigue her- he seems to know a lot about dance and music, while apparently despising it. She determines to learn about his past, then finds her heart softening towards him and wants to help heal his bitterness.

This is a really nice story, but as usual when I read books aimed at younger readers, I wished for so much more depth. Especially when it handles tough subjects like the suffering that happened during the Cultural Revolution in China, and what it's like to live in a mixed-race family in an immigrant neighborhood of America. The setting was San Francisco, but the only feel of recognition I had was some street names! Regardless, I liked it enough that I'm looking for the other books in this series- it begins with Ribbons and The Cook's Family. Once I realized I was reading a sequel, I figured that's why I felt like a something was missing- as if I should have known the characters better, but not enough was explained about them in the narrative. Still, it stands alone well enough.

Rating: 3/5           216 pages, 2001

Feb 19, 2019

Common Sense Organic Gardening

by Warner and Lucile Bowers

In spite of being old, this book was pretty interesting and gave me some new ideas. It was written by an older couple who were very avid gardeners- their neighbors thought them crazy about it ha- and their enthusiasm really comes through the pages. They write mostly about labor-saving methods and how they grew produce organically for health benefits. Their main emphasis was using tons of thick mulch- made from shredded leaves- we're talking over a thousand bushels a year that they processed- and salt hay. After the first year they never had to till and barely weeded their garden. Interesting to me, they didn't grow a ton of vegetables but focused on exotics and curiosities that weren't available in grocery stores, and put most of their home made compost not on the kitchen garden but on their beloved fruit trees and roses. I was impressed at the output of those peaches and more. Some of the information is outdated -to be expected- but I was pretty surprised to read that while they definitely eschewed using poisons to control insect pests (except for one or twice-yearly spraying of the fruit trees), had no qualms about shoveling up sand from roadsides after winter, to use in their soil mix! (They did leach out the salts with water and use soap to remove most of the motor oil residue, but still. I would not.) And they scoffed at being told not to use landscaping plastic because it doesn't biodegrade, pointing out the many tatters and tears in plastics they had tried using- I assume nobody knew about microplastics at the time. I admired their thriftiness and zeal for building things- but dismayed that their favorite seedling container was styrofoam coffee cups!

Anyway, it was nice to read about all their methods, favorite tools, preferred ways to tend to plants- comparing to what I do and taking away a few new concepts. They built and used cold frames, made trellises out of discarded items like hat racks and metal screen door decorations, built birdhouses and feeders, grew many varieties of berries and grapes, made liqueurs and wine, etc. Their outright enthusiasm for propagating plants from cuttings or sprouting things out of seeds from what they ate- just to see if it would grow- delighted me- I'm of the same mind. I never thought of taking cuttings from chrysanthemums, I haven't yet tried air-layering to save my dracanea which is about to hit the ceiling, and I'd love to have a huge shaded fern collection or figs in pots like they did. Much to admire.

Oh, and there's recipes! Not my usual style of cooking, but I'd like to try a few.

Rating: 3/5               224 pages, 1974

Feb 16, 2019

The Line Between

by Peter S. Beagle

I'm glad I tried another Peter S. Beagle book. I really enjoyed most of these eleven short stories. There's a mouse who goes to cat school to learn to act like the best of felines, an octopus who writes a book in a fable, a sailor who saves a merman- hideous creature- and in return receives recipe for salt wine which most find innocuous but occasionally does terrible things to those who drink it. Several fables, wherein a foolish ostrich tries to learn a better way to evade their natural enemies, and a tyrannosaurus rex has a ridiculous conversation with a small mammal. In "El Regalo" a young boy does strange things with magic- reminiscent to me of some stories in Witches and Warlocks. Less great for me were "Mr. Sigerson"- wherein Sherlock Holmes joins a group of fine musicians in a small town- disliked by the one who tells the story- and "A Dance for Emilia" which I feel bad to dismiss as it sounds the most personal of Beagle's stories- but I just can't do ghosts or tales of possession (even though this one snuck in at the end, I didn't really see it coming). I found "Quarry" interesting- two characters- one a shapeshifting fox- fleeing assassins for different reasons reluctantly join paths- but this was an addition to his book The Innkeeper's Song which I haven't read (maybe I will now) so I felt I was missing something.

My favorite of the lot was "Two Hearts" which is a sequel to The Last Unicorn. There's a griffin ravaging the countryside and the narrator, a bold young girl called Sooz- sneaks out of her village to seek help from the king- who happens to be the same Lir that once loved a unicorn, now a very old man. Against the protests of the king's attendants, Sooz with the help of Schmendrick the magician and Molly Grue whom she fortuitously meets on the road, brings the old king back to face the griffin- he is a hero to the end- but the results of that encounter are unexpected. So sad, and so lovely. I recognized these dear characters at once, and they were the same people I felt I knew before. The book is worth the read for this one alone.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                231 pages, 2006

Feb 14, 2019

TBR #70

Yikes! Need to read more, haha. Here's titles I've noticed over the past few months, from all the book bloggers I follow. A few gleaned from other books or library browsing, too. Would like to read them all someday, lucky if I get around to even half that of course.
Riding Home by Tim Hayes
Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy- Commonweeder
Circe by Madeline Miller- Sophisticated Dorkiness
Friday the Rabbi Slept Late by Harry Kemelman- Read Warbler
Dopesick by Beth Macy- Bermudaonion
The Library Book by Susan Orlean- Caroline Bookbinder
Semiosis by Sue Burke- Curiosity Killed the Bookworm
Heartland by Sarah Smarsh- Caroline Bookbinder
The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash- Bookfoolery
Part Time Cowboy by Maisey Yates- Ardent Reader
The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit- Indextrious Reader
An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard- Sophisticated Dorkiness
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson- Hogglestock
Sweep by Jonathan Auxier- Semicolon
Love, to Everyone by Hilary McKay- Reading the End
News of the World by Paulette Jiles- Caroline Bookbinder
The Newcomers by Helen Thorpe- Ardent Reader
House of Mirth by Edith Wharton- Indextrious Reader
The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa- Musings of a Bookish Kitty
How to be a Good Creature by Sy Montgomery- Caroline Bookbinder
No One Tells You This by Glynnis MacNiol- Sophisticated Dorkiness
Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa- Bookfoolery
The Overstory by Richard Powers - Shelf Love
Bird Box by Josh Millerman- Leviathan, Bound
What the Eyes Don't See by Mona Hannah-Attisha- Bermudaonion
Small Animals by Kim Brooks- Caroline Bookbinder
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman- Sophisticated Dorkiness
Butcher's Crossing by John Williams- Hogglestock
Grump by Liesel Shurtliff- Semicolon
Tetris by Box Brown- Caroline Bookbinder
Before Mars by Emma Newman- Work in Progress
Complete Houseplant Survival Manual by Barbara Pleasant- Commonweeder
The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs- Bermudaonion
The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Anders- Caroline Bookbinder
How Long 'til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemasin- Curiosity Killed the Bookworm
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel- Last Book I Read
The Light of the Fireflies by Paul Pen- Shelf Love
Tamed by Alice Roberts - Curiosity Killed the Bookworm
The Boy the Boat and the Beast by Samantha Clarke- Semicolon
Green Money by D.E. Stevenson- The Captive Reader
Hired by James Bloodworth- Little Blog of Books
My Horses, My Teachers by Alois Podhajsky
The Gardener's Year by Karel Capek- Commonweeder
This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay- Curiosity Killed the Bookworm
The Doctor Who Saved Babies by Josephine Rich- Semicolon
In the Middle Are the Horsemen by Tik Maynard
Shrinking the Cat by Sue Hubbell- Bookwyrme's Lair
Riding Between the Worlds by Linda Kohanov
Drawn from Memory by E.H. Shepard- The Captive Reader
Drawn from Life by E.H. Shepard- ditto
The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim- Shelf Love
In the Vanisher's Place by Aliette de Bodard- Reading the End
Secret Language of Cats by Susanne Schotz- Musings of a Bookish Kitty
Tooth and Claw by Stephen Moore- Thistlechaser
Skin and Bone by Stephen Moore- Thistlechaser
Mystery of the Exploding Teeth by Thomas Morris- A Bookish Type
The Bookworm by Lucy Mangan- Captive Reader
Ground Rules by Kate Frey- Commonweeder
The Mammoth Book of Mind-Blowing Sci-Fi by Mike Ashley- Thistlechaser
The Extinction Trials by S.M. Wilson- Curiosity Killed the Bookworm
Down the Garden Path- Beverley Nichols- Commonweeder
A Thatched Roof, A Village in a Valley and How Does Your Garden Grow?- ditto

Feb 13, 2019

Cultivating Delight

A Natural History of My Garden
by Diane Ackerman

This is probably the most introspective gardening book I've ever read. Full of the author's musings about her garden and lavish descriptions of it, arranged mostly by seasons. Unlike mine, hers is a flower and cutting garden, and her main passion is roses. But she's in a nearby locale, so I did find most of the plant names familiar and could picture them with ease. Some parts of the book are just a delight to read- Ackerman is a poet, and a lot of the prose just sings to the beauty of the natural world. But- it feels really uneven and there were many occasions where I had to sit back and read a line several times, or even skip a few pages. She interjects freely ideas on other subjects, and it's sometimes not clear at first how they relate to the plants or natural processes she's discussing. Sometimes the tangents veer a lot- I really didn't need to read two pages about all the different vendors at the outdoor market in her neighborhood, or how the handyman diagnosed an odor emanating from under her house, for example. I could see the delight in one, and the metaphor in the other- but the relation to gardening felt a bit of a stretch, and it certainly stretched my attention span. Also there were times where her phrasing or word choice really threw me off. For example, the very first line of the book tells how seductive the rituals of gardening can be- how I agree- but then mentions things I don't think of as rituals at all: mending a broken gate, transplanting a shrub to a better location. Those seem more like- repairs and one-time tasks to me. My rituals are things like making selections from the catalogs, disinfecting the pots, setting up the coldframe, planting the seedlings . . . I'd hope one doesn't have to replace a gate every year! Maybe I'm being a bit harsh- but this really started the book off on a poor note for me. She goes on for pages about John Muir, and Thomas Jefferson, and later Gertrude Jekyll- but I'd rather read a separate book about those admirable people, myself. Mostly, she goes on and on about the roses. How lovely her garden sounds, but she talks little about tending to it so the reader cannot learn much, only look on with envy. I don't know that I've ever read another book about someone's garden and come away mostly with a feeling of envy. Really it sounds like she spends all her time swooning over the flowers and then bringing them into her house to swoon some more. Of course, she is writing about what she loves, and probably just chose not to include details about the humdrum chores of gardening or the mistakes made. I did really enjoy the passages she wrote about observing birds in her garden, and was full of curiosity when she described live-trapping squirrels to tag them for a scientific study- but then no mention was made of the study's purpose or the results. I guess that's in another book somewhere else. Argh, I"m feeling rather cranky- perhaps it's nothing to do with this book, but just the cold virus I'm getting over. I am keeping this one on my shelf regardless, maybe I will like it better at another time further on.

Rating: 2/5                 261 pages, 2001

Feb 6, 2019

We Made a Garden

by Margery Fish

Charming little book about how the author and her husband Walter built a garden on a property in Somerset, England. I really enjoy reading about her forays into gardening later in life- and relating how she used to not understand her gardening friends who spent so much time out there working in it. Her love of the plants and excitement at trying something new really shines through the pages. Of course, being on a different continent, a lot of the plant names were totally unfamiliar to me, and the climate is different so there was quite a bit I couldn't relate to. She does a lot of rockwork in her garden- building walls and paths, planting succulents and other things in rock gardens and wall crevices. I couldn't relate much to that, either but it sounded nice. But I also have heavy clay soil so I appreciated reading about how she improved her soil. I really wish I could have my compost heap on a slightly tilted concrete slab with drainage to catch leacheate at the bottom, nicely screened by selected shrubs!

A lot of the amusement in reading this book came from the subtle antagonism between Margery and her husband. He sounds like a very domineering person, whose color choices always took precedent in the garden over hers, whose ideas of straight lines and proper plants supplanted her fondness for creeping things and interesting foliage. He at times callously took over and used a spot she had been preparing for her own choices all winter, or lopped off the heads of flowers she had been growing, because he didn't like the way they looked! She accepted all this, but remarks that after he passed away, she changed the color scheme of the flower beds and planted all the creeping things she wanted. There was one brief comment about how she envied men "their pockets" to carry secateurs around in! that neatly places this book in its era. Women's clothes did not even have pockets; heavy labor and decision-making was left to the garden help and the man of the house. I got a chuckle out of the way she used an old sharpened sword to cut down masses of flowers in one go, that were past their prime and needed trimming!

It would have been nice to see some illustrations of the plants, especially since I am unfamiliar with most, while their combinations are mentioned so favorably. There are some black and white photographs of the actual property and garden in my edition, but while the lushness of growth is very apparent, it is hard to really appreciate the beauty this garden must have been.

Rating: 3/5           120 pages, 1956

Feb 5, 2019

The Decision

Animorphs #18
by K.A. Applegate

Warning for possible spoilers if you haven't read this far-

I like the books that are from Ax's POV, the perspective of humans as the aliens with strange, baffling ways, is refreshingly different. Once again, in this installment the Animorphs make a plan that doesn't end up where they intended to- but they seem to be making firmer choices in the middle of things going wrong. The main morph in this book is into mosquito- because the Animorphs learn that a Secret Service agent is in a coma and the hospital is infiltrated with Yeerks. The unconscious man is going to be taken over by Yeerks who will of course use his high position for evil, so the Animorphs think they can pre-emptively morph into this man and stand in his place (incidentally, find out in this book that while all Andalites have the morphing ability, most of them never actually gain a lot of various morphs because it is used by specialists who act as spies). They don't seem to have as many qualms as before, about using a human's DNA without permission, and they aim to acquire it by getting the man's blood as mosquitoes. But their mission goes wrong- surprise! - they are engaged in fighting the enemy on the hospital grounds and then after a bunch of really weird stuff happens, find themselves on an alien planet where the Yeerks are about to stage a takeover. Ax for the first time in many years encounters his own species- and finds his loyalty torn- should he obey his superiors or stay at the side of the humans? Before they know it, they're involved in the battle on this planet- even though they try to avoid it- and become key players in foiling the Yeerk invasion of the Leerans (except we never get any closure on how successful this actually was). Some of the humans Animorphs find themselves seriously doubting Ax's integrity to their cause, and they also make an awful discovery that not all Andalites are honor-bound: they encounter a traitor and have growing suspicions that Visser Three (or someone close to him) has once set foot on the Andalite home planet.

And then rather abruptly they all return to Earth to find out the coma guy woke up, the Yeerk controllers in the room bailed out, and then they're having a calm, sarcastic-laden conversation about what happened. I'd really like to know what happened too, but for all that it was still an entertaining read.

Rating: 3/5                  168 pages, 1998

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Feb 3, 2019

The Underground

Animorphs #17
by K.A. Applegate

I liked this one. In spite of the utter silliness of its main premise. Warning for spoilers if you haven't read this far in the series.

Opening scene, the animorphs attend a Planet Hollywood event by morphing birds of prey and cruising the skies above the venue. But Rachel sees a man in a building nearby intending to jump to his death- so she dives to save him. Even five birds aren't able to keep the man from falling hard (and I kept thinking: wouldn't their talons have just torn through his clothing?) so he crashes into a body of water and Rachel has to morph a dolphin to save him from drowning. Not long after, they find out the man has been committed to a mental hospital- because his family heard him raving about aliens living inside his brain. So they morph roaches to sneak into the facility and question the man- Rachel lets him see her morphing from insect to human, figuring no one will believe if he tells. Discovers the Yeerk in this man's brian was partly disabled and driven mad by an addiction to -- instant oatmeal.

That's the ridiculous part of this whole book. But it has a very serious side, too. The Animorphs debate how to use this new knowledge- is wielding an addictive substance as a weapon against their enemies stooping too low? They finally decide to tunnel into an underground Yeerk pool as moles- it literally takes days of claustrophobic work- and I guess the next step was to transport masses of oatmeal to dump on the helpless Yeerks in the pool there. They never quite get that far. Plan goes awry- and they find themselves separated, under suspicion, in different morphs- at one point Rachel is human again while two of the others are bats, Marco a gorilla and Ax his normal Andalite self- and facing none other than Visser Three himself in a battle with barrels of confiscated oatmeal (taken by Yeerk controllers from human hosts that tried to smuggle it in) as a bargaining chip in a pivotal life-or-death moment.

I often get bored during battle scenes but this one held my attention. They escape by Rachel literally collapsing a tunnel ceiling over everyone, hoping they can survive by tunneling out as moles again. They barely make it. The book is from Rachel's viewpoint, and it's nice to see her debating some of the possibilities instead of diving right into action every time. Which she still frequently does when the pressure is on, but there was a lot more thought on her part this time. The main morphs in this book were of course the mole, and the bat. At other points they morph seagulls, the wolf and elephant, and flies. Rachel even forces herself to morph an ant- in spite of how terrified she was of that experience before- when she has to use its abilities and avoid detection in a tight moment.

Enjoyed the copy on my e-reader.

Rating: 3/5               176 pages, 1998

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