Dec 31, 2007

Here Keller, Train This

by George Keller

In the 1950s a college professor from Bloomsburg, PA decided to follow his childhood dream of working in a circus an a lion tamer. A friend delivered a mountain lion via train to his home and he put it in his garage, over his wife's protests. His kids were delighted. Over the years Keller taught at the university in the mornings, and trained his lion in the afternoon, to a watchful audience of local kids. Before long he had accumulated a variety of big cats in his backyard, which he wintered in a car dealership building in town. At first Keller took his act, "Keller's Jungle Killers" on the road to local fairs and attractions, but eventually he achieved his dream of working with the Ringling Brother Barnum and Bailey circus, and later in Disneyland as well. Keller developed his own methods of working with the big cats, which used hand signals and background music. He claimed to never enter the ring with a chair or gun for protection. He also created acts that included a variety of cats: tigers, lions, leopards, etc. instead of just one species, which is uncommon. Full of fascinating experiences Here Keller, Train This! is very interesting and entertaining.

Rating: 4/5 ......... 246 pages, 1961

Dec 30, 2007

A Circle of Children

by Mary McCracken

I first read A Circle of Children over ten years ago, having picked it up at random off a shelf in a thrift store. It touched me deeply, and I have read it several times since. Mary McCracken was a volunteer visiting classrooms for learning disabled children when she decided she wanted to work there, despite her friends' protests. She started out as an aid, then substitute teacher, then worked her way up to run a classroom of her own. Her gentle and patient methods showed good results as she taught many of the children basic skills they did not have before, like using the toilet, eating a variety of healthy foods, dressing themselves, speaking to communicate. In cooperation with another special-education teacher, she took her class once a week on a mini field trip, to help the children gain experiences they would not otherwise be exposed to. This book is inspirational, funny and well written. It is still one of my old favorites. Even though it may be a little outdated now, I think it still gives a good picture of what difficulties learning-disabled children have, and what it is like to teach them.

Rating: 4/5 ......... 239 pages, 1974

Dec 29, 2007

Mormon Country

by Walace Stegner

This was one of the books quoted in Into the Wild so when I found it on my father's shelf I picked it up to read. My father said he's a great writer, Stegner. But I just couldn't get into it. Physical descriptions of the land, and organization of the early Latter-Day Saint settlers who cultivated the desert. I flipped ahead and found much of the same; I think it was the writing style that bored me, for now.

Abandoned ....0/5... 362 pages, 1981

The Cat in the Dryer

and 222 Other Urban Legends
by Thomas J. Craughwell

This amusing book contains over 200 stories that spread rapidly by word of mouth in spite of being rather fabricated or outrageous simply because they are just enough believable that we want to share them with everyone. The kind of stories that happened to a friend of a friend of a friend. Craughwell starts out the book by defining what an "urban legend" is, then launches into a handful of stories that cropped up just after 9/11. The rest of the volume is chock full of mishaps, pranks, common sense blunders, the doings of celebrities and minor disasters to unfortunate pets. The common thread is that they are all, however much we want to believe them, untrue. Craughwell tracks down the origins of many of the stories (which are only a page or two in length), lists numerous variations of each tale, and explores what made them intriguing enough to become the little legends they are. The Cat in the Dryer is great light reading material, that will make you laugh a lot and think again about the stories you hear.

Rating: 3/5                   256 pages, 2002

Dec 28, 2007

Into the Wild

by Jon Krakauer

I was fascinated to discover at the end of the film Into the Wild that it is based on a true story, so when my sister loaned me the book to read while visiting, I gobbled it up. In a journalistic, not narrative style, Into the Wild looks at the life of Christopher McCandless, a young man from an affluent family who spent years after college graduation hitchhiking around the country, tramping through remote areas and planning for an Alaskan adventure. Krakauer not only examines what forces in McCandless' life and personality prompted him to seek out solitary wilderness adventures, but describes a period in his own life where he did the same thing, and compares McCandless to other young men who also adventured and died in the wilderness before him. A combination of youthful idealism and desire to live off the land on his own ability lead McCandless off "into the wild" from which he attempted, but could not return due to several mistakes and errors in judgement. Full of quotes from books McCandless drew inspiration from, and interviews with people he met during his travels (and left strong impressions upon) this is a fascinating look at one young man's yearning for pure wilderness experience. Whether you think of him as a foolhardy kid who took unreasonable risks or an admirable bold adventurer, there is something to be learned from reading his story. (Don't go off in the woods alone without a map, for starters). I enjoyed it very much, in spite of the unfavorable reviews it has received elsewhere.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 207 pages, 1996

More opinions at:
Musings of a Bookish Kitty
Desert Reader

Opinions of a Wolf

Dec 26, 2007

Thoughts While Tending Sheep

by W. G. Ilefeldt

This inspirational memoir is a quick and comfortable read; from the perspective of a retired man looking back on his life. The author discusses his many life challenges, describing how he overcame obstacles and grew from a frustrated dyslexic child, barely able to read and write, into the published author he is today. Living in California with his wife and a border collie named Maxie, Ilefeldt is now occupied in raising sheep. He describes helping the sheep give birth, treating them for disease, protecting them from predators and parting with them at market time. Among the descriptions of daily chores with the sheep, he reflects on the beauty of the countryside, muses on life lessons the animals teach him and shares his insights on the wandering paths our lives take, tying a lot of it into God. I liked this book a lot the first time I read it, but at the second reading it did not hold as much interest for me.

Rating: 3/5                229 pages, 1988

Dec 25, 2007

The Lions of Living Free

by Jack Couffer

I picked up The Lions of Living Free with a mixture of curiosity and desperation during a holiday visit to a house unpopulated by books. I found it in a used bookstore on Ocean Street in San Francisco, back in a corner mixed up with history volumes. I instantly recognized the title and quality of photographs as belonging to that series of stories about a lioness named Elsa raised by a game warden's wife and released into the African wild in the 1960's. I read the books about Elsa long ago: Born Free, Living Free and Forever Free. This slim volume is written by the filmmaker who created a movie of the second book, which is about Elsa's three wild-born cubs becoming orphaned, being captured and relocated into the Serengeti. I didn't quite know what to expect of the book. It doesn't tell much about the storyline of the film, but all about the production: how they worked with the lions, difficulties making a film while isolated in the bush, relations with the local Masai tribesmen, encounters with various wild animals, and reflections on conservation as the African beauty sank into the heart of this filmmaker. There's plenty of photographs. Told in a journalistic style, it can be a somewhat dry read but I did learn a few interesting things. If it had just been more detailed or focused more on the actual lions, I believe I would have been quite pleased.

Rating: 3/5                  96 pages, 1972

Dec 22, 2007

The Tipping Point

How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
by Malcolm Gladwell

This book is all about how ideas and behavior spread through society. Gladwell explores and analyzes in detail what exactly are the factors that cause something to suddenly become widely popular or effective. Challenging our normal assumptions that things spread in a gradual way, he show us that instead most epidemics (of any sort) reach a certain point at which they "tip" or suddenly grow at exponential rates. The Tipping Point looks at precisely what causes this to happen, and how people can manipulate the spread of ideas or information by making small changes that have large results. It discusses this in such varied contexts as the spread of syphilis, the popularity of a brand of shoes, what makes people heavy smokers, how to most effectively teach a poor community about diabetes, what made Paul Revere's midnight ride so monumental, how New York City fights crime in the subways, what makes the educational tv program Blue's Clues so riveting for children, and much more. Really a fascinating and thought-provoking book.

Rating: 4/5                 301 pages, 2000

Dec 16, 2007

Meme: Cataloguing

Do you use any of the online book-cataloguing sites, like Library Thing or Shelfari? Why or why not?

If not an online catalog, do you use any other method to catalog your book collection? Excel spreadsheets, index cards, a notebook, anything?

I joined Library Thing a few months ago and have been very pleased with it! My previous method of keeping track of my books was a simple spreadsheet list that was never up to date or sufficient. I like the online site so much better. It's easy to use, it's fun to see other libraries that are similar to mine, you can put up book cover images as well, and do all kinds of sorting. Sometimes I just go there to play with the sorting features, browse other peoples' libraries, and read the Library Thing forums.

Question from Booking Through Thursday

Dec 11, 2007

When I Was Puerto Rican

by Esmeralda Santiago

I was disappointed in When I Was Puerto Rican. It is about a young girl whose mother moves with her and several siblings to the United States when she is thirteen. I liked the beginning well enough, but I was expecting most of the book to be about her experiences in the new country, after establishing the cultural norms and what life was like for her back in Puerto Rico. But the part in New York doesn't happen until page 213, when the book is almost over. I felt like it really could have gone more in depth about the confusion of cultural identity she felt among the Blacks, Latinos and Italians in Brooklyn. A quote on the flyleaf compared this book to Call It Sleep and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, two of my favorite books ever. When I Was Puerto Rican really pales by comparison. It is a rather sad story about a large, poor family whose parents no longer love each other, and a young girl who gets uprooted from her culture. But it doesn't have the depth of Call It Sleep or the rich descriptions and vivid characterization of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Rating: 3/5              274 pages, 1993

Dec 8, 2007

Divine Canine

the Monks' Way to a Happy, Obedient Dog
by the Monks of New Skete

If I owned a dog, I would definitely want this book. It is an excellent volume on how to train your dog using the methods of the Monks of New Skete, who breed, train and sell german shepherds. They also have a program where an owner can drop off their dog for four weeks of obedience training. Here are the stories of nine dogs with different needs and problems who come to the monastery. There are dogs who ignore commands, lunge at cars, act amorous to people's legs, nip children, mouth arms and leashes, jump up on people, and are aggressive to other dogs.Each chapter shows how the monks understand and address the dog's problem; always it is resolved via the five basic obedience skills: heel, sit, stay, down and come. They profess that most behavior problems come from the dog holding (or wanting to hold) a dominant position in the "family pack." Obedience training teaches the dog his place, asserts human leadership, and gives the dog correction when he misbehaves, replaced by a command he can follow. It appears to be extremely effective. At the end of the book is an in-depth explanation of how to methodically teach your dog the five basic skills. Interspersed between the chapters on obedience are small Q&A pages addressing such questions as how much exercise your dog needs, how to choose a vet, types of training collars to use, introducing a new puppy to an older dog, etc. Divine Canine is very practical, informative and user-friendly. It is illustrated with many beautiful color photographs.

Rating: 4/5               256 pages, 2007

Read more reviews at: SMS Book Reviews

Dec 5, 2007

Lying Awake

by Mark Salzman

Lying Awake reads like a poem. It is about a middle-aged nun who after years of struggling to feel more spiritual, begins to have intense visions that bring her closer to God in a mystical way. Unfortunately, they're accompanied by terrible headaches that cause her to black out. Her doctor informs her that she's having mild epileptic seizures, a condition easily treatable with surgery. Are her visions a gift from God, or just a symptom of disease? She doesn't want to loose her visions, and foregos surgery to live with the suffering and euphoria of the seizures. But when they begin to be debilitating, the other nuns question her choice and the source of her spiritual inspiration. This is a beautiful and thought-provoking novel, permeated with the quiet scenes of life in a cloistered monastery.

Rating: 4/5             192 pages, 2001

Read another review: Puss Reboots

Dec 4, 2007

Kavik the Wolf Dog

by Walt Morey

Kavik the Wolf Dog is a great adventure story. Kavik (meaning "wolverine") is the leader of a winning sled dog team in Alaska. A rich man in California purchases him, but before leaving Alaska the plane carrying Kavik crashes. A young teenager finds him trapped in a cage in the snow, and determines to nurse him back to health. Then the rich man finds out where Kavik is, and claims him back. But Kavik has other plans, and makes the journey from California to Alaska to reunite with the boy who saved his life. Along the way he has to rediscover the courage he lost in the plane crash, or he'll never survive the rigors of the wild he must traverse, especially when he runs into wild wolves... Most of the story is focused on Kavik's journey back to Alaska. I first read this book when my grandparents gave it to me as a kid. It was and still is a favorite. Written for a juvenile audience.

Rating: 4/5              192 pages, 1968

Dec 3, 2007

Wind, Sand and Stars

by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Lyrical writing, philosophical reflections and the adventures of an early aviator make Wind, Sand and Stars a treasure. I've always loved Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince, and was interested in trying another book by the same author. In 1926, he got a job working as an airplane pilot for the Latecoere Company, an early precursor of what is now Air France. Early planes were unpredictable in nature, often "falling apart in midair," needing constant repairs. Crashes were common. Pilots would sometimes cover their few dashboard lights at night to navigate by the stars. Saint-Exupery recounts many adventures flying through storms, getting lost, surviving wrecks. In one notable incident, he crashed in the Sahara Desert. Along with his navigator Paul, he struggled through the dessert in search of water before being rescued by Bedouin people. Interspersed with the stories of his adventures are the author's philosophical musings on life and death, what we should aspire to, what makes mankind noble... a bit romantic, but well written. In reading this memoir, the reader can find many incidents and ideas the author incorporated into The Little Prince. I really enjoyed it.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 240 pages, 1939

more opinions:
A Work in Progress

Nov 30, 2007

Ordinary Wolves

by Seth Kantner

Conservation, consumerism and identity are central themes running through Ordinary Wolves. Cutuk Hawcly is a white boy raised in a sod igloo on a riverbank in the northern Alaska wilderness. When his siblings grow up they both leave for the city. Cutuk attempts to follow, moving first to the Native village where he is teased and ostracized for being white. After much trepidation he continues to Anchorage, where he finds the noise, bustle and waste of city life unsettling. Unable to fit in there either, he finally returns to his father's home on the riverbank where he finds that during his absence, civilization has been encroaching upon the wilderness he loves. This is a great book, vividly depicting the harsh reality of life in Alaska and what happens when the native Inupiaq culture runs up against modern lifestyles.

I thought it might be a matter of interest, in the spirit of "rolling" to mention what book titles I gleaned from Ordinary Wolves to add to my TBR:

From Where the Sun Now Stands- Will Henry
The Endurance- Caroline Alexander
Journals of Samuel Hearne
Hell's Bottom, Colorado- Laura Pritchett
The Tree of Red Stars- Tessa Bridal
Empress of One- Faith Sullivan
Larabi's Ox- Tony Ardizzone
Blue Taxis- Eileen Drew

Rating: 4/5 ........ 324 pages, 2004

Nov 29, 2007

Meme: Rolling

Question from Booking Through Thursday:
Do you get on a roll when you read, so that one book leads to the next, which leads to the next, and so on and so on?

I don’t so much mean something like reading a series from beginning to end, but, say, a string of books that all take place in Paris. Or that have anthropologists as the main character. Or were written in the same year. Something like that… Something that strings them together in your head, and yet, otherwise could be different genres, different authors.

Yes. All the time. This is the reason behind my ever-growing never-ending TBR lists. There are many different things that spark one book leading to the next. Sometimes I like the author so much I immediately looking up something else they wrote. If there are books or authors mentioned in the text that sound interesting, I move on to those. If the book has a reference index I usually comb through that looking for more new titles (which may or may not be on the same subject). Often if the subject is interesting I'll go find more books on the same idea, and read say, six in a row about wolves, or immigration experiences, or autism. Usually my interest wanes before I've read all the books in the list that derives from the first book, so then the titles go into the TBR to wait. The most new titles I glean from reading a book has been twenty-something; of which I probably only read two or three before moving on to a new subject.

The Only Alien on the Planet

by Kristen Randle

This is a superbly written young adult novel. One I literally couldn't put down. The characters and conversations are very realistic, the depictions of events and concerns in high school ring true. The Only Alien on the Planet is about a girl named Ginny whose family moves during her senior year. She adjusts to her new school and makes friends with the boy next door, Caulder. Before long another neighborhood boy catches her attention: Michael, nicknamed "Smitty." At school and home, Smitty never says a word, never responds when people talk to him, never changes his facial expression. Yet he's evidently very smart, earning As and scoring high on all tests at school. The other kids call him The Alien and pretty much ignore him. Caulder gets Ginny involved in a mission to discover why Smitty is always silent and get him to speak. At first I thought Smitty was an autistic savant, but it turns out his silence resulted from psychological abuse. Near the end the story started to loose its credibility, but by then I cared so much about the characters I could overlook the faults. A very intriguing and captivating story.

Rating: 4/5                 228 pages, 1996

Nov 28, 2007

Sasha's Tail

Lessons from a Life with Cats
by Jaqueline Damian

If you're not fond of cats, you probably won't find this book interesting. For those of us who love the felines in our lives, Sasha's Tail is a great book! Not just a rehash of cat stories, it has a literary flair and fluid writing style. It doesn't follow a chronological order, but is more along the lines of a collection of reminisces and reflections on events in the author's life with cats; arranged more or less by subject. She talks about growing up with cats and moving from city to country with her current long-haired black cat, Sasha. Sasha adjusts well (and surprisingly quickly, at least in terms of terrorizing the local rodent population with her sudden-found hunting skills) and is soon joined by several feline additions to the household. Damian discusses everything of interest to cat owners: introducing new cats to the home, dominance issues, litterboxes, cat food, venturing outdoors, meeting dogs, neighbors and strange cats, etc. A delightful, warm and interesting book on living with cats.

Rating: 4/5           192 pages, 1995

Nov 26, 2007

A Step From Heaven

by An Na

A Step From Heaven is a quiet, elegant little book that tells the story of an immigrant family who moves from Korea to California. Narrated by the daughter Young Ju, it depicts the everyday struggles of adjusting to a new culture in a strange land. Everything is difficult: job searches, learning English, attending school, living as tenants; all these things slowly wear the family down. Disempowered by his inability to navigate through American culture, the father looses control as head of the family and slides into a pattern of drinking and abuse. Even as parents and siblings shift roles and come to live as strangers, Young Ju discovers the strength in herself to step forward and claim identity and hope in her new place.

Winner of the Printz Award in 2002 and the Asian Pacific American Award for Literature in 2004.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 160 pages, 2001

More opinions at:
The Zen Leaf
Hooser's Blook

Nov 25, 2007

All Things Bright and Beautiful

by James Herriot

James Herriot is one of my favorite authors. He is a practicing veterinarian who works in Yorkshire on farmers' livestock as well as household pets. Not only is he a kind and understanding vet, he's also a great writer. His picturesque accounts of the Dales community is full of humor and wit, his portraits of the people and animals bring them vividly to life. He gives just enough information about vetting to satisfy the reader's curiosity about the trade, but doesn't bog down the story with dry or unnecessary details.

All of Herriot's books are based on his life experiences as a vet. The first four titles are taken from a hymn. In this, the second volume, Herriot is newly married to his wife Helen, and they are living upstairs from the veterinary surgery where he works with his boss, Sigfried Farnon and Sigfried's roguish younger brother, Tristam-- a vet student himself. Each chapter of the book is a story that can stand alone. All Things Bright and Beautiful is a book I have read many times and enjoyed anew at each sitting. I'll probably read it a dozen more in the future. It's that delightful.

Rating: 5/5                 378 pages, 1973

Nov 23, 2007


by Kent Haruf

This is a quietly elegant portrait of a farming community in Holt, Colorado. It focuses on half a dozen characters: a high school history teacher whose depressed wife leaves him to raise two young boys alone, a shy teenage girl who becomes pregnant and decides to run away from home, and two crusty bachelor brothers who run a farm together. Another teacher in the same school becomes the catylist for all these characters' solitary lives to become intertwined and connected. Plainsong is full of guilt and pain, quiet passion and deeply felt compassion. It is a wonderful portrayal of how people's lives touch one another- for good more than ill.

Incidentally, I enjoyed this book better than The Tie That Binds.

Rating: 3/5                    310 pages, 1999

Nov 22, 2007

The Color of Water

A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother
by James McBride

This memoir tells the story of two members of a family: James McBride and his mother, Ruth. Ruth was the daughter of immigrant Orthodox Jews. She grew up in the South. Her own mother was crippled, and her father was an abusive merchant who mistreated his wife, his daughter and his Black clients. As soon as she was old enough, Ruth fled north, where she married a Black man, converted to Christianity, founded a Baptist church, and eventually raised twelve children. James was the youngest of these. He tells the story of growing up in a poor, bi-racial household alongside the story of his mother's life, which he had to wheedle out of her. As much as The Color of Water addresses issues of racism, identity and religion, it is more about family values. It is about how one rather eccentric woman lived the way she wanted to without regard to anyone's opinion, and instilled in her children strong moral codes and work ethic. They learned above all from their mother the value of education and how to make do for themselves- for they all graduated from college. However, other examples of Ruth's parenting skills leave something to be desired, as when she instructs one child "if somebody hits you, take your fist and crack 'em". Her children suffered constantly from huger and poverty, and she was extremely secretive about her own past and family, even when questioned about it by her children. A very unsettling book, by any accounts.

Rating: 3/5                 328 pages, 1996

Cat's Eye

by Margaret Atwood

I really wanted to like this book. It is about the subtle manner in which girls cut down each others' self esteem.... as far as I could tell. The main character ended up being an artist; the first part of the book is mostly flashbacks of her schoolgirl days, with interspersing chapters of her dealing with a retrospective show of her artwork in Toronto... I wanted to read more about her as an artist, but it just wasn't getting there quickly and my interest lagged. Maybe I'll try this one again later.

Abandoned              480 pages, 1989

Edit 12/12/08: I've read it now. Read what I thought here.

Nov 21, 2007

A Map of the World

by Jane Hamilton

This quietly haunting story is about a family, Alice and Howard, and their two daughters. They've recently moved to a small midwestern town to follow Howard's dream of being a dairy farmer. Unfortunately, Alice soon alienates the local people against her. Right as the story unfolds, her best friend and neighbors' daughter drowns in her backyard pond. Then she is accused of sexually abusing a child at the school where she works as a nurse. On the one hand dealing with profound guilt over a child's death, and on the other facing a courtroom full of people who think she's committed the most sordid act against another child, Alice struggles to hold onto her sanity and keep her family together while facing the ostracism of the entire town. A Map of the World can be depressing and heart-wrenching, or a startling clear look at how one small mistake can trigger other events and escalate into an unforseen catastrophe.

Rating: 3/5              390 pages, 1995

Nov 19, 2007

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures
by Anne Fadiman

Fadiman has written a fantastic book about the clash between two cultures met in the arena of medicine. In 1980 Lia Lee was born in the United States, daughter of a Hmong refugee family from the remote mountains of Indochina. At three months old, she developed symptoms of epilepsy. Her parents viewed this condition as indication that her soul had been stolen by a malevolent spirit. Her team of doctors at the Merced Community Medical Center prescribed medicine that could halt her seizures and enable her to grow up to live a relatively normal life. But her parents did not understand the doctors' diagnosis, disagreed with their treatment, routinely failed to administer her medications and preferred to treat her with traditional Hmong healing methods. Both the doctors and her parents cared deeply for Lia, but their complete failure to understand each other led to a disastrous series of events and tragedy.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is a skillful woven story built of Lia's complex medical case, her family's stubborn solidarity and an exploration into Hmong culture, history and folklore. The author has imbued it with patience and irony. It presents both sides of the story fairly, looking in equal depth at the doctors' concerns and the deep-rooted beliefs of the Hmong.

The final, precisely apt conclusion rings true:
"If you can't see that your own culture has its own set of interests, emotions, and biases, how can you expect to deal successfully with someone else's?" (p.261)

Rating: 4/5                341 pages, 1997

More opinions at:
Book Addiction
A Bookish Type

Nov 18, 2007

The Tie That Binds

by Kent Haruf

Holt, Colorado is the setting of The Tie That Binds, a dismal tale about a dysfunctional family of farmers. When the original homesteaders fail to make the farm thrive, their children inherit a bleak harsh life. The daughter Edith ends up taking on the brunt of responsibility, fulfilling her duty to her family, as unthankful as that was. In spite of the fact that I did not find the characters very likeable with their disagreeable dispositions and painful relationships, their faults make them very human and realistic. There was something admirable about their stoic nature in the face of challenges and bitter disappointments. I cannot imagine living such a grim, unrewarding life with an unforgiving family and came away from the book uncertain if I should condemn or could possible condole Edith's final actions that sealed the tragedy of this story.

It also made me think twice about my fantasies that rural life is mostly peaceful and rewarding. Haruf's portrait of life on the high plains shows a bitter struggle to make ends meet against cold winters and a faltering economy. It takes a strong will and spirit to continue against the odds, as Edith's family does in this book.

Rating: 3/5                    246 pages, 1984

Nov 17, 2007

The Pilot's Wife

by Anita Shreve

I have come to realize, after reading a dozen or so popular books gleaned from booklists, that there are two types of writers I enjoy. The first are those who use words in a lucid, picturesque, poetic or simply beautiful manner. Language, the turn of a sentence and precise meaning of words are a work of art. These books are delicious to me. The second group are all about a fantastic story. They are master storytellers, manipulating emotions and plot twists in unexpected and startling ways. I don't savor these books, I gobble them. Even if I'm not really enjoying the writing, I often feel compelled to finish because I just have to read the rest of the story! The best is when an author does both, then it's amazing.

Of the "storyteller" group, Jodi Picoult, Kent Haruf and Anita Shreve are some of the authors that come to mind. I have read a few books by each of them recently, and they were pretty good stories, but after several titles I had my fill.

The Pilot's Wife falls into this category. A woman dreads and finally meets the moment when her pilot husband goes down with his plane. As she deals with the aftermath of emotional turmoil caused by his death, the media and industry raise questions about her husband's activities. She uncovers an unwelcome truth: her husband was leading a double life. Determination leads her to uncover his secrets, despite the peace of mind it will cost her...

Rating 3/5                293 pages, 1998

Nov 16, 2007

Reading Lolita in Tehran

A Memoir in Books
by Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita in Tehran is about a group of women in Iran who studied and discussed forbidden books with a university teacher in her home. It doesn't really read like a memoir, and was not what I expected. I was picturing an intimate story about the women's lives and interactions with each other, facilitated by their book group. What I got was a bunch of essays on Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James and Jane Austen, with asides to Saul Bellow, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Gustave Flaubert, the Bronte sisters and more; Iranian politics, religion and the oppression of women. Once I let go of my expectations, I did enjoy this book. It gave me a clearer picture of the Iranian perspective and attitudes toward Western culture. I remember thinking to myself at times: well, no wonder they see us that way! (Though I am well aware not all Iranians share the opinons depicted in the book).

My main criticism is that it jumps around a lot, moving from one subject to the next without much warning and going suddenly from the present back to Nafisi's experiences at the beginning of the Revolution. This can get confusing and detract from the focus of the book. Also, it is a bit dry and can make you feel like you're back in school; especially if you are unfamiliar with the books discussed. Due to the many works mentioned in this book, I have added more than a dozen titles to my TBR list, of classic literature I felt guilty for not having read yet!

Rating: 4/5 ........ 356 pages, 2003

More opinions at:
Things Mean a Lot

Nov 15, 2007

Meme: Preservationist

Booking Through Thursday question from Conspiracy-Girl:
I’m curious how many of us write notes in our books. Are you a Footprint Leaver or a Preservationist?

I used to underline my favorite passages in books, and sometimes write notes in the margins. Not to mention putting my name in permanent marker across the top edges. Especially when I was in high school. I even used to underline in ink, so that flipping through the book I could quickly locate a quote I wanted. I don't do that anymore. I've even gone back and erased what I could of books I had underlined in pencil, and begun to replace ones I had underlined with ink. I re-read my books often and prefer to see them with new eyes each time, instead of having my attention drawn to words I appreciated ten years ago but don't see so much in now, when something else is speaking to me... Instead of marking up my books, I keep a notebook by the bed where I jot down ideas and notes, as part of the log of books I've read.

Nov 14, 2007

The Dogs of Bedlam Farm

An Adventure with Sixteen Sheep, Three Dogs, Two Donkeys and Me
by Jon Katz

Jon Katz moved with three border collies into an old farmhouse in upstate New York where he shared land with a bunch of sheep and a few donkeys (as you can see from the subtitle). A novice at livestock keeping, he plunged into the work with the help of his half-trained dogs and some friendly neighbors. Toiling through a bitter winter a bit unprepared, Katz came face to face with some of his limitations, to know himself and his dogs better than ever before.

Most of all, The Dogs of Bedlam Farm is about how dogs are what we make them. The trainer (or lack of training) does a lot to shape a dogs' behavior, demeanor and work habits. Katz realized that to have better dogs, he had to be a better person, because they were a reflection of himself. And so he begins a long struggle to do so, taking us along with him on the rough road to overhaul his spirit, with many mishaps, amusing adventures and new friends gathered along the way.

The personalities of the workaholic dogs, woolly sheep and two gentle donkeys shine though these pages full of reflections on life and descriptions of the land. This book was a joy to read, and inspirational as well.

Rating: 4/5               256 pages, 2004

Nov 13, 2007

Fast Sketching Techniques

by David Rankin

This has to be one of the best books on sketching that I have read yet. The author is an award-winning watercolor painter who graduated from Cleveland Institute of Art. He developed his sketching techniques while spending time in India, purposefully seeking better methods of productive drawing that would be useful for creating paintings back home. Besides many samples of drawings and exercises to do, the book covers topics such as the difference between drawing and sketching, how to draw faster, how to optimize use of photographs along with sketches, improving observation skills, making better compositions, maximizing productivity, how to capture a likeness of people or animals and much more! Fast Sketching Techniques is a great reference book for any artist who wants to improve their on-site drawing skills.

Rating: 4/5                144 pages, 2000

Nov 12, 2007

Last Child in the Woods

Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder
by Richard Louv

According to the author, in the past two generations, not only have areas available for children to play in nature decreased, but parents have been (intentionally or not) discouraging kids to play outdoors. Fears of injury, strangers, and all kinds of accidents that could result in lawsuits have resulted in laws, rules, and parental restrictions on kids' outdoor play. There is a serious lack of direct experience with local nature for them, unstructured play being replaced by organized sports, environmental learning being about places far away (like Africa) and attractions like video games and computers keeping them indoors. He argues that this lack of nature experience can have serious emotional and spiritual consequences. He presents studies that show how contact with nature can help children overcome depression, attention deficit disorder and obesity. Other studies show that hands-on nature education helps children develop skills in independence, critical thinking, problem solving and creativity. Finally, Louv presents a variety of ways parents, teachers and civic leaders can help children reconnect with local nature in a safe, creative and beneficial manner.

Based on research and countless interviews with children, parents and educators, Last Child in the Woods is a serious look at the current alienation many kids have from nature and the importance of "reconnecting" them. I did get a bit bogged down by all the statistics presented, but overall this is an excellent and thought-provoking book. Visit these this link for interviews with the author.

Rating: 4/5             310 pages, 2005

Nov 10, 2007


by Sarah Waters

In this winding tale of intrigue and fraud, Sarah Trinder is an orphan who grows up in a household of thieves in Victorian England. A suave con man convinces her to become involved in an elaborate scheme to obtain the inheritance of a gentlewoman named Maud. Sarah takes position as Maud's maid, with the intent of helping the con man seduce Maud so he can marry her, get her inheritance, and then put her away in an insane asylum. But then Sarah finds herself becoming physically attracted to Maud, and determines to help her instead of follow the original plan. Even her new scheme with Muad, however, doesn't go as expected... Fingersmith is well-written and compelling. However, I would prefer to do without the erotic love scenes. If it weren't for that, I would certainly read more by this author.

Rating: 3/5               511 pages, 511

More opinions at:
Things Mean A Lot
Jenny's Books

Nov 9, 2007

Cat Confidential

by Vicki Halls
I feel certain this is a good book, and I like reading about cat behavior, but it just isn't engaging me right now. There are others I am more eager to read, and flipping ahead after 40 pages nothing looked original or spectacular enough to keep me this time. I may open this book again somewhere down the road.

Abandoned              289 pages, 2005

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

by Joan Aiken

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is not about wolves, but the fear of them is certainly part of the story. Set in an alternate 18th-century England that is terrorized by wolves, this young adult adventure will appeal to anyone who (like me) loved books like A Little Princess or The Railway Children. In this story, a young girl and her visiting cousin are left to the evil devices of a jealous guardian who takes over when the parents are gone abroad. The guardian dismisses the servants, puts the girls to drudgery and eventually sends them to a boarding school where they are little more than slaves. They escape with the help of a goose-boy and plunge into danger, making their way back home through a wilderness stalked by hungry wolves and untrustworthy people... This book is the first in a series of eleven volumes written by a prolific author. In the Dell Yearling edition I found the pen-and-ink illustrations by Pat Mariott especially delightful.

Rating: 3/5                  181 pages, 1962

More opinions at:
Things Mean a Lot

Nov 8, 2007

Adventures with a Texas Naturalist

by Roy Bedichek

This is a wonderful book, but I think it has the wrong title. Which is a good thing, or I might not have picked it up to read! The first two chapters explore the impact that fences have had on the plant and animal life in Texas, according to their different types, and how the landscaping and management of strips of land buffering highways, railroad tracks and similar thoroughfares have preserved native plants in the state. Sound boring? Maybe when I write about it, but Bedichek's account is fascinating and informative. I never gave a thought to what a split rail fence does to impede wildlife traffic, especially in regards to plants! It really opened my eyes.

Then Adventures with a Texas Naturalist goes on to talk about birds. I was expecting after several treatises on birds for it to continue on to discuss reptiles and mammals, but although there are several observations on things like frogs and armadillos, most of it is just birds. That is why I am glad the title says "naturalist" and not the more appropriate "bird-watcher" because I never really found the subject of birds very interesting. Bedicheck's delving into all things avian is a wonderful read, however. He does a great job of describing bird behavior, migration, environmental issues and man's impact on bird life. Even more impressive are the rather obscure subjects like how we hear and identify birdsongs and how commonly accepted misnomers of birds reflect our misunderstanding of them. He also debunks many popular myths about birds.

Some of the information in this book is out of date, and some of Bedichek's predictions turned out to be incorrect, but it is both amusing and interesting to see a naturalist's outlook from the '30s. If you can get your hands on a copy of this little-known book, I think it's well worth the read.

Rating: 4/5                    368 pages, 1947

Nov 7, 2007

The New Work of Dogs

Tending to Life, Love and Family
by Jon Katz

Being heavily involved with dogs and dog owners, author Jon Katz realizes that many dogs today do not fulfill traditional roles of providing protection, livestock work, hunting, retrieving, etc. Instead, they fill in gaps in human relationships, providing a kind of emotional support and healing companionship. Through many interviews and visits with dog owners, trainers, veterinarians, dog behaviorists and rescuers, Katz analyzes the nature of this new relationship dogs have taken on with humans, scrutinizing the pros and cons, the benefits and repercussions it has on dogs. Exactly why have so many dogs come to be treated more like family members than pets? Why do we see in them so many human emotions? How have our species become so interdependent? Are dogs as a species taking advantage of our emotional need... like parasties? The New Work of Dogs presents a lot of interesting questions, speculations and some answers about how the role of dogs in our lives is gradually shifting and what it may mean for them.... and about us.

Rating: 3/5                   225 pages, 2003

Nov 6, 2007

Pastels Made Easy

by Anne Heywood

I was looking for inspiration to get back into my art and picked up this beautiful book at the local library. There is a lot of basic information on materials, how they work together and how to handle them, with exercises on different methods of creating texture and color blends with pastels. However, the author/artist never really takes us step by step through an entire painting. Although it is touted as an instruction book suitable for beginners, I felt it was really more a showcase of the artists' work, featuring over 200 images of her paintings. But that made it worth my time, since I enjoyed simply turning the pages and admiring the stunning artwork. I don't need lessons on how to hold a pastel stick, I needed to see some inspiring art and Pastels Made Easy did that for me.

Rating: 3/5                    144 pages, 2003

Nov 5, 2007

Blue Moose

by Daniel Manus Pinkwater

Okay, so I still read children's books now and then. They're fun. I found these on a booklist. Blue Moose is a silly story about a man who runs a restaurant in the middle of a forest in Canada. His business is failing until a big blue moose shows up who takes over the kitchen, introduces savoury new recipes, and learns to serve as a waiter. It's also got lots of odd and obscure facts about moose.

The Hoboken Chicken Emergency is just as silly: a kid Arthur goes to the store to get the family's thanksgiving dinner turkey and comes home with a 250 pound live chicken. He names her Henrietta and teaches her tricks. Then she escapes and runs wild in the neighborhood, causing lots of hilarious havoc. It's up to Arthur to figure out how to stop Henrietta the monster chicken! Both stories are short chapter books, suitable for young readers but well-written enough to appeal to adults who might like some amusement in wacky stories about animals.

Rating: 3/5                     47 pages, 1975

Nov 3, 2007

The Lost Painting

by Jonathan Harr

The Lost Painting is a detective/thriller which kept my interest all the way to the end because it's about art! It's about the search for a lost Caravaggio painting. While looking for information about which of two copies of Caravaggio's "St John the Baptist" is the original, an American art history student discovers clues to the location of "The Taking of Christ" which has been missing for centuries. With the help of an English gentleman who is a Caravaggio expert and art historian, she starts meticulously following an ancient paper trail in hopes of finding the painting, digging through dusty papers in archives and family vaults in Rome. Another main figure in the story is an Italian art restorer who works in a National Gallery in Dublin, Ireland. While cleaning a painting for a monastery, he realizes it may be an unknown Caravaggio original... This is a fascinating story about art history, restoration and the importance of proving authenticity. There is a wealth of information about Caravaggio's life and ins and outs of the art world, past and present. I only wish pictures of Caravaggio's paintings had been included in the book. That would have been nice.

Rating: 3/5                  288 pages, 2005

Nov 1, 2007

People of the Blue Water

A Record of Life Among the Walapai and Havasupai Indians
by Flora Gregg Iliff

In the 1900's Flora Gregg left her home in Oklahoma and traveled to nothern Arizona to teach natives of the Walapai and Havasupai tribes on an Indian reservation. Living in a canyon eight miles deep and difficult to access, the tribe was seldom approached by outsiders and little influenced by the modern world. Gregg gives descriptions of the tribal life and customs, skills used to survive the hostile natural environment of the canyon, and changes and conflict the Walapai people faced as they were confronted with modern culture when explorers, traders and missionaries penetrated their secret haven. Well-meaning persons sent by the US Government attempted to operate schools in the community and change some of their customs to "assimilate" them into modern society, isolated as they were. Not surprisingly, the Havasupai resisted these intrusions into their lifestyle.

Besides being a schoolteacher, Flora Gregg performed roles as a doctor and judge, and sent reports as a "superintendent" to the Government. A very straightforward book, People of the Blue Water is as much a diary of her years among the Havasupai people as it is a documentary account. It provides an excellent portrait of life among a little-known native tribe in an isolated environment, as well as an honest look at the struggles and influences of missionaries and Government workers among them at the turn of the century.

Rating: 4/5                271 pages, 1985

Little Women

by Lousia May Alcott

This is a heartwarming account (loosely based on the author's life) of four sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, growing up absent a father during the Civil War era with a strong-willed mother who teaches them to be moral and kind, independent thinkers and advocates for women's rights. Mostly it is a story of family life, squabbles between sisters, the growth of the girls' characters as they approach womanhood and marriage and Jo's aspirations to be a writer. The characterization is wonderful, the morality lessons are tastefully presented and the tragedy and triumphs of this family has touched many hearts and made this book a classic.

My only regret is that I wish I read Little Women first, instead of after viewing the 1994 film. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, but it strongly colored my reading of the book. For once I found it annoying instead of admirable that the script stuck close to the original text, because as I was reading I kept picturing the scenes from the film, instead of re-creating it in my mind. It rather spoiled the reading experience for me, which is why I had to give this book 3 stars. I think I'll wait ten years and read it again, maybe I'll have forgotten most of the film by that time.

Rating: 3/5                 464 pages, 1868

Read more reviews at:
Book Chronicle

Oct 31, 2007

The Chimps of Mt. Asserik

by Stella Brewer

It always gives me a thrill when a book I'm reading refers to another one I know well. Many years ago I read In the Shadow of Man, a book on wild chimpanzees in Gombe by scientist Jane Goodall, and was totally enthralled. Last week I stumbled upon The Chimps of Mt. Asserik in a garage sale. It is also about chimps in Africa. The author, Stella Brewer, grew up in a house full of pets and rescued orphaned wildlife. Eventually she and her father established a piece of wilderness in the Gambia as a national park, where they built a center for orphaned chimpanzees. Brewer was shocked one day to see a chimp capture and eat a monkey, having assumed them to be vegetarian. She found through reading Goodall's book that chimps do eat meat, a discovery Goodall had recently made herself. Brewer visited Gombe to learn more from Jane Goodall and observe wild chimpanzees. She returned to Gambia with dreams of rehabilitating chimps to the wild and eventually found an area around Mt. Asserik in Senegal where she taught and released eight different chimps. The most wonderous aspects of this book are examples of the chimpanzees' high intelligence, keen observation and ability to learn, portraits of their strong personalities and the inspirational work of one woman dedicated to improving their lives.

Rating: 4/5                       302 pages w/77 photographs, 1978

Oct 29, 2007

The Dogs Who Found Me

What I've Learned from Pets Who were Left Behind
by Ken Foster

Most of us probably don't notice a stray dog wandering on the street, or care when neighbors move away and don't take their dog with them. Not Ken Foster. He notices when lost dogs are in need, and takes them in, regardless of the inconvenience. In this heartwarming and frankly presented book, Foster tells of his experiences rescuing dogs off the street, caring for them and trying to find them homes. Many of them are pit bulls or similar breeds, so he addresses some of the issues with those types of dogs. Interspersed with the narrative are some helpful and sometimes wryly sarcastic lists on topics like "how to loose your best friend" (a dog), "how to read a dog" and "how to prepare for the unexpected" (disasters, as Foster discusses impacts of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina on his life and the dogs). There is a lot of good advice on how to deal with strange dogs and negotiate rescues and re-homing. The Dogs Who Found Me is a very interesting book, with many particularly apt observations on the human/dog relationship in the modern world.

Rating: 4/5                      194 pages, 2006

Oct 27, 2007

Meme: with Abandon?

Posted on Booking Through Thursday by Cereal Box Reader:
I would enjoy reading a meme about people’s abandoned books. The books that you start but don’t finish say as much about you as the ones you actually read, sometimes because of the books themselves or because of the circumstances that prevent you from finishing. So . . . what books have you abandoned and why?

I don't think I've ever let circumstances make me abandon a book, except once. I felt my husband was getting addicted to a television show and he countered saying he was just as involved with the characters as I was with characters in the book I was reading, he couldn't stop watching every episode to find out what happened any more than I could quit reading the book. To prove him wrong I quit reading that book and picked up a new one! It was City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre. I really need to go back and finish it!

Other than that, I only abandon a book if I really don't like it. I've actually abandoned many books, although I'm not sure at what point it's abandonment and what point just quitting a trial reading. Often after skimming and determining I want to try a book, I'll find it intolerable or boring after just one chapter and quit. Sometimes I'll get halfway through a book before I realize I'd rather be reading something else. I have no qualms about quitting then either. There's just too much to read out there to waste it on something I'm not enjoying! Or learning from. Usually if I get more than halfway through, I'll make a good effort to finish, or at least skip to the end and see what happens. You can see a list of books I abandoned recently here. It really does say a lot about someone's taste in books to see what they don't like reading. I began keeping track of books I abandoned to prevent myself from trying them again after I've forgotten all about them.

I usually don't like books that have too much sex or swearing, are full of action and little character development, have unrealistic or unbelievable characters, awkward dialog, silly phrases, dull writing, or that feel to me boring, contrived, cliche or pretentious. Or if I am just not interested in the subject matter. Really it's all a matter of taste. There have been occasions where I tried and abandoned a book several times, and on a later attempt absolutely loved it! National Velvet and The Plague Dogs are two examples. Sometimes I'm just not in the mood for a certain type of book, but if it looks good enough I'll attempt it later.

Oct 26, 2007

Send In the Idiots

Stories from the Other Side of Autism
by Kamran Nazeer

In the early 80's when Kamran Nazeer was four years old, he attended a small private school in New York that was one of the first of its kind, designed to help children with autism. Twenty years later, Nazeer seeks out his former classmates (and one of his teachers). Out of a dozen, he connects with three who allow him to visit them, and the family of a fourth (who had committed suicide). Nazeer takes us with him into the daily lives of four individuals with autism: a speechwriter, bicycle messenger, pianist and a computer engineer. Each with their own individual quirks, personal trials and significant accomplishments. His exploration of autism is full of reflection on his own experience, compassionate inquiry into how autistic people relate to the world, surprising insights into how relationships work and examination of how exactly we connect with one another through language, gesture and unspoken rules of courtesy. This book is a fascinating look into what it is that makes us human.

Rating: 4/5           230 pages, 2006