Jan 21, 2019

Horseshoe Crab

Biography of a Survivor
by Anthony D. Fredericks

Horseshoe crabs have been crawling in and out of the oceans since before the time of dinosaurs. Their straightforward way of life and tough armored carapace have been a success story for this arthropod.  But when humans came on the scene, their numbers began declining, which also spelled trouble for numerous shorebirds that depended on them as food source during migration. Horseshoe crabs were once used by fishermen as bait, and faced habitat loss. Nowadays they are protected, especially because they are key to human health, a point I never really understood before reading this book. The crabs' blood is super sensitive to bacterial contamination, so it is used to make a liquid for testing any number of things for sterility- bandages, IV fluids, surgical instruments, parts for joint replacements, etc etc. They are enormously important to the medical field. The horseshoe crabs are bled in sterile conditions and released into the ocean again with a marking that ensures the same crab won't donate its blood twice in a year.

This book is about far more than the blue blood of the crabs though. It's about their curious anatomy (did you know they have ten eyes?) and habits- what little we know of them, most human observation of horseshoe crabs occurring when they come ashore to breed. It's about various organizations that have arisen to protect the horseshoe crab, to study it, and to educate the public (most people find them unattractive which doesn't help their case). Amusingly, the author makes all this material approachable by inserting popular culture references- in this case B-grade 1950's horror movies!

Interesting article on the medical use of horseshoe crabs, and synthetic alternatives that are being developed (before the possibilities of horseshoe crab blood was discovered, rabbits were used- and they gave their lives).

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                    256 pages, 2012

Jan 17, 2019

Unsheltered

by Barbara Kingsolver

The novel is about two families, living on the same property in New Jersey, but a century apart in time. In each case, the family is seriously struggling with looming insecurity. The modern family lives in an inherited house that is on poor foundations and literally falling apart, while they deal with an elderly, terminally ill parent, a new baby pretty much left for other family members to raise when the young father buries himself in work travel after his wife's suicide, and the husband's insecure tenure at a local college. Their carefully structured life seems to be coming apart at the seams, some family members drifting in and staying as four generations huddle under one leaky roof, while others are on the verge of exiting (the vitiperous old man). Woven in alternate chapters, the story of the family from the 1800's -also living in a crumbling house in desperate need of repairs no one can afford- has a professor at odds with his employer because he wants to teach real science to his students- Darwinism is a new idea which many fear and abhor- and in the end he finds himself in a public debate with leaders of the community who staunchly resist scientific thought, threatening more than just his livelihood.

I really really wanted to like this book more than I did- not only because Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors, but also because it was a gift to me from a family member. But the writing is rather heavy-handed. It feels like the author wrote it with a strong agenda, and I can readily see how some readers find her narrative preachy and off-putting. I happen to agree with many of her opinions, and even I found it a bit tough to finish this book. Either side of the narrative thread I feel could have made a stronger story if it had stood on its own, with more depth and personality. I did like the way the last few words of each chapter became the title of the next- to me it seemed a deft interweaving (not gimmicky). But in each case I had a hard time becoming involved with the characters- it all felt a bit too distant, a bit too stuffed with dense conversations and lectures (rather reminiscent in that regard of Ring of Endless Light). In the modern part of the story, I really liked the character of Tig- so resourceful and bold- but the others- meh. And in the historical storyline, I was intrigued by the neighbor woman the teacher befriended- Mary Treat, a scientist in her own right who had correspondence with Charles Darwin (and a real person, whom I'd never heard of before). The main character from the current storyline ends up researching Mary Treat- another way the stories were tied together. But every time I read the interactions between the teacher and scientist the conversations felt rather stiff, and I never cared enough about them.

Well, maybe it will be better on a second read someday. Also to note the infusion of current politics in the story- very current- made it feel shockingly relevant but also uncomfortably awkward. I just don't enjoy politics that much in my reading, even though it's important to see what's going on around us and do something. The big picture I ended up with: somehow, we will survive and move on. Families intact or otherwise (forming something new).

Rating: 3/5                  463 pages, 2018

Jan 12, 2019

bouquet cats

This was a 1,000 piece jigsaw I did over the past two weeks. Artwork (lovely, beautiful texture in the cats' fur) is 'Boucat' by Braldt Bralds. It's just such a beautiful picture- lush flowers and seven cats posed so nicely- a butterfly, mouse and several caterpillars hidden in the details. I am definitely a fan of Cobble Hill- the puzzles have very nice surface texture and the shapes are all random which is really fun to put together. I enjoyed this one a lot.

Click on the image to scroll through the pictures at larger size.

Jan 10, 2019

The House at Sugar Beach

in Search of a Lost African Childhood
by Helene Cooper

Descendant of the first freed blacks who stepped off the ship Elizabeth onto the shores of Liberia in 1820. They were part of this idea that people released from slavery at the end of the Civil War should return to Africa and form their own colony there. The native Liberians didn't see it the same way. They didn't want to sell their land to newcomers, or seen it taken by force. Which it eventually was. Generations later, the newer-arrived blacks had formed a very elite upper class, while the native Liberians sunk deeper into poverty and oppression. The author herself had a rather sheltered, privileged childhood, talking mostly about her jokes with her cousins and sisters, fears of the 'heartman' and malevolent spirits, reading Nancy Drew books and vying for the attention of boys in her private school. She was very close with her adopted sister, a girl from a native Liberian family her parents took in. Her narrative is interrupted every other chapter or so with some history- which I appreciated because I didn't know much about Liberia, but it felt a bit impersonal. Also a lot of family history and politics- because many of her relatives were prominent citizens or high officials. When Liberia suffered a coup and horrendously brutal civil war, the family fled to America- leaving behind her adopted sister. Later part of the book tells how she adjusted to American life- more school stuff- how she discovered journalism and fixed on a desire to be a reporter. She made it- attained the coveted travelling status, visited and wrote about issues in many different countries (including Iraq) and finally returned to Liberia, where she found her left-behind sister had survived the atrocities. I admit I skipped and skimmed a lot in the middle of the book, finding the information riveting in one way, but lacking a feeling of connection or emotion from the writer on the other hand. It was a bit difficult to stick with. I found some things ironic- and the description of a man executed in Liberia, then his body parts paraded around the streets- was a chilling echo of the fears she had of the 'heartmen' as a child. They were real. The final chapters about her return home- seeing how much had changed, fallen into squalor, the tearful reunion with her adopted sister- are the better parts of the book.

Rating: 2/5             354 pages, 2008

Jan 8, 2019

Our House in Arusha

by Sara Tucker

Memoir of times the author spent living in Arusha, Tanzania and in Togo with her family of three. It started when she first visited Africa as a travel writer from New York, and met safari guide Patrick- a man born in France who had spent most of his adult life in West Africa. The book is in patches- some telling of the author's own experiences, other chapters relate her husband's adventures, both well-written but sometimes the narrative hopping back and forth is confusing. What's admirable is how much they simply wanted to make it work- Patrick fell in love with Africa as a young man and just did whatever he could to be there: safari tours, guide for trophy hunters, crocodile poacher, reconnaissance spy, hotel manager, you name it, he took the job if it got him out in the bush near animals. There are a few incidents related with wildlife- a leopard cub he raised, a close encounter with a wildebeest when his vehicle got stuck in a ditch- but more is about the political and social turmoil of the area, and how the family managed to live there. The author herself often spent long months with her husband's son keeping their house running while Patrick was off on a job. Hours of boredom, dealing with the locals who worked for them, constant expectation of being robbed. Fondness for some aspects it all, tedium with others. Reading about the ex-pats' lifestyle reminded me somewhat of Rules of the Wild (fiction). Another large part of this book is about the author's relationship with her stepson, what it was like for him to grow up in Africa, to make adjustments to boarding school among other things. It kept feeling like a foreign story from a time and place quite removed from myself, and then I would come across a detail that reminded me this story is quite current: she's reading Harry Potter with her stepson, he's playing World of Warcraft, they're standing on a street in New York looking at smoke in the sky above the spot where the Twin Towers used to be. Because at the end, a contract for working as warden in a game park in Togo falls through after they have sold all their household goods in preparations to move, and the family decides to come back to America. She's written a second book about the next six years living in Vermont, not sure if I'll look for it.

Rating: 3/5             287 pages, 2011

Jan 5, 2019

In Calabria

by Peter S. Beagle

An old man who prefers to keep to himself finds a unicorn hanging around on his farm. He tries to keep it a secret, to protect the unicorn, especially when he learns why it has chosen to stay on his land for a while. But of course eventually people learn it is there, and it draws media attention and worse to his quiet corner of the world. Some powerful, unscrupulous person wished to possess the farm by force, and that's where the story started to loose my interest. I guess it fitted well into a modern story about unicorns, to have thugs with automatic weapons threatening a quiet farmer, but the aspect of danger and violence never felt real? the narrative has such a quiet, calm tone to it all. There were other aspects of the story I just didn't care for. Especially the romance. It wasn't right. I wonder if I'll ever love another Peter S. Beagle book as much as The Last Unicorn- I tried Tamsin and couldn't (it's a ghost story), I've been meaning to attempt A Fine and Private Place but never got around to it yet.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5               174 pages, 2017

Jan 1, 2019

Unicorn Mountain

by Michael Bishop

I have a feeling I may have tried this book once before, so long ago I remembered very little except the general premise. It's set on a Colorado ranch, where several disparate characters end up together- Libby who runs cattle on the land, her Ute ranch hand, her ex's cousin who comes to stay. He's dying of AIDS- this was written in the eighties- and some of the ways in which people talked around him, admittedly made me uncomfortable.  I gather from reading more opinions on Goodreads, that at its publication date, this book was way ahead of its time depicting gay men and issues they had to deal with- so it ought to be read in a historical context. But that isn't what bothered me. Nor the outright lack of unicorns- although I know they come more into the book later in the story- up to where I read they were mainly background material, a group up in the hills, their presence kept secret by the landowner and her very few friends. The unicorns appear to be unhealthy, and somehow they weave into the story with the other characters trying to put their lives back together, or keep things going as best they can. I didn't get far enough to find out though, because something put me off. It was when ghosts came into the narrative. I just don't do ghost stories.

Abandoned                    406 pages, 1988

More opinions: Speculiction      anyone else?

pretty, fake birds

Enjoyed fitting together a puzzle again the other day. It was a Christmas gift from my seven-year-old. A Ravensburger 500-piece puzzle. While the image itself is of eye-rolling quality (terribly obvious photoshop job), the colors are bright and vivid, the differing visual textures of foliage and bird feathers are nice, and the puzzle surface good quality- appears it will hold up to a lot of re-use.

I had fun trying to identify all the bird species depicted: goldfinch, cardinal, titmouse, eastern bluebird, blue jay, robin, chickadee, some kind of warbler, and mountain bluebird (I think).

Dec 31, 2018

2018 Stats

Total books read- 138

Fiction- 61
Non-fiction- 70

fiction breakdown
YA-3
Fantasy/Sci-Fi- 26
J Fiction- 26
Picture Books- 1
Animals- 18
Classics- 1
Poetry- 2

non-fiction breakdown
Art- 5
Gardening/Food- 7
J Nonfiction- 4
Memoirs- 23
Nature- 11
Animals- 49
Other- 5

other formats
Short Stories- 4
Graphic Novels- 11
E-Books- 8

sources
Owned- 98
Public Library- 36
Borrowed from friend/relative- 3
Received from publisher/author- 1

re-reads- 4
abandoned books- 9

Notes: the numbers don't add up perfectly. Lots of titles span more than one category, for example, so this is just a rough idea of what my reading year looked like. I read a lot more fantasy/sci-fi this year- most of those were Animorphs books, short and fun. My interest in animals continues to be a major part of my reading, but I also picked up more memoirs this year than before. Fiction and Non-fiction was pretty even, and as in the past few years I read more books out of my own collection than from the library.

Some of the foreign places I visited in the pages: the Congo, Gombe, Haiti, Peru, India, Brazil, Antarctica, Great Britian, Namibia, Yemen, the island of Corfu, and several fantasy worlds.

Now for the best reads of the year. Fascinating book about bird life with gorgeous photographs: The Living Bird published by the Cornell lab of Ornithology.  Another favorite was also avian: The Parrot Who Owns Me by Joanna Burger, Very memorable for its thoughtfulness: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. A vivid novella I won't forget easy: Stickeen by John Muir, with some stunning nature writing and a small courageous dog. A very different kind of read for me was Trashed by Derf Backderf, graphic novel about working as a garbage collector. And I have to mention GoatMan. It was the weirdest book ever.

Great fiction: All the Little Live Things by Wallace Stegner. Must read me some more Stegner! Favorite graphic novel of the year: El Zoo Petrificado by Joris Chamblain. Look for the English version if you can. Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman, about a teen with mental illness, was very good. I also really liked The Mare by Mary Gaitskill, that one was hard to put down.

So many I can't name them all here. My 4/5- Great Book tag has more wonderful reads! 

Dec 30, 2018

Last Chance to See

by Douglas Adams
and Mark Cardwardine

Sci-fi author (famous for Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) travels the world to view some of the most endangered animals on the planet, before they are gone. He goes to Madagascar to see the aye-aye, to Komodo for the iconic giant lizards, to Zaire for the mountain gorillas and northern white rhino (there were twenty living at the time), to New Zealand in hopes of finding a kakapo, to China in search of the Yangtze river dolphin, to Mauritius to see the Rodrigues fruit bat and some endangered birds as well. Some of these he just caught a glimpse of (the aye-aye), other animals he was able to observe up close. I was surprised what a fun read this was, in spite of its grave subject matter- it's kind of a wild travelogue, and the author's humor in describing situations frequently sparked a laugh. To note, in the years since this book was written, the river dolphin is presumed extinct, the northern white rhino is functionally so (down to two individuals), the fruit bat is increasing in numbers, komodo dragons are doing okay (listed as vulnerable), kakapo appears to be gradually recovering (their reproduction rate is incredibly slow), the gorilla and aye-aye are still very much endangered. When I read this book I was impressed at the actions the Chinese took to save the river dolphin, but it wasn't enough. Similar book, although now outdated in terms of the animals' predicament (and not nearly as enjoyable a read) : Wild Echoes.

Rating: 3/5               220 pages, 1990

more opinions:
Things Mean a Lot 
anyone else?