Apr 25, 2008

The Dragon and the George

by Gordon R. Dickson

The Dragon and the George is a fun, adventuresome fantasy. The hero, Jim Eckert, finds himself accidentally transported from modern times back into medieval history, where he is trapped in the body of a dragon and his girlfriend has been kidnapped by the bad guys. Of course he sets off to rescue her, collecting a motley group of companions in the process. Several of them he doesn't really want to have along at first, but they are very convincing (and stubborn) about being part of Jim's quest. Things go wrong with Jim's plans, but his new friends help him out and in the end they pitch themselves into a battle of good against evil. When it's all over Jim finally gets his human form back and has to decide if he wants to stay in this fantasy land or go back to his old life (where he had a boring job at a college).

Some of the things I really enjoyed about this book were the humor, how Jim experienced being a dragon (he had to struggle against the instincts of dragon nature, and learn to control the body) and the fact that the fantasy world had rules. As in Ariel, magic here worked by rules just like laws of nature, and Jim has to learn to understand them and work within them. There is also a bit of philosophy thrown in. One of my favorite scenes is where Jim and a knight companion have to battle some creatures that make gibberish noises to drive them crazy. Jim and his companion each had to find a mind-trick to keep their concentration and sanity: one used prayer, the other recited mathematics.

There are eight other books in Dickson's "Dragon Knight" series. I tried to read the second, The Dragon Knight, but got bored with it pretty quick, so although I really enjoyed The Dragon and the George (enough that I've read it several times) I'm not planning to continue with this series.

Rating: 4/5                244 pages, 1976

small news

Tomorrow is our actual moving day. So for a while here I may have limited internet access, and posts will slow down again for a short period. I don't know how long that will last, but I'll be back to daily posting as soon as I'm able!

And don't worry, I won't forget to select the winner of my Book Mooch points giveaway on monday. I'll use the local library to wrap up that contest, if need be.

Apr 24, 2008

The Lute Player

by Norah Lofts

This grand novel is set during the Third Crusade. Although its largest characters are Richard the Lion-Heart, his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine and other great historical figures, the story is actually told through the eyes of minor ones such as Richard's musician the lute-player, and a lady of the court who is physically disabled, yet subtly wields influence on all the others. I can't say which I loved more about the book, its rich descriptions of everyday life so long ago: the inner workings of a monastery, the boredom of court ladies cloister in the castle, the struggles of a ruler to make decisions, the sufferings of soldiers on crusade; or the utterly human frustrations and longings its characters undergo in their separate yet intertwined quests for love and power. A strange love triangle unfolds through The Lute Player: the musician is hopelessly in enamored of the princess Berengaria, who will stop nothing at seeking Richard's attention, who himself appears to care for no one at all, which frustrates Queen Eleanor, who is trying to arrange his marriage. My knowledge of history is rather weak, so I cannot say where this story is true to the facts. But every time I read it I marvel at its depiction of the strengths and weaknesses of human nature. I really do mean to read more books by Norah Lofts someday.

Rating: 4/5                     445 pages, 1951

Apr 22, 2008


Win a book (or two!) of your choice. I have 2 Book Mooch points to give away. So all you Moochers out there, leave a comment here and tell me: what is the most obscure book in your inventory, that you fear will never be requested? The winner will be announced on monday, 4/28.

Apr 21, 2008


by Doctor X

I took too long in reading this book. Partly because of things happening in my family regards to moving; for two weeks I've hardly read anything, and just in bits and pieces. Intern was well suited for that, actually. Based on a diary, it tells of an intern's first year inside a hospital: covering at various times two different internal medicine wards, obstetrics and gynecology, two general surgery units, orthopedic surgery and pediatrics. Although the narrative moves fluidly and with no lack of humor, it doesn't really have a storyline. Most of the characters are met for only a brief paragraph that describes their malady and how the intern dealt with it. Some stories were left hanging, as the author didn't see a patient through to the end of his hospital stay, or just didn't mention them again. Even the other interns and doctors on the staff are so sketchily presented that I had no real sense of who they were. What I did gather was how overwhelmingly demanding the work was. I don't think I'll ever get impatient waiting in an ER room again, having an idea of what hospital staff deal with.

One of the most interesting sections to me was about the obstetrics unit: the time frame was just after doctors had quit using "twilight sleep" all the time, and Lamaze had yet to become popular. The author described how at first he actually preferred to have delivering patients under "twilight sleep" because then he, as intern, was more likely to be given chance to actually do something. If the patient was awake, they didn't want to see the intern delivering their baby. Yet how else was he to get experience? He cleverly figured out a way to get the experience he needed, without making the delivering mothers nervous or robbing the doctors of their moment in the spotlight.

Although many treatment methods in this book are surely now outdated- it being written at a time when polio was still a major threat, people routinely died of hepatitis and cancer treatment was mainly just pain management until the end- the actuality of how doctors reach a diagnosis, deal with troublesome or confusing patients, and occasionally make grave errors (being only human, after all) is probably still true today. I'd be interested to hear what someone in the medical field thinks of this book.

Rating: 3/5                    404 pages, 1965

Apr 20, 2008

Animal Minds

Beyond Cognition to Consciousness
by Donald R. Griffin

When I read this book two years ago I jotted the following note down in my book log: "rather dry and technical but very salient in its points and proofs." I would restate that now: this book is so particular in arguing its point that it gets extremely difficult to read. Animal Minds was written to refute the long-held notions that animals act solely on instinct, just responding to stimuli and not thinking for themselves. The author presents a multitude of examples from recent scientific studies into animal mentality, describing the research in detail. This is the part that is hard to read, especially when he goes into the similarities of brain function in animals and humans on the neurological level. I am almost surprised that I even finished the book. I can't deny that it is well-researched and thorough; the number of references listed in the back is really staggering.

Donal Griffin shows examples of animals displaying a wide array of behaviors that suggest thinking ability: making tools, solving problems, making and executing plans, practicing deception, responding to new situations in novel ways, showing evidence of having complex memories, a sense of time and awareness of future. He demonstrates that not only can animals think, but they have a sense of self and can perceive the mental state of others. Dolphins, bees, otters, a variety of apes, monkeys and other animals show their mental powers in the pages of this book, if you can wade through the technical language to find them. Then again, if you enjoy reading scientific works, this may be just the book for you.

Rating: 2/5                355 pages, 2001

Apr 19, 2008

Meme: Vocabulary

This question comes from Nithin on Booking Through Thursday:

I’ve always wondered what other people do when they come across a word/phrase that they’ve never heard before. I mean, do they jot it down on paper so they can look it up later, or do they stop reading to look it up on the dictionary/google it or do they just continue reading and forget about the word?

I used to look them all up. I had a notebook I kept definitions written in, it was even alphabatized. I had a huge fat unabridged dictionary and I even marked the words with a little penciled box around them so I'd know if I'd already looked one up! A bit obsessive.

I don't look up most words anymore. I just figure them out from the context, or skim over. If a word sounds really interesting, or the meaning is important to the story, I'll jot it down to look up on dictionary.com. Or just ask my husband. He yells "what's this word mean?" more than I do, but half the time I re-direct him to the dictionary. Although just the other day I impressed him by using the word hasp in a sentence (part of a latch). It came out intuitively; after I'd said it I wasn't sure it was the right word. Until the next day installing the latch on the shed door I read the word hasp in the directions; so I knew then that I was right!

Incidentally, how many of you like visiting sites such as Free Rice that have vocabulary games? Or this one that tells origins of English words? I think my enjoyment of these sites has overtaken my use of a printed dictionary. And, as a funny note, I can't count the number of strange sites I've come across when mis-typing dictionary in order to look up a word online. It seems there's dozens of sites out there that thrive on people's inability to spell dictionary with their fingers!

Apr 18, 2008

Primary Colors

A Novel of Politics
by Anonymous

I bought this book for A. a few years ago; he is very into politics. He liked it alright, and wanted me to read it as well so we could discuss. But I couldn't do it. I don't even remember how far I got; no more than a few chapters. It's not that the subject matter bored me, even though I don't have much interest in politics. It was something about the writing style and the fact that I couldn't keep the characters straight. My first impression was that there was an overload of dialog and I failed to get a sense of who the characters were, what they were like, even the setting or train of events. I couldn't keep enough straight to follow the storyline and just quit. I gathered that Primary Colors is mostly about the inside workings of a political campaign. Perhaps I was just in the wrong frame of mind and ought to try it sometimes later. If anyone else has read this book and enjoyed it, I'd be glad to hear your opinion!

Abandoned                  366 pages, 1996

Apr 9, 2008

taking a break

News. My husband and I have just purchased our first home. It requires a bit of fixing-up before move-in at the end of the month, so for several weeks here I will have little time to read books, much less write about them. Posting will be rather sporadic for a little while. Don't feel neglected if I fail to respond to comments immediately or visit your blog in the next few weeks! I'm still here and will resume blogging after the move is all settled.

In the meantime, Happy reading! I'm sure when I get back to Google Reader there'll be a zillion new books you've all written up that I want to read, and I'll have good reason to haunt the public library that's four blocks from my new house!

Apr 6, 2008

Is There a Doctor in the Zoo?

by David Taylor

This charming sequel to Zoo Vet relates more adventures of David Taylor, zoo veterinarian. In Is There A Doctor in the Zoo? Taylor tells about his childhood interest in animals, convalescing rabbits and hedgehogs in his family's bomb shelter, learning from his grandmother how to sew stitches, applying denture paste to injured amphibians and bicycle tire patches to broken turtle shells. His career began in a normal vet practice, where he worked on cattle, dogs and cats as well as more exotic pets like parrots and pythons. Eventually Taylor worked his way onto the grounds of the zoo, becoming one of the first vets to specialize in wildlife. His services were in enough demand that he traveled to foreign countries to treat colicky giraffes and assist in the capture and transport of wild dolphins. Back at home in the zoo, the regular patients included a diabetic camel, a monkey who hid razor blades in his cheek, a puma which unraveled and swallowed an entire ball of string, vitamin deficient sea lions, a semi-paralyzed lion cub, and many more. Several amusing incidents are also told- like the time a monkey tore apart the interior of a bishop's car, the celebrity "pets' luncheon" disaster, and a chimpanzee who decided to assist in the treatment of a dozen mangy camels. Hilarious, interesting, and sure to be loved by any fan of James Herriot.

Rating: 4/5                 250 pages, 1978

Apr 5, 2008

A River Runs Through It

and Other Stories
by Norman Maclean

Sadly, this is one of those posts where I write about why I didn't like a book that I really wanted to love. I heard great things about it. But when A. and I watched the movie version, I fell asleep. He loved it. He said it's "a guy movie". I thought well, the book is probably better.

As far as I got, A River Runs Through It is about the relationship between two brothers, and fly fishing. My copy also contains two short pieces, Logging and Pimping, and The Ranger, the Cook and a Hole in the Sky. These two are about summer jobs taken by the author as a young man in the early 1900's, in a logging camp and as a forest ranger. I found interesting the details on logging, fighting forest fires afoot with crews hired on the spot, and how to pack a mule train. I didn't like reading about the drinking, card gambling, fistfights and whores. I also didn't like that the first short piece was largely about how much the author hated his sawyer partner, and the second how much he hated the ranger station cook. I had a feeling the main title story was going to be about animosity between the brothers, as well.

Well, first of all I read the opening five pages of acknowledgements which is really a brief essay on why Maclean wrote the book. It was interesting. It mentioned that after he wrote the two short pieces, he got some writing advice and tried to follow it with A River Runs Through It. So I thought (for some reason) I'd read those two first and see how his writing improved with the third. Mistake! And I only made it about fifteen pages into the title piece, then skipped around a bit to see if the descriptive writing on fly fishing would improve upon it for me. It didn't. It's really sad to say that what I liked best about the book was the acknowledgements! But I still feel there's something very worthwhile in this book. I really want to appreciate it because it describes things close to my family: my father grew up in a logging town, and he also is a fly fisherman. I'm going to hold onto it for another try later. I feel this is the kind of book I have to read with a peaceful and contemplative mind, and right now I just want escape and entertainment.

Abandoned               217 pages, 1976

Apr 4, 2008

The Smile of a Dolphin

Remarkable Accounts of Animal Emotions
by Mark Bekoff

In this wonderful book Mark Bekoff has collected anecdotal stories from some fifty different scientists and behavioral researches, showing animals expressing a myriad of emotions. Each story is fairly brief, and they are grouped into sections: love, fear, anger, joy, grief and "fellow feeling" or empathy. The accounts are by turns curious, fascinating, amusing and sad. Some are also really dry and boring. I felt this had more to do with the variety of writing styles than the actual stories themselves. The awesome photographs more than make up for a few hard-to-read paragraphs. The Smile of a Dolphin is a book any animal lover will appreciate, and one skeptics of animal emotions would do good to read. Some notable contributers include Jane Goodall, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Roger and Deborah Fouts, Irene Pepperberg, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and Michael W. Fox.

Rating: 4/5                   224 pages, 2000

Apr 3, 2008

A Measure of Endurance

The Unlikely Triumph of Steven Sharp
by William Mishler

I picked this book up on a whim at a thrift store one day. It sat on my shelf for several months and almost got shuffled off. I'm glad it didn't, because it was surprisingly good!

A Measure of Endurance tells about Steven Sharp, who lived in a small farming community in Eastern Oregon. As a teenager he lost both his arms in an accident with a hay baler. After the accident he faced living with a hampering disability and constant pain. Yet Steven faced the whole ordeal with a very stoic frame of mind and avoided laying blame on anyone, seeking pity or commiserating his loss. Three years later, his family happened to discover that other farmers across the country had suffered similar accidents with the same equipment. So they sued the manufacturer, a huge corporation. A large part of the book describes the lawsuit, and the complicated preparations Sharp's lawyer made. Usually I don't enjoy reading books that feature a legal trial. By the time I get to the end I find them tiresome, confusing or melodramatic. But this time it was different. It stayed interesting, and Steven was so admirable I wanted to know all details of the outcome for his sake.

I was glad that the terrible accident was not dwelt on or described in detail. The few times it was explained in brief were enough for me. Instead, the book really focuses on the strength of Steven's personality. He grew up with dyslexia, migraines, and a great love of the outdoors. This all affected his outlook on life and how he was able to deal with the trauma of loosing his arms. He is an amazing person, and his story is very inspirational.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 306 pages, 2003

more opinions at:
Shannon's Book Bag

Apr 2, 2008

Where the Wild Things Are

by Maurice Sendak

This is one of those books so wonderful it will always be around. A classic of children's literature, Where the Wild Things Are is a story told more in pictures than words. It's about a mischievous little boy Max who gets sent to his room for being "a wild thing" and dreams himself into a land of monsters where he rules as king. If you want to read more, try these reviews.

I don't usually talk about picture books on my blog, but last night reading this one to my daughter I noticed something. The wild things are not the same on every page. I got curious how consistent they were, and sat down to look more carefully through the pages. There are eight double-page spreads featuring monsters.

When Max first arrives at the shore four monsters meet him. There is a lion-thing with three horns, a goat with claws, a redhead monster with duck feet, and the signature (to me) creature with stripes and scaly legs. (I'll refer to him as "mr stripey").

The next spread shows the same four monsters with one more peeking through the bushes, who has a bull's head.

Third spread features four: all the above monsters minus the goat-thing, and plus an eagle-face one.

In the fourth wild scene, the only monster we've seen before is the lion-thing. There's three new ones- one with a red bulbous nose and short horns, one with a long nose and short horns, and one that has the redhead's face, only minus duck feet and bearing stripes. This is redhead-stripes' only appearance.

Fifth scene (hanging from trees) has four familiar monsters: mr stripey, duck-feet, bull-head and eagle-face.

In the sixth spread (marching through the forest) there are five wild things: mr stripey, bull-head, eagle-face, duck-feet, and in the middle the red-nose short-horned one.

On the seventh pages (the monsters sleep) we see long-nose, lion-thing and bull-head.

And in the parting scene five wild things roar "don't go!": red-nose short-horns, bull-head, duck-feet, mr stripey and lion-thing (although he seems to be missing two horns, not-quite hidden in the cave).

So how many wild things are there? I count nine. If you want to include the sea-monster Max sails past on his way to where the wild things are, there's ten. Curiously though, when I see the characters from this book featured in various places only five or six seem to make a regular appearance: mr stripey and those that have distinct animal features: lion, bull, eagle, goat (my favorite, even though he is only on two pages of the book) and red-nose short-horns. The two more nondescript monsters don't seem to be as popular, poor things! Which one is your favorite wild thing?

I really like this animated bit I found on You Tube.

Rating: 4/5                     40 pages, 1963

Apr 1, 2008

Animals In Translation

Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior
by Temple Grandin

I found this book utterly fascinating. It looks at animal behavior, emotions and intelligence from the viewpoint and understanding of an autistic experience. Temple Grandin, a professional designer of animal-handling systems, explains in depth how autism has lead her to identify with many ways in which animals feel, see and experience the world. She shares insights on many different species: dogs, cats, horses, pigs, chickens, cattle and others like prairie dogs, dolphins and elephants. I have never before read a book that goes so in depth what it is like to be in another's skin. Grandin repeatedly demonstrates how physical aspects of an animal's being affect their perception of and responses to the environment, and how their natural senses and intelligence give them specialized abilities we cannot readily understand (like dogs who predict seizures). Animals In Translation is one of the best non-fiction books on my shelf, and just writing this review about it, flipping through its pages, makes me want to read it all over again.

Rating: 5/5                       355 pages, 2005