Dec 31, 2008


A Natural History of the Unmentionable
by Nicola Davies
illustrated by Neal Lagton

Over the holidays I read this amusing and very informative little book my sister picked up at the Natural History Museum in DC. It tells all about something you might not want to know much of- poop. Things such as why feces are brown (and other colors too- like pink!) why some animals eat it, how different animals use it to communicate, and what scientists learn from it- not only what animals have been eating but other info like where otters travel and how many insects bats consume per night. Poop also reveals how nature recycles all the excrement animals produce- not only is it utilized by plants as fertilizer and to transport seeds, but some insects and birds use it for building materials as well. There's a few really crazy (but true!) stories in this book, and lots of amazing and random facts about feces- the largest, smallest, and most strange. Did you know there's a sixty-foot tall monument in Cootaburra, Australia dedicated to the dung beetle? Read this book to find out why!

Rating: 3/5                 61 pages, 2004

More opinions at:
Book Buds

Dec 24, 2008

The Cat Who Came for Christmas

by Cleveland Amory

At home in my mother's house, there is a box of books that comes out only at Christmastime. It has lots of lovely picture books like The Polar Express, Tasha Tudor's Take Joy! and The Velveteen Rabbit. One of the few "grown-up" books is Amory's The Cat Who Came for Christmas. When I was a teenager I must have started reading this book every year at least once, and never got very far. The beginning was interesting- a man who runs an animal rescue organization gets a pet for the first time in his life when a stray cat winds up in his home on Christmas eve. The parts describing the bachelor and his new cat getting used to each other I liked, but then the story veers into chapters solely about interesting (but very small) facts about cats in history, or how to name a cat, or famous people's cats. Now and then it jumps back to Amory's own experiences with his cat, then goes into dealings with his rescue organization again.

I know I made myself read this book all the way through at least once some day in the past, but not this time. Even though I felt really nostalgic about it when I found a paperback copy and brought it home, the dry humor, awkward puns and endless digressions from the story really lost me. It would have been okay if the book was just about his rescue organization and his own cat, or just about his own cat and all the cats he's ever heard about (historically, famous and otherwise) but all three together makes for a dull jumble. I skimmed through the rest just to make sure I really had read it all once, and then left it alone about halfway through. The Cat Who Came for Christmas has at least three sequels. I'm a bit curious to read one, just to find out if it stays more focused, but that will wait for later. There's other books on the TBR clamoring to be read.

Abandoned                     240 pages, 1987

More opinions at:
Read it or Weep

Dec 22, 2008


by Orson Scott Card

In this reworking of an old fairy tale in a modern setting, Sleeping Beauty runs headlong into some Slavic history and folktales, particularly that of Baba Yaga. The main character of Enchantment is Ivan, a young college student who while visiting the Ukraine to do research discovers a sleeping princess in a forest clearing, frozen in time. Ivan manages to free the princess, but finds himself catapulted back a thousand years to her village, where in order to save Katerina's kingdom he must become her betrothed. Only, he's already engaged back in his own time. And he finds that in spite of the extensive research he's done on Slavic culture, living in Katerina's world requires him to rework a lot of assumptions. Further along in the story Ivan and his princess wind up in the present day, where she in turn has to adjust to some serious culture shock. Through it all they struggle to make sense of their relationship and battle the persecution of the witch Baba Yaga.

Years ago when I first read this story I found it captivating. I liked reading about how the assumptions Ivan and Katerina made about each other's worlds were continually challenged. I even enjoyed the constant arguments the characters had about language, and the examination of gender roles. The mixture of magic and fantastical events with practical thinking and a modern setting also intrigued me (perhaps more so than in Magic Street). But the second time I tried to read this book it really fell flat for me. The characters felt really one-dimensional. The constant bickering between Ivan and Katerina got on my nerves, and the tangents from the storyline lost me before I made it through fifty pages. It's also got quite a bit of violence, which I didn't enjoy reading about. Even today, when I picked up a copy from the library to remind myself more of this book, I wasn't able to read it again. But it was pretty entertaining the first time around.

Rating: 3/5             390 pages, 1999

More opinions at:
Book Nut
A Striped Armchair
Things Mean a Lot

Dec 21, 2008

The Thirteenth Tale

by Diane Setterfield

I did not expect to like this book so much. Partly because back when I first saw it all over the book blogs, there was some controversy surrounding it, and that kind of put me off. Also, I usually shy away from mysteries and ghost stories, but my assumptions of what makes up those genres were not exactly what I found here.

The Thirteenth Tale revolves around the mystery of a fictional writer's past. Vida Winter, a popular and prolific author loved by millions, always gives a different story when she is asked about her past. Not until she is elderly and in failing health does Winter intend to reveal her story, and she is selective about its recorder. Enter Margaret Lea, a young amateur biographer whose father owns an antique bookshop. Margaret has spent her life immersed in books, hiding a secret pain. Arriving at the famous author's reclusive estate, Margaret finds that not only is she slowly unraveling the story of Winter's origins, (and doing her own research on the side to confirm what she is told) but also coming to grips with a suppressed secret from her own past.

This is a somber story, full of dark family secrets. At one point I almost quit reading, because the implications of what happened long ago in the author's family was so distasteful to me. But I was fascinated by the speculation of how closely connected twins can be, and the downward spiral of mental instability passed on through generations, dragging the family into decay. And of course I loved the bookishness of it all, the examination of how stories are told, the interwoven threads of the different characters' lives, and the lovely way Setterfield uses language.

The ending of this book took me completely by surprise. I was expecting a revelation that linked all the parts of the story together, but not the one that surfaced! It made me want to go back and read the whole book again in a new light of understanding, and now I really wish another story would be written, from another character's point of view.... It's curious what other books The Thirteenth Tale reminded me of. The fact that it's about a scholarly woman assisting a recluse in an old mansion reminded me of The Fire Rose. The mysteries wrapped around the house and its extensive gardens through which girls wander brought to mind The Secret Garden. And the way the Angelfield estate fell into ruin following the decay of its family made me think of The Picture of Dorian Gray. This is definitely a book I'm going to read again someday.

Rating: 4/5                406 pages, 2006

More opinions at:
Hooser's Blook
SmallWorld Reads
Things Mean A Lot
Melody's Reading Corner
Trish's Reading Nook
An Adventure in Reading
A Striped Armchair
Musings of a Bookish Kitten
Under the Dresser
Puss Reboots
Read Warbler

Dec 19, 2008

Seal Child

by Sylvia Peck

This haunting little book is a modern story based on the myth of selkies, seals who change themselves into people. Its main character is Molly, a young girl spending a vacation on a Maine island with her family. One day Molly hears a baby seal crying, and following the sound finds a horrible scene: a skinned dead seal on the beach. Shortly after, she discovers a strange girl named Meara living with her elderly neighbor. As the girls become acquainted, Meara's secret gradually unfolds: she is really a seal, and the dead body on the beach was her mother. Before long Meara and Molly are inseperable, until their friendship is finally tested and Meara must choose to stay on land or return to the sea. Seal Child is a lovely book, well-written and intriguing. It has a few quiet surprises. The secondary characters (the elderly neighbor, Molly's little brother, her parents) are not well-developed, but as the narrative is focused on Molly's concerns and Meara's oddities, this doesn't weaken the story much.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 200 pages, 1989

More opinions at:
Good Reads

Dec 17, 2008

Baby Catcher

Chronicles of a Modern Midwife
by Peggy Vincent

I read this book several years ago when expecting my own child. It recounts many of the experiences Peggy Vincent had as a midwife. She began her career as an obstetric nurse, then worked in an alternative birthing center in California before becoming a certified midwife and assisting women to give birth in their own homes. Most of the stories in this book follow the same pattern: Vincent meets the pregnant woman, learns her background story, gets called at an odd hour to rush over when contractions begin, describes the birthing experience with all its drama, mess and emotional glory, presents the baby to its mother, and they all have a feast afterward to celebrate. The families Vincent assisted as midwife were all different: hippies, recovering drug addicts, single teen mothers, couples who allowed their children or pets to be present at the birth. All the stories are rather sensational, and often told with a splash of humor. Baby Catcher has many interesting anecdotes and is very informative regarding the birth process, but it did not convince me that home births are safe or wise. Especially seeing that some of the birthing experiences she tells about did not have good outcomes, and a few of the stories are quite frightening, for an expectant mother. Still, I enjoyed reading this book and felt like I learned a lot from it. It also addresses some of the legal problems midwives run into against the conventional medical establishment, and I found it enlightening to read the factual account of what happened to Vincent, in comparison to the fictional book Midwives (by Bohjalian).

You can visit the author's website here.

Rating: 3/5                  336 pages, 2003

Read more opinions at:
Jo's Book Reviews
Birds' Books
(title in progress)

Dec 16, 2008

book giveaway

win a free book and two horse bookmarks
I'm giving away a book by Rumer Godden called The Dark Horse, along with two bookmarks featuring horses I made from magazine scraps. This particular hardbound edition is an ex-library book. It has a plastic cover over the dustjacket and a torn area on the back endpage where a card pocket was removed. Otherwise, this book is in very nice shape!

Here's what the inner flap says:

The dark horse of this touching and exciting novel is Dark Invader, a magnificent thoroughbred sold cheaply and exiled from England to race in Calcutta in the early 1930s. Almost all of the people around him- Leventine, his new millionaire owner; his trainer, Jon Quillan, an ex-cavalry officer... Ted Mullins, the doting middle-aged stable lad who brought him out of England- are, like himself, "outsiders" in one way or another.

Overlooking the racecourse is a convent of courageous nuns led by Mother Morag, who... has a sharp eye for both racehorses and miracles. The dark horse becomes a favorite to win the prestigious Viceroy's Cup, but then, three days before the race, disaster strikes... A mystery ensues, and it is Mother Morag who holds the key and knows just how to turn it.

With its remarkable cast of characters, its vivid evocation of India in the last days of the Raj, and its simple but powerful story, The Dark Horse is a wonderful short novel- and more: the story is true. It happened in Calcutta some fifty years ago.

This contest is open until Tue Jan 3rd (after Christmas bustle is over) when the winner will be chosen at random and announced here. Open to residents of the US and Canada. Just leave a comment to enter, or blog about my giveaway and link back to this post for a second chance!

Dec 15, 2008

I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes

by Ruth Sienkiewicz-Mercer and Steven Kaplan

This is the memoir of a woman with cerebral palsy. Ruth was born in 1950. From infancy her body was almost completely paralyzed and she never learned to walk or speak. Eventually home care became too difficult for her family, and at the age of twelve Ruth went to a state institution where she spent the next sixteen years of her life. Although Ruth was mentally sound and quite smart, her communication was very limited, and the minimal facial signals she had used with her family were misunderstood or ignored at the institution. For years she was treated callously like one of the many residents with severe mental handicaps. She suffered from neglect and observed horrific conditions, but in the book mostly describes the people around her and how she struggled with depression and tried to maintain hope for her future.

Eventually Ruth gained companionship when another girl with similar physical disabilities occupied the bed next to her, and together they slowly worked out a repertoire of gestures which allowed them to converse in a limited fashion. Over the years Ruth watched situations at the state facility gradually improve, until there was a better staff-to-resident ratio which allowed staff members to give her more individual attention. Her intelligence was finally recognized, and Ruth was included in the first classes to provide basic education for the residents. She learned rudimentary reading and spelling skills which along with new computerized communication devices, gave her a voice for the first time when she was about twenty years old. Even then, forming sentences and getting her message across was very painstaking.

Reading the first chapter of this book about how Kaplan worked with Ruth to write her life story is astonishing. It took hours of mostly yes-and-no questioning for Kaplan to learn about each incident and opinion Ruth had to share. Then Kaplan would spend more time writing out each passage and read it back to Ruth for her approval or correction. It took about ten years for this book to take shape. I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes is an inspiring story of courage and perseverance. It will forever alter your perception of people with physical disabilities.

You can visit the book's website here.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 225 pages, 1989

secret santa!

book blogger secret santa christmas swap
I finally know who my Secret Santa was! The Literary Feline very kindly sent me a lovely Christmas card and a Borders gift card. Thank you, Wendy, that was so sweet. I've ordered for myself two books to complete some fantasy series: Sabriel by Garth Nix and Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper. They might just arrive in time for me to read them over Christmas holidays!

Dec 13, 2008

The House at Pooh Corner

by A.A. Milne

I have been reading The House at Pooh Corner gradually over the past few weeks with my daughter. We enjoyed this second collection of Pooh stories just as much as the first (Winnie the Pooh). The various adventures are full of a childlike wonder and imagination. My favorite stories in the book are where Pooh and Piglet build a house for Eeyore, and another where Tigger gets stuck up a tree. My daughter really liked the one where Owl's tree fell down and Piglet saved the day.

I thought a lot this time about the different characters in the book; each seems to represent a different kind of person, some which could be annoying when you meet them in real life: Rabbit the self-important busybody, Owl pretending he knows more than anybody else, Eeyore always finding a reason to be morose and depressed, Pooh well-meaning but bumbling, Kanga forever practical, Piglet shy and self-effacing, and Tigger (perhaps my favorite) always optimistic and quick to save face. Even though the characters often express their dislike of others' behavior, sometimes outright (like when Rabbit plans to get Tigger lost because his incessant bouncing is so irritating) they always make efforts to be kind and considerate, to be true friends. It's admirable and makes the stories all the more endearing. I've noticed that in the cartoons Tigger is excessively cheerful, to the point of being a serious annoyance, but in the book he's not like that at all. I remember when I was a child and my mother read me the story, I felt sorry for Tigger when he first showed up that rainy night, a stranger who doesn't seem to even know himself well (they spend the whole chapter trying to figure out what Tigger likes to eat for breakfast). Pooh welcomes him and introduces him to the others, but Tigger seems to feel uncomfortable as a newcomer for quite some time, anxious to make himself look good and find ways to fit in with the close community of the Forest. I felt sympathetic towards him.

The stories are all fun and charming, and the only one I didn't recognize from my childhood was the final chapter, where Christopher Robin says goodbye to Pooh in a rather muddled way. It was unclear to us where he was going. Off to school? Simply growing up and not playing with his old toys anymore? This was the only story upon which my daughter shut the book, but as we were already at the end, I didn't mind.

Rating: 5/5 ........180 pages, 1928

Another opinion: Come With Me If You Want to Read

Dec 12, 2008

Cat's Eye

by Margaret Atwood

This is the second time I've picked up this book, and this time I made it all the way through, but not without a struggle. I don't know if it's because I had extra distractions this week, and difficulty concentrating. Or because the subject of the book was a little too close to home, which made me want to step away from it and distance myself.

Cat's Eye is about woman who is an artist. The book opens with her preparations for a retrospective exhibition of her work in Toronto, Canada, where she grew up. As she revisits the town and notices its changes, Elaine reminisces about her childhood during the 1940's. Most of the book is about those memories, described through the opaque perspective of her younger self. Her parents were slightly eccentric, and they moved often when she was young. Elaine spent her early years in her brother's company, learning boys' games. When she began attending school, she found it hard to relate to the other girls. She longed to fit in, but found their play full of unexplained rules, their friendships conditional. It's very sad how she was constantly seeking their acceptance, struggling to understand her failure, internalizing her pain. The petty cruelty of her "best friends" haunted Elaine for her whole life, and she finally expressed it all in her paintings, which were then misunderstood and misinterpreted- by other artists, gallery reps and the public.

I suppose it was a buildup of many small things that made Elaine so miserable, but I was unable to feel most of it, even though I could closely relate to some aspects of her story. The quiet, dull mood and constant understatement of this book reminded me of others: Never Let Me Go and one by Chaim Potok called In The Beginning. The conclusion of Cat's Eye depressed me. I appreciated reading about her experience as an artist, but I lost respect for Elaine's character because of some choices she made.

At first I loved the picture on this book's jacket. Originally I found it so captivating I kept pausing to look at it while I read, eager to find out what it signified. When I finally came to the description of Elaine's painting which the cover shows, I was disappointed in the illustration. It's supposed to be a cat's eye marble, but the detail of that inner swirl of spun color is not there. Silly perhaps, but that really bugged me... I know a lot of readers really liked this novel, but I just don't at all. I guess because it's so realistic. Very effective, but not enjoyable for me to read, just depressing.

Rating: 2/5              462 pages, 1988

More opinions at:
Trish's Reading Nook

Dec 11, 2008

Meme: Time

booking thursday
Time is of the Essence says Booking Through Thursday, so I answer this question:

Do you get to read as much as you WANT to read? If you had (magically) more time to read–what would you read? Something educational? Classic? Comfort Reading? Escapism? Magazines?

Of course I'd like to have more time for reading! If I did, I'd probably read more serious non-fiction. I'd probably read more classics. too. I used to read classics in high school when I spent my free time just buried in books. Since becoming a mother, I hardly know what free time is. Sadly, I've found it difficult to get through any classical literature in the past few years. Like these failed attempts. I think it's just because reading those sorts of books, which are slower paced, have more complex plots and in-depth character studies, take a kind of leisurely concentration I don't have anymore. I find myself just getting frustrated, and loosing focus. Hopefully someday when life slows down I'll be able to get back into classics. I'd like to.

And if I had even extra time on top of that, I'd probably re-read all my favorites again, as well.

thank you's

I've had two nice surprises this week. First, I received this lovely little handmade book from my Book Blogger Secret Santa. It's so pretty. I also got a box of chocolates from a Secret Santa, but I don't know if this is from the same person, or someone in my family. I love them both, thank you, whoever you are!
Second, the lovely Chartroose of Bloody Hell, It's a Book Barrage! included me in her Blog Nog Awards. Thanks, Chartroose! I love it.

Dec 10, 2008

All My Patients Are Under the Bed

Memoirs of a Cat Doctor
by Louis J. Camuti

This book is about a veterinarian, particularly fond of cats, who made house calls to his patients in New York City. There's lots of amusing anecdotes, but most were too brief in description or duration to really satisfy me. Camuti describes the inevitable search for cats who hide when he arrives, the quirks of cat lovers and the eccentricities of rich and famous cat owners. He gives some advice on taking care of cats, warning against household hazards and recommending what to feed your cat (baby food!). A holiday risk I had not thought of was Christmas trees- one of Camuti's patients died from toxins after eating the needles. Some of the stories I remember were of a siamese cat who liked to get its fur groomed with the vacuumn cleaner, a long-haired cat which was allowed on the dinner table and frequently set its tail on fire from the candles, and a butler who purposefully overfed his employer's cat because he wanted it to beat the world record for weight. One of my favorite parts of the book describes when Camuti kept practicing into his eighties, and could no longer climb stairs. A lot of the apartment buildings he visited had no elevators and he would treat patients in the downstairs hallways, running equipment off yards of extension cords strung from the owners' rooms and startling casual visitors who found him standing in the hall holding a syringe. All My Patients Are Under the Bed will be of interest to a cat lover, but most of the book really did not stick with me.

Rating: 2/5                   222 pages, 1980

More opinions at:
Words by Annie

Dec 9, 2008

The Goats

by Brock Cole

I found this book for a quarter at a garage sale once. I'd never heard of it before, but the premise sounded interesting: two social outcasts at a summer camp (boy and girl) get stripped of their clothes and stranded on an island for a prank. When the other kids sneak back to spy on, humiliate and finally rescue them, they find that "the goats" have inexplicably disappeared from the island. They've gone on the run until the weekend when the girl's mother comes to collect her from camp. I got halfway through this book before realizing I didn't really care about the characters and there was nothing else to interest me. The prose felt stiff, the dialog awkward and unrealistic, and there's a few holes in the story. Apparently The Goats has been on some banned lists because of some nudity and discussions of puberty (there's no s-x). But it's so poorly written I don't even think it deserves that attention.

Abandoned                    184 pages, 1987

More opinions at:
Reader's Corner


book giveaway winner announcement

Even though there were only three names to choose from, my daughter insisted on throwing them over the book instead of simply picking one from a hat. It took her about sixteen tosses to get a name to land on a book. And the winner is- Susan B. Evans! She writes Susan's Zoo. Send your address to jeanenevarez AT gmail DOT com Susan, and I'll mail your book and bookmarks promptly.

Dec 8, 2008

The Tiger Rising

by Kate DiCamillo

This short but touching story is about a boy overcoming grief. His mother has recently passed away, and he lives with his father in a motel on the edge of town, struggling to make a new start. He's also got some kind of rash on his legs which makes the other kids either pick on or avoid him at school. Rob is feeling very wretched and lonely when one day he discovers a tiger locked in a cage in the woods behind the hotel. Unexpectedly, a new girl from school (belligerent and full of contempt) shows up at the hotel and Rob lets her in on his secret. She immediately plans to set the tiger free. Rob wants to, but also knows this might be dangerous. As they try to figure out what to do about the tiger, he begins to gradually build a friendship and let out some of the feelings he's bottled up inside. The two children are opposites- the girl flaunts all her feelings while Rob tries to hide his- and they both have a lot to learn from each other. Some aspects of the story made me think of Bridge to Terabithia and Stargirl. And the tiger in a cage reminded me of The Prince of Tides, a book that I haven't thought of in years. The Tiger Rising really is a beautiful little story, I just wish it was longer! The ending felt rather abrupt; I wanted to know more about final circumstances surrounding the tiger. The characters' various personalities and difficult emotions they wrestled with were so well portrayed, I longed for just a little more depth. But it's perfect for children.

Rating: 3/5                  116 pages, 2001

More opinions at:
Stuff as Dreams are Made On
Parma Kids

Dec 7, 2008

The Dogs of Babel

by Carolyn Parkhurst

A grief- stricken husband tries to unravel the cause behind his wife's death. Did she accidentally fall from their backyard apple tree, or jump on purpose? The only witness was their dog, so he (a linguistics professor) attempts to teach the dog to speak. The story is told through Paul's inner thoughts, alternating between memories of his wife Lexy, his puzzled musings over what clues she might have left behind, and his interactions with other people -some sympathetic and tolerant of his odd project, others decidedly strange and threatening- during his search for answers.

I thought this book was going to be mostly about Paul's absurd efforts to get the dog to talk, but instead found I was reading a love story that is also a mystery. The Dogs of Babel is a sad, haunting and intriguing novel. The more Paul reveals as he unfolds his wife's story, the more it becomes apparent that there were darker aspects of her personality he did not know well or understand at all. Motifs of masks and dreams are woven throughout the story, and I also liked how the tale of Tam Lin was included. Parts of the novel disturbed me, especially the scene of Lexy's prom night (only hinted at) and the Cerberus Society Paul gets mixed up with (reminding me of things from Animal Crackers). I kept thinking of The Time Traveler's Wife while reading this book too, though I'm not sure why. Maybe because of how the romance parts are written.

This book has two covers, and I'm not sure which one I prefer; I feel they both strongly illustrate different aspects of the story. I kept picturing to myself a combination of the two, a cover with a venetian mask of a dog, which I think would capture the essence of the novel perfectly.

Rating: 3/5                      
264 pages, 2003

Read more opinions at:
Book Chase
A Guy's Moleskine Notebook

Dec 6, 2008

found by...

It's been a while since I've done this kind of post. Most people who type in keywords to google search find me via a book title or sometimes author name, but every now and then I get a really funny or odd one. Here's a few from the past six months.
I always get some that include "dog" one way or another:

syphilis in dog ear
how to steal the love of a dog
how to teach a young toddler not to hit dogs
dog ear full of pus
eating dog ears
dog carrot allergic reaction
do dog's ears have to be the same
ideas for potty training dogs
hawaiian juvenile book eating a dog
dog fears weeds swimming
mild mannered dogs available in south africa
what happens if you bite a dog's ear?
write on my favourite animal and label it a dog

Someone was apparently looking for The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, because I got these repetitive attempts:

the man who mistook his wife for a cat
the man who mistook his cat for his hat
the man who think that his dog was a hat

I'm really curious what page these people landed on:

endless moutain labradors
civil war ear novels
redhead duck claws on feet
toilet slave directory non fiction
attitude fearless boxing how to instill fearless courage like mike tyson

And these ones just made me go what? I have no idea what these people were looking for, and I'd sure like to know what the answer was!

what city or town? it doesnt matter how big the ear is, you never be able to pick it up

i like green lobsters. i am usually hungry. i am potty trained. i am intelligent though stubborn. what is my name?

looking for history picture of tom o' bedlam with a chicken in his ear

I find it hard to believe someone actually came across my blog by typing one word into a search box, but that's what my stat counter reports:


This last one is a nice quote. I think it's from a song:

when i turned the page, the corner bent into a perfect dog-ear, as if the words knew i'd need them again

Dec 5, 2008

Get Your Own Damn Beer, I'm Watching the Game!

A Woman's Guide to Loving Pro Football
by Holly Robinson Peete and Daniel Paisner

I'm almost embarrassed to mention this book, but the record of my blog would not be complete (or honest) without it. It's been floating on and off my bedside table for more than two years. I picked it up a library sale once because my husband is a football fan (of the San Francisco 49ers) and I wanted to learn a little and appreciate his enthusiasm for the sport. But this book did not give me what I was looking for. It does have tons of information about football- how the game is played, breakdowns of all the positions, spotlights on famous players, even historical aspects- like how certain plays originated, or what the first football was made of. Some of it was interesting, other parts really technical. What I couldn't stand was reading over and over about how the author (a famous football player's wife) has a childhood association of football with ice cream, or of all the things football-related she finds cute, or the name-dropping of her husband's famous friends. I'm sure all her little interjected woman-to-woman remarks were meant to be engaging. But I didn't feel connected, or amused, just annoyed. So after plodding though sixty pages of this book, I've finally pulled it off my shelf for good.

I think I'd do better with a novel that describes someone's experience learning to play football, rather than an instruction book. Something like The Power of One, which taught me a bit about boxing through the personal story of its main character. I hardly ever read fiction that features sports, so I don't know where to start looking. Any ideas?

Abandoned                        228 pages, 2005

Read more opinions at:
Elizabeth Willse

Dec 4, 2008

Hope is the Thing With Feathers

A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds
by Christopher Cokinos

This book caught my eye from a library shelf when I was looking for something else. Hope is the Thing With Feathers tells about the author's search for information on six North American bird species which are now extinct: the Carolina parakeet, ivory-billed woodpecker, heath hen, passenger pigeon, Labrador duck and great auk. I'd heard of the parakeet and pigeon before and recently saw book about the ivory-billed woodpecker featured on Maggie's blog but knew nothing of the other birds. The information on some of them is very scant, but Cokinos digs up all the facts he can find. I liked reading his historical accounts, the awesome descriptions of passenger pigeons blocking out the sky, of how Carolina parakeets would refuse to leave their wounded companions, of how great auks waddled awkwardly on shore, completely fearless of man; and especially his scrutiny of all the different factors that played together in leading to the birds' extinction. Cokinos also shares his personal journey in finding all his info: digging through dusty files and forgotten records in basements, talking to people who now live on the land where the last known bird of its species was killed, visiting museum storage rooms where specimens lie in drawers, stepping inside the aviary where the last passenger pigeon lived (and died) in a Cincinnati zoo. Following the author as he unraveled all the stories to glean some bits of uncovered truth got a bit tiresome, though. After a while, the names and facts of these parts of the book blurred in my mind. It was dry reading, whereas his portraits of the birds used much more eloquent and poetic language. This switch back and forth of writing styles frustrated me, it kept interrupting the flow and I felt like I was missing something.

Some of the interesting things I learned were that Carolina parakeets are the only birds that eat cockleburs, honeybees are an introduced species (from Europe), the sport of trapshooting originally used lived passenger pigeons as targets (reminding me of Wringer), and the Labrador duck apparently was already scarce in numbers and may have been on the way to extinction before man affected them.

Edit: My daughter began looking at the pictures when I was done and asking me about the birds; I ended up telling her as simply as I could that these birds are not here anymore, and why (people killed them to eat them in pies, or put their feathers in hats, or cut down their trees and the birds had no homes...) She shut the book halfway through, on a page of heath hens: "this book is sad! I'm not looking at it anymore."

Rating: 3/5                    359 pages, 2000

Dec 3, 2008

A Journal of the Plague Year

by Daniel Defoe

I didn't know Defoe wrote anything other than Robinson Crusoe until I happened across A Journal of the Plague Year, which I read in college. My notebook from then reads: the horrors of this book are mitigated by the background distractions of busy waiting rooms: three hours at the DMV and two at the dental office. Thank goodness for distractions, sometimes. It's not a very long book, but crammed with such awful details that I struggled to get through it. Defoe's narrative is fiction, but based so closely on actual events and circumstances of the Black Plague in 1665 that it has been favorably compared to Samuel Pepys' diary of the same time period.

A Journal of the Plague Year describes life in London during the bubonic plague epidemic, through the eyes of one man. There's no real plot, just endless descriptions about what he went through, what he saw, and every bit of news and stories he heard. There are tons of anecdotes, (many which are examined for accuracy within the narrative) descriptions of efforts to halt or evade the disease, the havoc that fear caused, the plethora of superstitions and quack treatments that sprang up, how people turned to (or away from) religion, and much more. Statistics are also listed, and the numbers are staggering. This book is so terribly depressing, yet curiosity kept me turning the pages. What horrible things the people lived through- I don't know if I've ever read anything worse, other than accounts of the Holocaust. I doubt I'll want to pick this book up again, but I do feel it was worth reading once, to bring a piece of history alive for me.

Rating: 3/5                           186 pages, 1722

Read more at:
Blogging the Canon

Dec 2, 2008

book giveaway!

Win a free book and two bookmarks!
I'm giving away a copy of this book, Animals of the North by William O. Pruitt. (It's also published under the title Wild Harmonies: Animals of the North.) My copy is a hardbound 1967 edition. It used to belong to a library, there are some remainder marks on the endpapers where card pockets were removed. It has some wear and underlining (mostly just in the introduction), but is still very readable! There are lots of drawings by William D. Berry illustrating the pages. This book describes the lives and habits of wildlife in the colder regions of North America. Personally, I didn't care for this book much, but here's a review on Amazon which rates it highly.

I'm hoping this book will find an appreciative reader! Just for fun, I'm also including two laminated bookmarks in this giveaway- one features a red fox on snow, the other some stone cairns in a field.

To enter this drawing, leave a comment here by tue 12/09 . The winner will be chosen at random and announced that day. If you want a second entry, blog about this post and link back here.

Dec 1, 2008

Clan Ground

by Clare Bell

Clan Ground is the sequel to Ratha's Creature. If, like me, you become enthralled with the feline characters, it's hard not to immediately open this next volume to follow their struggle for survival. I breezed right through the book. It's full of drama, suspense and action.

To give a little bit of the plot: Ratha is the leader of an organized society of prehistoric big cats (something like cheetahs or pumas, I think). In Clan Ground she faces difficulties in her new role as leader after permitting a stranger to join their clan, a larger cat called Shongshar. He has a different lineage than the Named: longer fangs (like a sabertooth), a larger chest and shoulders. But it's not just his physical strength that makes Shongshar intimidating, it's his powers of persuasion and manipulation of the underlying fear everyone still has of what they call the Red Tongue- the power of fire which Ratha brought into the clan. The Named are still learning about the use of fire, and when Ratha's friend Thakur finds a way to handle it more safely, Shongshar's subtle acts of insurrection escalate into an outright battle for power and control. Not only does Ratha have to face Shongshar's threats to her authority, but also strained friendships and shifting loyalties among her followers.

One of the most interesting aspects of this story is how for some of the characters, fear of fire became awe, which turned into worship that overshadowed their rational thought and ability to reason. As animals imbued with intelligence, Ratha and her companions begin expressing a need to find something larger than themselves to inspire them... The storyline here is just as strong as in Ratha's Creature, but somehow personally I still prefer the story of Ratha's individual journey through her exile, to this one about clan politics and power struggles.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 258 pages, 1984

More opinions at:
Things Mean a Lot
Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales

Nov 29, 2008

Through Wolf's Eyes

by Jane Lindskold

I thought I would enjoy this fantasy novel about a feral child who winds up in the middle of court intrigue. In this alternate universe, "Firekeeper" is a woman who was raised in the wild by extra-large, super-smart wolves. She's discovered by a group of men from the King's court, searching for remains of a lost expedition into the wilderness. Instead they find her- and guess that they might have found an heir to the throne. Firekeeper goes back with them, accompanied by one of the wolves. Once at court, she sets herself to learn how to act more human, making friends and enemies along the way. She has an uncanny understanding of court politics, facilitated by her life with the wolf pack. The first part of the book was pretty good, I liked reading about her experiences in the wilderness and wolfish interpretations of human behavior. But once the story got into schemes for the throne and headed towards warfare, I lost interest. So many new characters were introduced, it became difficult to keep track of them all (in spite of the book including both a family tree and a glossary of characters). Too many side plots added more confusion and bulk. I would have kept reading if the focus remained on Firekeeper, but it didn't. I quit Through Wolf's Eyes about halfway through.

Abandoned                  594 pages, 2001

Nov 28, 2008


by Louis Sachar

Holes is about a kid named Stanley who mistakenly gets accused of a crime and ends up at a reformative camp for delinquent youth. A camp in the middle of a dried- up desert lake. Where the boys have to dig five-foot deep holes every day. It's supposed to be character-building. Even though he's not guilty, Stanley doesn't protest much when he's sent to the camp, because his family has suffered a long series of misfortunes they attribute to a "dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather" who brought a curse upon them. At first the story is just about Stanley's efforts to learn the rules of camp, survive the desert heat and make his way among the other boys. But before long he realizes there's more than just character-building behind all the holes: the camp director is looking for something. Something which is connected to his own family history, which is revealed bit by bit in alternating chapters. The whole thing about the pig-stealing grandfather was a bit ridiculous, but woven in well, the two storylines unfolding side by side until at the end you learn the mystery behind the grandfather's curse, what's hidden under the dead lake and how Stanley aims to solve it all. I never really expected to read a book that had prison life, a hidden treasure, an ancestral love story and desert survival. It's pretty entertaining.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 233 pages, 1998

Read more reviews at:
Book Addiction
Books and Movies

Nov 27, 2008

Ratha's Creature

by Clare Bell

I've just finished reading this book for the umpteenth time. Several years have passed since the last re-reading, and the story has not lost it vivid impact for me. Ratha's Creature is a fantasy novel featuring prehistoric big cats who speak and have an organized society. The main character is Ratha, young female of a clan called the Named, who herd primitive deer and horses for their livelihood. They are constantly at odds with the less-organized but more numerous Un-Named. Ratha has always thought (as her clan teaches) that the Un-Named lack intelligence and the ability to speak. But sudden events precipitate her out into the world beyond Clan territory, to face a revolution of her beliefs and assumptions. Her doubts begin with unsettling encounters with an Un-Named raider during clan skirmishes. Then a forest fire rages across the land and instead of being terrified, Ratha is fascinated by patches of flame she finds in the remains of trees. She figures out how to control and handle fire and bears it back triumphantly to share with her people- only to be perceived as a threat and thrown into exile. Having been taught herding skills exclusively, Ratha struggles to survive as a solitary hunter until she falls in with the Un-Named themselves...

Ratha's Creature is such a moving story. Every chapter runs high with emotion and pivotal events, firmly rooted in rich descriptions of the environment and the characters' perceptions. One of the things I love most about this book is how it puts the reader inside the feline mind. Rather than relying solely on dialog, the characters communicate a lot via body language, gestures, scents and sounds. Instinct often vies with reason in Ratha's mind. Despite being a cat, she's a very believable character- struggling with feelings of pride and hate, bold and daring one moment, cringing from her own mistakes the next. Her world is one full of savage brutality, and she faces its challenges with a curious, questioning mind, searching for hope and friendship amid moments of betrayal and despair.

Rating: 5/5 ........ 259 pages, 1983

More opinions at:
Into the Wardrobe
Things Mean a Lot
Words by Annie
Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales

Nov 25, 2008

The Ghost with Trembling Wings

Science, Wishful Thinking, and the Search for Lost Species
by Scott Weidensaul

I saw this book mentioned on Vulpes Libris a few months ago. It is based on several years the author spent traveling around the globe in search of extinct and seriously endangered species. In The Ghost with Trembling Wings, Weidensaul discusses why and how many species have disappeared, describes some which were thought lost forever but found again, and looks at errors and misguiding information that kept them in obscurity. He also examines many of the controversial issues surrounding efforts to recover those species teetering on the brink of disappearance.

The first few chapters of the book are full of birds, but after ninety pages the subject shifts to black-footed ferrets, and then deals with the Eastern cougar, some unlikely black leopard sightings in Great Britian, and an exploration of cryptozology (particularly Nessie of Loch Ness). The second half of the book interested me more, especially the part that describes some projects attempting to breed the likeness of extinct species out of their descendents who still retain genes for primitive characteristics, re-creating (in a sense) the aurochs, European forest horse and quagga from modern cattle, tarpan horses and zebras. Then there are descriptions of a trek through Tasmania in search of the thylacine- which reminded me of Carnivorous Nights, although this book is far more serious about it. The book closes with a chapter about the author's own search in Brazil for a bird that was seen by one man in the 1930's- and never since. A lot of the information in this book is dismaying, but it is also imbued with hope and persistent desires to discover some unknown and wondrous creatures lurking out there in the wild, still hidden somewhere in a pocket of virgin forest from the presence of mankind.

Rating: 4/5                  341 pages, 2002


I used the same toss-papers-into-air method of picking a winner for this giveaway, but am in the middle of thanksgiving preparations and didn't have time to take photos. One name landed on the book at the first try.

Darbyscloset, you're a winner! Send your postal address to jeanenevarez AT gmail DOT com and I'll mail your prize today or tomorrow. Congratulations!

Nov 24, 2008

Learning Joy from Dogs without Collars

by Lauralee Summer

This is the memoir of a college student with an uncommon background. Summer spent most of her childhood homeless. Her father was absent, her mother usually jobless. They rarely had money for food or clothes, much less to rent an apartment or own a car. They moved frequently, and spent time in homeless shelters and welfare offices. Summer's mother taught her to read and write and fed her hunger for knowledge. In Learning Joy from Dogs Without Collars, Summer talks about how much she loved her mother while at the same time often feeling ashamed of her circumstances. She found mentors in high school who encouraged her to strive for a higher education, and ended up getting accepted to Harvard- via the unexpected route of a wrestling scholarship. She became the only woman on the Harvard wrestling team. It was very interesting to read about her joining the wrestling team, and how classroom lectures about sociology- in particular discussing welfare and single mothers- contrasted with Summer's own experiences. This is an inspiring and thoughtful book. I did keep expecting to find a dog in it somewhere, because of the title. It comes from a line in a poem written by a homeless youth, quoted on the frontispiece.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 351 pages, 2003

more opinions at:
Shannon's Book Bag

Nov 23, 2008

Man's Search for Meaning

by Viktor Frankl
translated by Ilse Lasch

I don't remember how I first heard of this book, but I know I read it twice in high school. The author is a psychiatrist who had survived the Holocaust- three years spent in four different concentration camps. The major portion of the book describes his personal experiences in the camps, full of introspective musings on the meaning of life, observations on how the horrors and degredations there affected the mentality of the prisoners, and his theories on why some survived and others (including his own family) didn't. The main message I got out of Man's Search for Meaning is that in the face of suffering, we can choose our response to it, and that the greatest factor of a person's will to live is their inner purpose.

This first part of the book was the easiest to understand. While it's never easy for me to read stories of Holocaust experiences, Frankl's descriptions are less about the brutality of it all, and more focused on the people themselves. He was particularly interested in what caused prisoners to respond differently to camp life- some gave up all hope. Others lost their sense of civility and acted in self-interest for personal survival, often to the detriment of their companions. And some retained their dignity and compassion, helping their fellow-prisoners when they could. I did find that at times Frankl came across as being condescending to his fellow prisoners. There were also incidents where he took credit for completely changing another's attitude, via one or two sentences of advice. It struck me as a bit conceited.

The last seventy-five pages describe Frankl's theory of "logotherapy" and how it was based on his experiences in the camps. I admit I didn't understand most of this. It is very dry reading. In fact, a lot of the first part of the book can also be rather technical, hung up with psychiatric terms. I often felt like I was wading through that material to read the more personal anecdotes. But maybe this book just wasn't written for a layperson like me.

Rating: 3/5                    165 pages, 1946

More opinions at:
Books n' Border Collies
You GOTTA Read This!
anyone else?

Nov 21, 2008

White Fang

by Jack London

Another old favorite of mine, White Fang is almost a mirror image of London's other dog book, Call of the Wild. That one is about a pet dog named Buck from California who adapts to a harsh life in Alaska, eventually running off with the wolves. White Fang, in contrast, is about a wolfish dog born in the wild who eventually comes home to man- back to an estate in California that feels, in fact, very like the one Buck left. Reading the two stories back to back feels like traveling a complete circle.

White Fang begins with a few chapters describing two men traveling through a desloate Arctic wilderness, striving to reach the safety of a fort before the famished wolves get them. Then the storyline pivots and follows the wolf pack on its journey through the forest. It isn't until chapter eight that the real protagonist of the book comes in- a little puppy whose mother is hybrid wolf-dog that had run off with the pack. As the wolfish puppy grows up, the reader gets to experience the world through his eyes and see how his development and temperament is shaped both by instinct and environmental pressures. The young wolf-dog learns harsh survival lessons in the wild before following his mother back to the Indian camp of her origins, where he submits under the dominion of man and acquires his name, White Fang. Life in this camp isn't any easier for him, and by the time a brutal white man named Beauty Smith finds him, White Fang has a reputation for ferocity and killing other dogs. Smith encourages White Fang's belligerence, using him in numerous dog-fights until at last he is rescued by a kind-hearted man who tames his wild spirit and shows White Fang for the first time what love is. Then he has to learn new laws of conduct all over again so he can live peacefully in "sun-kissed California."

To me, this book feels more savage than Call of the Wild. Mostly because there are pages upon pages of violence and fighting. This is usually between the animals, but there are also scenes of people abusing them. Reading this story as a youth, I was captivated by the viewpoint; I'd never read a book before that portrayed so vividly the consciousness of an animal's (albeit limited) reason and intelligence. As an adult, I find the incessant fighting a bit unrealistic and disturbing. I'm also unsure how likely it is that White Fang could be tamed after a lifetime of bad treatment. But it's still a thrilling story nonetheless.

Rating: 4/5                        272 pages, 1906

Nov 20, 2008

Winnie the Pooh

by A. A. Milne

This book doesn't really need much introduction, but I'll describe it to you anyway. My mother read it to me when I was young, and I was delighted to share it with my own daughter now. It took us about a week to get through, reading a chapter every night or so. I don't recall if there were Winnie the Pooh cartoons when I was small, but for my daughter her first introduction to the characters has been stuffed toys, cartoons and picture books from the library. It took a bit of convincing to get her to sit down and listen to the original story. Once we finished the first chapter she was hooked and wanted to hear more and more.

Winnie the Pooh is a collection of stories based on stuffed animals the author's son had, and imaginary adventures he made up about them. The introduction tells me that the artist, Ernest H. Shepard, visited the author's home and sketched the real Christopher Robin and his toys for his illustrations. The main characters are Pooh (of course) a "Bear of Very Little Brain" who loves honey, the shy and endearing Piglet, Owl who likes to feel important and use Big Words, the busy Rabbit and grumpy donkey Eeyore. Later in the book a sixth character is introduced, the practical Kanga and her baby Roo.

There are ten stories in the book. The humor in them is mostly based on the characters being confused about something the reader can clearly see (if there's a literary term for this, please let me know, I can't think of it). Some of the adventures include Pooh disguising himself as a cloud to try and get honey from some bees, Eeyore loosing his tail and Pooh finding it, Pooh getting stuck in Rabbit's doorway (from eating too much honey), Piglet needing rescue from a flood, and Rabbit hatching a plan to get rid of the newcomer Kanga, by stealing baby Roo (and putting Piglet in his place). They're all amusing and charming tales, with the characters expressing desires and concerns young children can easily relate to like feeling safe, helping someone who's made a mistake, trying to get something you really want, feeling important, and valuing friendship. I really like this book. Reading it to a child brought out all the wonder for me again.

Rating: 5/5 ........ 176 pages, 1926

Read another review at:
Things Mean A Lot
Come With Me If You Want to Read

Nov 19, 2008

The Last American Man

by Elizabeth Gilbert

This is the story of Eustace Conway. A man who wanted to live entirely self-sufficiently, and be a part of nature. He grew up in a comfortable suburban home, but spent most of his time in the woods behind his house. He learned woods skills as a child from both parents and could accurately use a bow and arrow by the age of ten. At twelve he spent a week alone in the woods, just to prove he could do it and survive. At seventeen he moved out of his parents' house to live in a tipi he built himself in the mountains, catching his own game for food and making clothes out of their skins. In the years that followed, Conway (among other adventures) traveled the Mississippi in a wooden canoe, hiked the Appalachian trail, kayaked across Alaska and crossed America coast to coast on horseback. But what he really wanted to do was own a piece of land, where he could work out his ideas and methods of living close to nature in his own way. Eventually he managed to do so, and set up a ranch called Turtle Island where he not only lived his dream but tried to spread his vision to others, running summer camps which immersed children in nature.

The Last American Man is a fascinating book. Not only for its many passages describing how Conway did everything by hand- weaving baskets, starting fires without matches, stitching his own clothes, etc. but also showing how frustrating it was for Conway when he couldn't entirely escape modern society. He continually had conflicts with other people, particularly over his land ownership. His summer camps were a bit controversial- in return for their nature lessons, the children had to work on Conway's own projects, which included hard physical labor. He was always trying to think up schemes to fund his projects and promote his ideals, and comes across as a rather arrogant perfectionist. He had a very difficult relationship with his father, which shadowed his entire life.

I cannot say that I found Conway to be a likeable person, but reading about his efforts to live entirely detached from modern conveniences is very interesting. Did any of you daydream as a kid of going off and living in the woods by your own skills? I know I did at one time. Conway's experience breaks the illusion of nature survival being at all idyllic or easy- but it's intriguing to read how very seriously he tried.

Rating: 4/5                271 pages, 2002

Nov 18, 2008

book giveaway!

Win a free book and two handmade bookmarks!
This week's giveaway includes a copy of Kuki Gallmann's memoir I Dreamed of Africa and two bookmarks I made from my magazine scrap file, featuring lions and baobab trees in the sunset. This is a used book. It does have some wear from being read several times, and the front cover was creased when I acquired it. It's still in quite good shape, the pages inside are all clean. It's wonderfully illustrated by many plates of photographs, both color and black-and-white. While I've read this book and enjoyed it, I haven't written about it yet, so here's an excerpt from the editorial review that serves as its description on Amazon:

This work by a native Italian woman who gave up a comfortable life in her homeland to pursue a dream to live in Kenya should appeal to readers who were enthralled with Isak Dinesen, Elspeth Huxley, and Beryl Markham... Gallman describes her move to Africa at the age of 25 with her husband Paolo and son Emanuele. Both Paolo and Emanuele meet violent deaths, but Gallmann is determined to stay with her newborn daughter in Kenya. She starts a ranch and a foundation to preserve African wildlife from poachers...

You can enter to win by leaving a comment here, until tuesday 11/25, when the winner will be chosen and announced. For an extra entry, blog about this giveaway and link back to this post (please let me know if you do so). If there's just three or four entrants, I'll pick a name out of a hat. If there's more, my daughter will throw them in the air like last time. Open to residents of US and Canada.