Apr 29, 2019

Father's Gone A-Whaling

by Alice Cushing Gardiner
and Nancy Cabot Osborne

I found this book browsing on the Internet Archive. Picked it up for a light read, was slightly disappointed. It shows its age, but also was written for juvenile audience and has two authors, that might be part of the reason it fell a bit flat for me. Story of a young boy who lives on Nantucket during the heyday of whaling. Most of the narrative is just about his daily life- bored in school, roaming the beaches when he can get away from the strict eye of his mother and grandfather, getting into a bit of mischief with his best friend- searching for buried treasure (which turns out to be a crate of bottled wine). He's forbidden to go the wharves but enthralled by sailor's stories especially of pirates. Finds a parrot and returns it to a Spainard who lives in a shack near the beach (he's afraid of this foreign man until the Spainard offers him food, and thanks them broadly for the return of his parrot). Witnesses the rescue of crew off a shipwreck near shore- and the adults talk of scavenging the goods (I gather this was customary if there were no survivors). There's mention of local customs- a bit interesting was the communal sheep-shearing day. He's proud to bring down a goose bird when he goes duck-hunting with his grandfather. Uppermost on the boy's mind is going away to sea, but he's considered too young. He attempts to sneak aboard a ship and stowaway so the captain will be forced to accept him as cabin boy, but his plan doesn't work. Sneaks home again and gets in trouble for getting his boots wet (any little chill or soaking and he was sent promptly to bed!) The book closes with a final promise from his parents that next year when he's ten, he can sign up to go to sea. It doesn't sound like a glamorous occupation, though. One of the men described to the young boys in detail what work it was to cut up a dead whale and process the blubber into oil- it sounds very messy and odorous, not to mention stomach-turning. I was mildly surprised that this frank explanation of the hard work on board ship did not deter the boys at all in their eagerness to go. Especially since it was made clear to them that the first several years with the crew, their job would be to wait table on the captain, assist the mess cook and clean things. What fun.

I think this book is based on true events, because the frontispiece dedication is to those Nantucket people whose memories have made this book. So it has value as a historical piece, but honestly wasn't a very fun read. I found  myself skimming a lot, hoping the story would get good when the boy snuck aboard ship. It's probably very realistic, though.

Rating: 2/5                pages, 1928

Apr 26, 2019

People of the Sky

by Clare Bell

Wow, this book. It really had me riveted. Very interesting- it's sci-fi set in a future where the ends of a Native American population had taken the chance to colonize a new planet. They barely survived and generations later were nearly forgotten by the humans left on Earth. The protagonist, a woman from Earth named Kesbe, is descendant of a pueblo group- Hopi, Zuni and Havasupai are mentioned- come together in a final move to preserve some of their heritage. Kesbe learns bits and pieces of it from her grandfather, but forges ahead in her dream to reach the stars as a pilot.

She ends up with a job on one of the new planets flying an archaic, refurbished plane to deliver it to a wealthy collector. Runs into a dangerous thunderstorm and makes an emergency landing on a ledge in a steep canyon- in an uncharted area. She is rescued by an isolated group of people who live on a remote, hidden mesa. They've never been contacted by the outside world- in fact they don't even believe the world exists beyond their canyons. They are just as baffled by Kesbe's differences- mannerisms, speaking patterns, habits etc- as she is by theirs. Strangely- and thrilling at first to Kesbe- these people have a symbiotic relationship with a native animal- a creature something like a dragonfly- which their young people ride in order to hunt, carry water, etc. Kesbe finds the creatures beautiful and fascinating, and wants to learn more about them, and how they enabled the people to survive in their hostile environment. As she shares with them some Native American roots, they find it easy enough to assimilate, but when Kesbe learns the true nature of the people's intimacy with their alien fliers, everything changes.

There is so much going on in this book, and it has such interesting shifts of focus. First you're reading about the details navigating an ancient aircraft, then about riding flying alien beasts (which really reminded me of Anne McCaffrey's dragon/rider relationships), then about customs and legends of a re-imagined pubelo culture, then about women's identity and control of their bodies, then about the power belief systems can wield, and so on. There is a young boy initiate among the natives who befriends Kesbe at the cost of his standing in the tribe- some are very suspicious of her. There's an interesting man on another part of the planet -descendant of Maori and some African tribe- who is re-creating a safari experience on his vast land (he needs the airplane). Some of the most fascinating writing was about how Kesbe adapted her very body- via a drug the people made from a plant- to enhance her senses- especially that of scent- so she could communicate with one of the fliers- it is hard to imagine how a sense we consciously use very little of could carry so much information and messages; I think the author did a remarkable thing here.

I won't say more or I might spoil the story for someone else- it really is full of surprises, daring discovery and horror, later reconciliation and hope. Also some very tender and gentle moments. I want to read it all over again. I have a copy of this one on my e-reader.

Rating: 4/5               345 pages, 1989

more opinions: Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales

Apr 22, 2019

Dakota Dream

by James Bennett

Sometimes you find the most interesting books unexpectedly- I came across this one in a secondhand store on a trip this past weekend to Pacific Beach (and it was culled from a library in Anchorage- stamped top edge). Wasn't sure at first, but this turned out to be a pretty good read, the story kept me interested all through.

It's about a teenager who's bounced around in foster care and is now living in a group home while he waits for his next placement. He's something of a loner and a bit distanced from other people, but has this ongoing fascination with Native Americans, especially the Dakota (or Sioux) tribe. He knows the history, legends, customs, religious beliefs, etc. His most treasured possessions are a real peace pipe and some authentic moccasins. But his differences get him into trouble, adults in the institution and at school see his moccasins and his general attitude as troublemaking. He really dislikes the system (kind of reminded me of Holden Caulfield) but rather than becoming bitter or fighting, turns his attentions inward to his dream: to become a Dakota tribe member. Literally. A dream spurs him to believe this is his destiny, and when he talks about it too much people start to think he's mentally unstable and he winds up in an institution for what's supposed to be a short stay. Not really a surprise. In fact the way he rambled on about his fixation with Dakota culture to people made me wonder at first if he was neurodivergent or an unreliable narrator. Nope. He just needs a place to fit in, and wants to live among the people he feels an affinity for- the Dakota. All these adults around him think he's simply crazy, for wanting to live in a different manner. And for doing things like trying to make a real dugout canoe, or attempting to dye his skin darker.

So he steals another kid's motorcycle (rationalizing to himself why this is okay, as he holds himself to a high standard of honor gleaned from his reading about Dakota culture) after fixing it up some, and runs away to a nearby reservation. It's not exactly as he imagined, but he actually gets to meet the chief, who after listening to him carefully and posing some questions, has him undergo ritual purification and isolation in a four-day fast to seek a vision that will direct his future.

I won't say more- except that the ending was satisfying, although I would have enjoyed the other direction I hoped it might go in. The story is not told completely linear- it goes from present to past and back again a few times- but in large chunks so not annoyingly. I did wish there was more time spent on what happened after he got to the reservation, instead a bulk of the story is about his frustrations in the group home and what leads up to his decision to run away. I found the character of his social worker a bit puzzling- it's pleasant that she was a new, "green" social worker and nice to the kid- he really needed that- but she just didn't feel like a real person to me. The other background characters are a bit flat- the chief is a good one- but then it's all told through the close viewpoint of the main character, so perhaps that's why.

Rating: 3/5                 182 pages, 1994

The Discovery

Animorphs #20
by K.A. Applegate

This one was a quick read, kind of uneven but okay. Basic plot: the Animorphs realize a new kid at school has come across an alien object that holds the morphing technology. They spend a lot of time trying to get it away from him- first attempting to pay for it, then outright stealing when plans go awry. Of course the enemy very much wants this object also, and they find out where it is, so there's a sudden battle between most of the animorphs and the Visser in the new kid's bedroom. Where Marco morphs a snake. After that, things lead to the Animorphs letting this kid in on their secret and turning him into one of them. A bit reluctantly- they don't really know him- and perhaps unwisely- he seems to have a penchant for cruelty- but they don't see any other way to deal with it. They have to save the president of the US from falling into alien clutches- so there's a very confusing and ridiculous fight involving a cloaked alien space ship and a helicopter, where the Animorphs turn into cockroaches to avoid detection- but barely escape with their lives, not succeeding with the rescue mission at all. Well, maybe they failed- that's where the book suddenly ends- I am not sure why it didn't just continue, could have easily been 200 pages and finished the storyline but yeah stopping in the middle of the action makes it a cliffhanger. The part I was really interested in was seeing the conflict and dilemma they had with the new kid- they want to get to know him, figure out can they trust him, ease him into the idea of morphing into animals- but they don't have time because of the pressure to go save the president. So it all moves very quickly and the kid is in shock for a lot of it, and they really jump on the decision to include him. I'm curious to see what that all leads to.

Rating: 3/5            153 pages, 1998

more opinions:
Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales

Earning My Spots

by Mark Eastburn

Wanted to like this one, but I just couldn't get into it, probably because it's juvenile fiction and the writing just a bit too simplistic for my taste. Things were glossed over that I really wished had better treatment. Such as, when the main character's family is apparently kidnapped, his reaction is so flat. Well, he does go off on a quest to find them again, but I would have expected more shock or anger or something. Maybe- because he's not quite human? His family are were-hyenas, shape-shifters. I haven't read a lot of books with this concept, aside from Animorphs really. I was into it at first- the hyena boy faces off against a group of bullying werewolf kids at the school- his is the only family of were-hyenas in town so he gets picked on and misunderstood. Then his parents disappear during a sudden confrontation with harpies - that really threw me- and he goes off with a new acquaintance- a were-jaguar kid- and some others to find them again. Eventually- I gathered this from synopsis read elsewhere- he encounters a population of were-hyenas in another part of the country, learns more about his heritage, finds out that his quest is much bigger than just saving his family. A lot to like- but for some reason I lost interest when the harpies showed up. I don't know why I can suspend belief to read about people who change into wolves, hyenas, jaguars, coyotes, etc. but the inclusion of harpies makes me roll my eyes. Maybe because it's a different kind of genre? harpies seem like they belong in a fantasy story with magic, while shape-shifters fit into urban fantasy type? it's all fiction so I don't know why it matters to my brain. Oh well.

I had this one on my e-reader.

Abandoned                 288 pages, 2016

more opinions: Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales

Apr 16, 2019

Mama's Last Hug

Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves
by Frans de Waal

We are not separate from animals in our ability to feel emotion, and now science is finally able to prove this. Studies show that animals have the exact same chemicals and structures in their brains that produce emotions in people, so why do we assume they don't experience the same types of feelings? He discusses how our culture and assumptions of superiority have stood in the way of this understanding for centuries, but also (more interesting to me) describes many incidents and experiments that show animals are capable of feeling anger, unfairness, jealousy, disgust, shame, affection, guilt and empathy (to name just a few). They laugh. They deceive each other. They manipulate power struggles. They learn from their experiences, support their friends, and wait for chance at revenge on their enemies. The author studied chimpanzees so a lot of his examples are about great apes, but many other animals are also included- dogs, elephants, even fish. It's an very thoughtful and eye-opening book that will make you see animals in a different light- they are so much like us. Which- particularly in light of a recent book I read- makes you feel consternation about how we treat thousands of them in captivity and on factory farms- the author addresses this a bit as well, in his final chapters.

I feel like I skipped something reading this book before Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? but the author says he wrote them as companion volumes to each other, though I feel this one probably builds a lot on ideas and facts presented in the former. Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5                   326 pages, 2019

Apr 12, 2019

The Boy Who Talked to Dogs

by Martin McKenna

Memoir of the author's childhood when he ran away from home and lived on the streets in Ireland, taking up company with a pack of stray dogs. It's not like Dog Boy. This kid was older, and wrote his own story, and told just as much (in alternating chapters) about his home life and the incidents that led up to his running away. He had ADHD, in a time when it was completely misunderstood, so his behavior just led to punishment, frustration, and teasing from other children. His home was rough- a father who regularly got drunk and beat him, numerous other siblings to compete with. School was awful- he couldn't read, failed to comprehend a lot of the material, and got sick of the teachers' corporal punishment when he didn't fall in line. He became the target of bullies, as well. Ran away from it all and lived in a culvert, then hay barns, stealing food and attracting the company of several dogs, which eventually became seven. He felt more comfortable among the dogs than with people, so settled in with them. Eventually he took up a few odd jobs- helping at a horse fair, assisting with coal deliveries. It was at the horse fair that he watched a small dog boss around a bunch of larger ones, and wondered how it was able to get away with that behavior. He figured out that somehow the little dog was dominant to the others, and going home to the barn, recognized the same kind of behavior among his own dogs. Observing more closely he started to figure out some of the dogs' body language, and used it back with them. Some of his ideas I'd come across before- such as that a lot of dogs don't really like being hugged, they interpret an arm around them as threatening- and others I'm not sure if he accurately interpreted what he saw, but regardless he lived long enough with the dogs to get himself together and eventually return home. That's where the book ends. He also managed to face down some of the bullying, and set a few rights in the community (confronting some men who illegally baited badgers, for one thing) but there's no explanation of what happened with his schooling. It's a pretty good read, though.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                    223 pages, 2014

Apr 10, 2019

Eating Animals

by Jonathan Safran Foer

This book has made my heart heavy. It put a lot on my mind and now I hardly know where to start talking about it. It starts as a personal narrative- the author had waffled for most of his life about eating meat or not- and finally decided to do some research on it: why do we eat animals? where does it come from? how are the animals treated? He also tells quite a few family stories, illustrating how important food is in culture and family heritage, emphasizing how difficult it is to change, and to reason out why. A lot of it is about how screwed up the food system is in our country, particularly factory farming of animals. The author took a very close look at all this. He interviewed many: a man who runs a large operation, a small scale farmer who personally knows all his animals, an activist who sneaks into chicken sheds. It's not just about how appallingly the livestock is treated in the poultry, cattle and hog farming industries, it's about how terribly they pollute the environment, how dangerous they are for our health, how wretched the working conditions are for humans employed there. How the power of the corporations enables them to shrug off fines or ignore audits and inspections that don't get enforced. I was shocked to read that over ninety percent of the meat now sold in America comes from large factory farms. Humanely raised animals are so few- not from lack of demand, but because the system makes it so hard for small farmers to function- they would never feed us- not even one city. Apparently even fish isn't a good choice- if you're not worried about mercury poisoning, or alarmed at how devastatingly commercial fishing ravages the ocean (killing hundreds of species for each one they actually keep), farm-raised fish isn't all that better: the conditions on fish farms are just as bad for the animals as those in land-based facilities, and are even less regulated. Foer makes it sound like the only way to avoid being part of all this nastiness and horror is to simply not eat meat. For the first time it sounds like a proper idea to me.

This book was written a decade ago- I'd like to think that things have improved, but I'm rather pessimistic about that. However, there are at least two restaurants near me that specialize in farm-to-table fare, we are definitely going to patronize them although it's expensive (for good reason) I will just eat out less. As if I did much before, anyway.

Rating: 4/5              341 pages, 2009

Apr 4, 2019

Pig Tales

An Omnivore's Quest for Sustainable Meat
by Barry Estabrook

This book is mostly about the pork industry. It starts out looking at the intelligence of pigs, their resourcefulness and success at going feral in practically any environment, and the idea that pigs may have been one of the first domesticated animals- before sheep, goats or cattle. The author visits different people doing research on pigs and accompanies some people on a boar hunt in South Carolina. Then he visits both a small pig farmer and several large factory operations. The comparison is stark. There are several chapters on different details about the huge operations- inhumane treatment of the animals, contamination of meat, lack of enforcement for safety rules, dangerous use of antibiotics- and how it spreads to people- and pollution of the surrounding environment- often not only making noxious odors that ruin the air quality for people who live nearby, but also cause serious illness. He discusses lawsuits and protests that have ensued. He looks at the economics- why are factory farms driven to produce pork this way. To be fair, he does visit one place that runs to industry standard and keeps it all as clean and humane as possible. But there are many others that push production as far as they can, pressuring workers into dangerous conditions and stressing the animals, to say the least. It's unpleasant and puts the public buying the end product at health risk.

The final chapters make you feel okay about eating pork though, if you can get it from a good source. Estabrook visits a sustainable pig farmer in upstate New York who raises heritage breeds on pasture. He gets their family story, describes the pleasant environment and health of the pigs and sees all parts of the operation- from farrowing sows in a roomy barn to young pigs romping on the land, then the trip of grown eight-month hogs to a clean, small scale slaughterhouse. In the final pages he rides in the delivery truck with the owner to an upscale restaurant, where the pork is obviously admired and appreciated by the chefs. You have to pay a premium for it, though- and he pretty thoroughly explains all the costs involved, how someone can make a decent living running a small pig farm, all the details that give you a quality product, a pig that lived a pretty good life and died without feeling distress- why it all costs more. However this can be done on a larger scale. The author traveled to Denmark to visit a hog farm- not as large an operation as factory farms here, raising 12,000 hogs a year without stinking up the environment or using antibiotics. They have better controls in place it sounds like.

Descriptions of what goes on in the factory operations is so disgusting and alarming I never again want to eat pork from that kind of place, if I can help it. It doesn't make me swear off meat altogether, it just means I will probably eat less of it because I will be a lot more picky about what I buy.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5           335 pages, 2015

Apr 2, 2019

Nature Wars

the Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks 
Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds
by Jim Sterba

This book is a different take on human/wildlife interactions. It first looks at the history of settlement in America- early colonists cleared the land and farmed, hunting wildlife extensively as predator control, crop protection or food supply. Nearing modern times, many kinds of wild animals had become so scarce they were rarely seen. Early conservationists instilled in people the desire to preserve pristine nature and help wild animal populations recover. When family farms began to be abandoned and the pattern of living changed across America, fields grew back into new forest- rather quickly. Later, sprawling suburbs supported a lot of new habitat- scattered trees, bushes, open edges- perfect for certain kinds of animals: deer, foxes, turkeys, possums, squirrels, raccoons, etc etc. These animals have proliferated so much they are now a problem in many areas, sparking conflict about how to manage them. The author looks at many ways in which animal control has been attempted- and how successful the various methods are. It appears that hunting and trapping is the most effective (and least wasteful) but that meets with a lot of protest by people who consider it cruel or don't want firearms used near where they live.

The book has a lot of facts- it was a slow read for me at first due to the amount of statistics and such, but got more interesting once it focused on certain animal species. There's chapters specifically about issues regarding beavers, deer, wild turkeys, bears and canada geese. There's a close look at rising vehicle traffic and mounting numbers of roadkill, whether feeding wild birds helps them or causes more problems, and feral cats. It has a lot of criticism for the system of capturing, sterilizing and re-releasing feral cats. Overall a lot to think about. Some of it I'd heard before, a lot was new to me, or presented in a way that caused me to see the issue in a new light. I wasn't aware of a much about the beavers, for example. I felt like the author mostly gave an impartial look at both sides of the problems, but it's also clear what he thinks the best solution might be in many cases.

Older book on similar topic: Alligators, Raccoons and Other Survivors.

Rating: 3/5              343 pages, 2012