Jul 31, 2008

Weeds in My Garden

Observations on Some Misunderstood Plants
by Charles Heiser

This book is mostly about the virtues of weeds. I picked it up because I'm struggling to rid my yard of weeds- I've identified over fourteen of them! Our house was empty some six or eight months before we bought it, so the yard is completely overrun with undesired plants. And I want to learn more about them.

The author of Weeds in My Garden is a botany professor from Indiana University. His "garden" is basically a field full of weeds (over a hundred!) which were used for study- some were planted, others grew there of their own accord. The book is basically a list of all these plants by family- each with a brief description and explanation of its value to humans. Many have present or historical medicinal uses, others have attractive flowers, or are relatives of crop plants. A few are not weeds at all, but included "for it is a most interesting plant and I wanted to write about it." I particularly enjoyed reading the quotes by John Gerard, an English herbalist from the 1500's, whose quaint spelling (from a time when there were no rules for such) takes some puzzling to understand; and the history of origins for common names of the plants (in most cases this was a brief paragraph, but for Queen Anne's lace he went on for two whole pages, then suggested someone write a thesis paper on it, particularly a student majoring in botany with minors in history and linguistics!)

My only complaints are that the book could be rather boring- it put me to sleep several times, and thus made a perfect read-in-bed book! and the lack of illustrations. There are many included by Gerard, but I wish there were more. Heiser explains his reason for not illustrating all the plants, but I am not a botany student and have trouble picturing them without help. All in all, quite an interesting book. I came away with a pageful of notes- mostly things like what does kudzu look like? and do I have quickweed in my yard? but also a list of "weeds" to consider planting next year, things like daisy, aster and jerusalem artichoke (a type of sunflower with a funny name) for their flowers and sweet yellow clover to improve the soil.

Rating: 3/5                          247 pages, 2003

Jul 30, 2008

Put Yourself in Their Shoes

Understanding How Your Children See the World
by Barbara F. Meltz

Drawing on a wide range of resources- psychologists, teachers, pediatricians, parents, researchers, etc- this book offers advice on a multitude of parenting issues. It looks at each problem from the child's point of view, promoting better understanding of why kids do certain things and how they feel about them (especially useful when children can't or won't talk about it). Including imaginary friends, keeping secrets, stealing, running away, media influences, school problems, and much much more. Many of the issues are addressed as developmental milestones, with indications of when they actually become serious problems. This book gave me lots to think about. Most of the issues discussed don't really apply- my child isn't school-age yet- but the concepts and strategies do. I did get a bit tired after a while of how the advice seemed to always come down to a recommended sentence (if you child does this, say this, not this) where I think it could have been more flexible. But overall, Put Yourself in Their Shoes is a good resource, one I'm considering adding to my shelf someday.

Rating: 4/5                       418 pages, 1999

Jul 29, 2008

The Complete Stories of Truman Capote

by Truman Capote

I always feel either guilty or stupid when I don't like a well-written book that everyone else says is great. And that some terrible consequence will come of giving it a low rating! Well, here goes- I don't like Truman Capote's writing. After seeing the film Capote, I was really curious about the book In Cold Blood. I tried to read it, I really did. I couldn't. Not even fifty pages. I guess crime fiction really isn't my thing. (I thought this would be better because it's about a true incident). But I still felt like I ought to appreciate this author, so I picked up the collection of his short stories- The Complete Stories of Truman Capote. I forced myself to finish it, because I so wanted to find something to like or admire. The stories all left me totally unmoved. By the time I finished the book, I couldn't remember what most of them were even about. Pathetic, isn't it? Even now, flipping through the pages to try and write something decent here, the only story that rings a bell at all is "Children on Their Birthdays". So maybe I liked that one better than the others, or could relate to it a little bit, or it made me feel sad. But I still can't tell you what it's about. I don't remember. I'm hoping there's another reader out there who shares my sentiments here, but if not, I welcome the barrage! go ahead, cut me down for being unappreciative of a great writer (so he's lauded), or better yet, convince me I should try again. (You'll have to be really convincing).

Rating: 2/5                      300 pages, 2004

Jul 27, 2008

a stack of books

gardening books
This is what happens when I go to the public library all by myself with a subject of interest in mind. A leisurely pause in front of the gardening shelf resulted in this pile coming home! (click on the picture if you want to read the titles) Most are general gardening books, a few are specific: there's two about weeds, one on creating gardens that attract butterflies, one on organic gardening and cooking, another about pretty groundcover plants. A few are novelistic, and the two spiral-bound volumes on top of the pile I was particularly delighted to find. They're compilations of tips from a local gardening publication, organized by season and full of charming illustrations that look like woodcuts from the 1800's.

So for a few weeks now I'm going to be reading mostly gardening books. But never fear! In between myriad books of other subjects and genres will be reviewed. I'm now going through my log of books read in 2004 and 2005. Lots of variety there. So you won't quite get bored silly by all the blab about plants and gardening (as my poor husband already is- although he likes to eat the fresh produce that comes out of our backyard dirt, no complaints there!)

Jul 25, 2008

In Defense of Food

An Eater's Manifesto
by Michael Pollan

I read this book all in one day, because it's due back at the library and someone else has dibs on it there. I certainly got what I wanted. It is crammed with facts (where The Botany of Desire felt more like a storytelling of plants' natural history). In Defense of Food contains journalist Michael Pollan's "eater's manifesto" that we should: eat food in its natural state- not processed food products, eat less of it, and eat mostly green plants- cutting back on meats and seeds (flour, corn products, etc). He goes into great detail explaining why and how. The first part of the book talks about nutritionism- particularly how faulty the science behind it is. (This part really made my head swim. I almost got lost in the threads of logic a few times). Then he discusses how the "Western diet" of refined foods and food products originated, why it's become so widespread, and how it affects us. In the final chapters Pollan outlines his plan for healthier eating, giving guidelines that don't tell you what to eat in particular, but just how to choose good, healthy food. The strongest impression I came away with after reading this book was: less is more (you feel more satiated eating better quality food), and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (additives will never make up for what processing has removed from foods). These are rules of design I learned in art school, but they apply to food as well! This book has really solidified my desire to feed my family from the backyard garden and shop more at local farmer's markets or at least stores like Trader Joe's (my daughter loves to go there because they give out free balloons!)

Rating: 4/5                   144 pages, 2008

More opinions at:
Books and Other Thoughts
Jenny's Books
Shelf Love
Kyusi Reader
Both Eyes Book Blog

Jul 24, 2008

The Botany of Desire

A Plant's-Eye View of the World
by Michael Pollan

Speaking of plants as having consciousness really stretches the imagination. I think Pollan carries his metaphors in The Botany of Desire a bit too far. And he talked about Apollo and Dionysus way too much. But overall, this book about how four common plants evolved traits that gratify the human senses- sweetness for the apple, beauty for the tulip, intoxication for the cannabis and what? control for the potato? he kinda lost me there- is pretty interesting and taught me quite a number of things. I learned about the Irish potato famine, and how organic potato growers differ from commercial ones. I learned that modern apple trees are all clones (pretty bad for genetic diversity- see Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang for an idea of what cloning might do to humans). The chapter about marijuana was rather confusing and really began to loose my attention- the only frame of reference I have for that plant is a sickly sweet smell in high school bathrooms and more recently, watching episodes of Weeds. And having read Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister not very long ago, a book which places the Cinderella story in the middle of the 1600's Dutch tulip craze, I appreciated learning more details about that phenomenon. One little paragraph particularly caught my attention, where Pollan briefly mentions "one theory of the origins of agriculture [which] holds that domesticated plants first emerged on dump heaps". A few years ago I read in a book called Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution by Raymond Coppinger of the idea that domestic dogs are descended from wolves that were attracted to rubbish heaps- who began the taming process themselves, in a way. It was curious to think that domestic plants may have also had roots in our anciently discarded trash. But rubbish this book is not. It was entertaining, if a bit tedious, confusing and contradictory at times. Not terribly scientific, but for someone like me who doesn't know much about the natural history of plants, quite readable and very interesting.

Rating: 4/5                      271 pages, 2001

blog award!

Lezlie from Books n' Border Collies so kindly nominated me for the Brillante Weblog award yesterday! I was so surprised and pleased. I've been thinking all day who to pass the award on to:

books i done read- This blog is absolutely hilarious! If you've never been there, go now. I guarantee you'll be laughing in minutes. It's one of the few blogs where I actually read every single post, even if it's about a book of a genre I strongly avoid- her blunt, frank, to-the-point reviews are just like what I always think about books, but never have the gall to write.

Book Puddle- On days he's not reviewing a book (or film), Cipriano shares quotes from a wide range of bookish material. I always enjoy reading the quote of the day- usually accompanied by a photo or illustration as well. Refreshingly different. He also shares his own poetry, and it's quite good!

- I like this blog because the reviews are short and sweet. Sometimes so short they're posted as "four-word" reviews. When I'm tired and have over a hundred entries piled up in google reader, I always read the ones that keep things in a nutshell. Chain-Reading also uses vacillating font sizes, which makes things jump out at me. I like that. Oh, and there used to be some beautiful music there, too.

Maw Books- An awesome blog. I was already enjoying the thoughtful reviews and then she went and set up this staggering database of book blogs. Maw Books has my outspoken admiration for that. When I want to know what someone else thinks of a book I just finished, I head over and check out who's on her list. It's a great way to find new blogs, as well!

Things Mean a Lot- I always look forward to visiting this blog. Nymeth reviews a lot of fantasy books that really appeal to me- she's probably responsible for adding to my TBR pile more than most! And her blog is so pretty. I love the Rackham fairies.

Both Eyes Book Blog- I just recently discovered this blog. So far I've been enjoying every post. They're not too wordy, but always very thoughtful. And I have to say, I love the story behind the name of this blog!

Hooser's Blook- Lauren and Dana were among the first book bloggers to welcome me and comment when I first began book blogging. They've always got something interesting to say about books I've never heard of (more for the TBR!).

My book blogging friends, you are all so wonderful! I could have named (literally) dozens of other blogs. If you've been nominated here and want to pass the Brilliante along, here's the "rules": Put the logo on your blog. Add a link to the person who awarded you. Nominate at least seven other blogs. Add links to those blogs on your blog. Leave a message for your nominees on their blog.

Thanks again to Lezlie!

Jul 23, 2008

These Is My Words

the Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901
by Nancy E. Turner

Life on the early frontier told through the experiences of a determined and resourceful (or "headstrong") woman. The book opens when she is a teenager, and unfolds twenty more years in the Arizona Territories. What Sarah wants more than anything as a young woman is to gain some education. The book begins with awkward syntax and poor grammar (hence the title) then gradually becomes more polished as the protagonist herself learns and grows (rather like Flowers for Algernon, in that sense). I loved the scene where she had a wagon full of books she couldn't yet read, and argued their worth with a man who would trade her two horses for two books, so she could pull the wagon home. He saw no value in the books themselves, but instantly realized she did, and held onto them for years. This man was a calvary officer she later fell in love with, while married to a man she did not love... These Is My Words is a pretty good story, and I enjoyed it, even while suffering constant mockery- my husband made fun of the title every time he saw the book. I have just discovered there are two sequels, Sarah's Quilt, and The Star Garden. All the novels in the Sarah Prine series are based on journals written by the author's great-grandmother. For a similar book, take a look at Faith and Betrayal by Sally Denton, also based on the diary of a pioneer ancestor, but written as a factual account.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 384 pages, 1998

more opinions at:
It's All About Books

Jul 22, 2008

Sing Down the Moon

by Scott O'Dell

In Sing Down the Moon, Scott O'Dell recounts some of the events during a time of persecution against Native Americans, through the eyes of a young Navajo girl. She's out tending sheep one day with a friend on the mesa when the Spaniards capture them for slaves. Immediately they plan to escape and return home to their canyon in Arizona. But home will never be the same again. One of the key events of the book was the Long Walk, but most of the story is about their escape and attempts to evade soldiers and enemy tribes. Even though the events are suspenseful, I failed to feel anything but lukewarm about the book. The characters had such stoic, calm personalities, it was difficult for me to envision them as real people. The understated descriptions and stiff dialect felt awkward. I read this book because it was another one of A's childhood favorites. I like O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins much better. I've also read Zia by the same author, but it was so forgettable I can't even remember enough to give it a blip here.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 120 pages, 1970

Jul 21, 2008

Eye of the Albatross

Visions of Hope and Survival
by Carl Safina

I'm not really keen on birds, but this book took my breath away. Carl Safina takes us to a small group of islands near Hawaii, where the albatross gathers to breed. There he joins a group of scientists not only studying nesting seabirds, but also sea turtles and sharks. In eloquent language Safina paints a living picture of these birds' lives and the delicate ecosystem of the oceans they depend upon. Even in these far-flung islands uninhabited by man, there are grave indications of mankind's influence upon the environment: ocean pollution, birds and mammals choking on plastics, the pervasive presence of a weed unwittingly introduced by a visitor to the island. The bird colony was so vividly portrayed at times I felt I was sitting there myself among the screaming thousands- in a place beautiful, harsh and remote. Even if you think, like me, that birds are a rather alien species, I would recommend Eye of the Albatross. It is an incredible book.

Rating: 5/5 ........ 377 pages, 2002

More opinions at:
A Striped Armchair

Jul 18, 2008

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

A Year of Food Life
by Barbara Kingsolver

I loved this book. By the time I finished reading it, my husband wearily said "I know how you feel now when I talk about football or politics." He loves eating, but has no interest in knowing how the food is grown, so he had to tell me to stop talking about Kingsolver and gardening! Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is based on a year when the Kingsolvers returned to live on a family farm and vowed to only eat what they could grow themselves or buy locally. They had a large vegetable garden, raised chicken and turkeys, and gathered from the farm's fruit trees and wild mushrooms on the hillsides. The author's family members made contributions both in the book's writing and in providing for the family table (her husband baked bread, her daughter raised the chickens). There is a lot of focus on eating foods in season and supporting local, renewable and organic agriculture, and information on why processed foods and large corporate farming methods are bad news.

This book really inspired me to do more with my garden. My daughter and I just picked our first zucchini and made zucchini chocolate chip cookies with the recipe in this book. I learned a lot from Kingsolver: how to know what produce is in season (duh!), how asparagus and peanuts grow, why organic and heirloom produce (and livestock) are healthier, the mysteries of natural turkey reproduction, and much more. Least you feel overwhelmed at how much her family did to be self-sustaining, remember a few things: before beginning the experiment, they spent a whole year learning about their community, finding where to buy local produce and meats, and researching what was on the supermarket shelves. Even Kingsolver had her limits. Yes, her family made their own soft cheese, sausages, yogurt, bread and pesto, and took the poultry from yard to freezer. But other items possible to make at home they continued to buy: pasta, vinegar, hard cheese, apple cider, mayonnaise. They avoided exotic imports like bananas, but still bought some spices and seafood that was shipped from far away. And if you don't have space or time to garden, there's lots of tips on little things to do for eating better and supporting local growers. Fabulous!

Rating: 5/5                370 pages, 2007

More opinions at:

Jul 17, 2008

Meme: Vacation

From Booking Through Thursday:

Do you buy books while on vacation/holiday? Do you have favorite bookstores that you only get to visit while away on a trip? What/Where are they?

Whenever I travel, I seek out any used bookstores I can find and prowl the aisles. You never know what stranger in this new town may have discarded a book that to me is a long-looked-for treasure. I just can't pass up the possibilities. Usually these bookstores are ones I've not visited before and may never set foot in again. But now that I've moved away from my hometown (Seattle) and the city where I spent four years (and met my husband, San Francisco) the bookstores I used to frequent there are high priority stops when I visit again. In Seattle it's the Elliot Bay Book Company a wonderful, sprawling, multi-leveled new-and-used bookstore full of charm. It is a rich experience to walk in that store. I also like the Book World down on Pacific Highway, a huge one-room used bookshop (I can't believe they don't have a website!). In San Francisco it's Green Apple Books which has two storefronts, separated by another shop. If you're not decided on your purchases and want to go browse in the annex, a clerk will walk you to the other door to make sure you don't run off with the books!. They also have sidewalk shelves full of discounted books, and once a week bins full of books that are just free. I used to go once every few weeks to shop at the large asian market across the street, then nip over and pick out books from the sidewalk displays before heading home on Muni. Sadly, I have just learned that my second-favorite used bookstore in San Francisco, Acorn Books, is now closed. This makes my heart sad. It was a beautiful shop. I loved the wheeled library ladders you could use to access the top of their floor-to-ceiling shelves. I bought many books there.

Jul 16, 2008

Nickel and Dimed

on (Not) Getting by in America
by Barbara Ehrenreich

This book was written by a reporter who went "undercover" to discover the truth about how the working poor get by in America- by pretending to be one herself. In three cities (located in Florida, Maine and Minnesota) she worked different jobs as a waitress, maid, nursing home attendant, and at Wal-Mart, and attempted to live for two months on the low income, usually holding two jobs at once. Most of the book is spent describing her job experiences, a little bit addresses the difficulties of finding housing and covering expenses on low wages. At the very end of the book she reveals some statistics, but doesn't give much resolution in terms of how the situation can be improved. Overall Nickel and Dimed was interesting in its details, but not very satisfying in its conclusions. And the superior attitude of the author towards her fellow co-workers was hard to swallow. Compared to most of them, she had the advantages of owning a car, having money to fall back on, and knowing she could just leave at any time and go back to her regular comfortable life. She kept making fun of her co-workers for lacking style, seemed to expect them to notice her higher education, and was surprised that low-paying jobs required her to learn a skill! It was annoying.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 230 pages, 2001

More opinions at:
Jackets and Covers
Desert Reader

Jul 15, 2008


My daughter did the honors for the Key to Rebecca giveaway, cutting the names into strips, putting them in the hat, shaking it all up and making a choice. And the winner is....

Laura of Reading Reflections! Happy reader, send your address to jeanenevarez at gmail dot com and I'll post your book shortly.

Jul 14, 2008

The Education of Koko

by Francine Patterson and Eugene Linden

Koko is a gorilla who was taught sign language by Francine Patterson (known as Penny), a graduate student in psychology at Stanford University. The project began in 1972 when Koko was one year old, and the book covers its first nine years. During that time Koko learned to use or recognize over 600 words (The Gorilla Foundation tells us she now uses 1,000 signs and recognizes 2,000 spoken words). The Education of Koko describes the gorilla's development and how she learned to use sign language. Her language development and understanding is compared to that of human children, the way she combines words is analyzed and she is continually tested for comprehension. Koko is shown not only using signed words to communicate with her human caretakers and teachers, but also inventing new words to describe things not yet in her vocabulary, and making jokes or practicing deceit. One section of the book describes how Koko sees the world, as revealed through her use of language. Throughout the entire book its authors address the questions: does Koko really use language? or is she just repeating motions she has been taught, for reward? and what, exactly, defines language?

I remember when I was younger looking at photos in National Geographic of Koko with her kitten. I was enthralled. It was even more thrilling to read this book. The first time. The second time I read it with a lot more scrutiny. It's obvious Koko has learned to use many signs, in immediate context (she sees fruit and makes a sign naming it, or asking for food, for example). But if you read things like this transcribed online chat session between Penny, Koko and an "AOL facilitator" the idea of an ape holding even the most basic conversation appears ludicrous. A two year old child makes more sense than this gorilla.

Here are some more things I read online:
A conversation with Koko
Skepticism about apes using language

Similar books: Silent Partners
Lucy: Growing Up Human

Rating: 4/5 ........ 224 pages, 1981

Jul 13, 2008

Abel's Island

by William Steig

This wonderful little book is about a sophisticated city mouse who gets lost on an island during a storm. He's stranded there for an entire season before finding a way to escape and return home. Abel is a rather pompous, silly creature, but he can also be very thoughtful and resourceful. He learns to survive, to make do, and live very close to nature. Think Robinson Crusoe meets Charlotte's Web and you'll have a good idea of this book's character. I enjoyed reading it; the humor and language are quite appealing to adults even though Abel's Island is written for children. It even surprised me at times: the scene where the mouse tries to "send mind messages" to his beloved wife back home (who he never stops thinking about) or the one where he makes voodoo against an owl, made me pause for a moment. But then I just laughed and continued reading! And of course William Steig's illustrations are an indispensable part of this book's charm. I never would have read this book except it happens to be one of husband's childhood favorites, and he kept urging me to read it. Now I urge you to read it as well!

Rating: 3/5 ........ 177 pages, 1976

more opinions:
Across the Page

Meme: Doomsday

I've paraphrased this question, go to Booking Through Thursday for the entire thing:

What would you do if, all of a sudden, your favorite source of books was unavailable, with no warning? Where would you go for books instead? Would it be devastating? Or just a blip in your reading habit?

I support my reading habit through several sources: the local library, online swapping sites and used bookstores. If my local library burned down, that would be awful. I love libraries. This one is in walking distance, so I'd have to drive to the next closest library (still in town) and only go on weekends when I have the car. I'd certainly volunteer and help restore the library if I could. But I'd feel worse about the loss of an entire library than its immediate inconvenience to me. It would not stall my reading much as I am currently wading through a huge pile of books I acquired at The Book Thing right before we moved. And the occasional one arrives in the mail from Paperback Swap. There's also a thrift store nearby where I pick up books sometimes.

It seems to me that used bookstores are slowly dying off, and that makes me very sad. I can't afford to buy books new, and I love poking around used shops with their narrow aisles, piles of books overflowing off the shelves, fellow patrons with that familiar crick in the neck scanning titles for their next treasure. But when I lived in San Francisco, I saw three or four used bookshops go out of business. I did get lots of books at their final sales, but felt terrible looking at all the rest still crammed on the shelves: what would happen to all those poor books? More recently, when we lived in Fairfax, I searched futilely for a used bookstore nearby. We lived in an area full of wide busy roads, and strip malls or "shopping plazas" everywhere. None of them had a used bookstore. I finally found one in the next town, a half-hour drive. I was thrilled when the guy there gave me a paper listing used bookstores in the area- until he began to tell me which ones to cross off, because they'd closed in the past few years. None of the remaining ones were in driving distance. Such a shame. I haven't even looked for a used bookstore in my new town, yet. I must soon, if only to help them stay in business by being a patron!

On the other hand, it is easier than ever to find books online- I can search and find almost any title I want, I just have to be willing to pay the extra cost of shipping. And trust the book will stand up to its description! It's so much more satisfactory to turn a book over in your hand before purchasing it. I usually buy books for keeps, so I'm picky about their condition. Is the spine tight, are there loose pages, does it have a funny smell? Did someone underline the text, dog-ear the pages or leave a coffee ring? Do I like the cover design, are there interior illustrations, is the text hard to read? All things to consider, that you can't always know via the computer. So I don't buy many books online- yet.

Hm, I think I've strayed quite a bit from the original question, but it was fun.

Jul 11, 2008

The $64 Tomato

by William Alexander

I can't tell you how much I enjoyed this book. I ate it all up- in just two days. Spurred by growing involvement in my own little veggie garden, I ditched the heap of TBR books sitting by my bed and requested from the local library five titles on gardening and food that have been looming in my mind recently, whispering: read me, read me, read me. This was the first. Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable Miracle is next. And all of Michael Pollan's books on food are following!

In The $64 Tomato, William Alexander looks at twenty-five years of gardening in his backyard. He turned a hillside field into a huge, nearly unmanageable vegetable and flower garden. The book follows his battles with nature: groundhogs, insect pests, thieving squirrels, etc. It's pretty hilarious.I don't think I would ever use his methods: hiring a landscaper to prepare the plot, setting up a five-thousand voltage electric fence, trying to outright kill any wildlife that wants to munch on his prize heirloom tomatoes. Yet I can sympathize with his frustrations. The crazy thing is that after spending tons of money on his garden, and struggling to get it to produce, he had more food than his family could eat, and ended up giving most of it away. At that point I would seriously scale down my garden!

If I tell you all the things I identified with in this book, you'll learn a lot about me. I could relate to: buying a house that's stood empty too long and needs fixing up, having to deal with independent contractors as a new homeowner, growing apples (my mother has apple trees in her backyard), having a family member in private medical practice (my dad) which makes everyone think you're rich but you're not, dealing with clay soil, attempting to use a hand mower (I borrowed the neighbor's once, then gave up on that romantic idea and bought a gas one), even the groundhog! We have caught two glimpses of one that lives under our backyard shed, but he doesn't seem to be eating the garden yet and I certainly wouldn't wage war on him if he did. I doubt I would enjoy this book so much if it all wasn't such familiar ground. It's not the greatest writing, and the humor certainly won't appeal to all. But I kept laughing, and laughing, because it was so close to home. Thanks to Juli at Can I Borrow Your Book? for bringing this one to my attention!

Rating: 4/5 ........ 265 pages, 2006

More opinions at:
My Life by the Book

Jul 10, 2008

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

by Kate Wilhelm

I was surprised to find that this book was written in the 70's. It feels so suited to our times. A post-apocalyptic story, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang opens with the entire world facing disaster. Pollution, radiation, new diseases and famine everywhere. Mammals, birds, even insects disappear, and there are fewer and fewer children (like that film Children of Men). Society collapsing in chaos. One rich family full of brilliant people with a variety of convenient specializations comes together to try and save humanity. To keep from going extinct while trying to figure out why everyone's sterile, they begin cloning humans. For a while this is successful, but then the clones begin to outnumber the original people. And they don't see the importance of individuality. They view uniformity and mass production as strengths, and want to do away with s-xual reproduction for good. Only a few individuals see how disastrous that would be.

This story moves very quickly, easily spanning several generations. There are three main characters: David, one of the original genius-family members; Molly, a clone who is also an artist and thus unique from her "sisters" and Mark, Molly's son- one of the last unique human beings. I don't usually enjoy books which tell what I call "a story of the whole world" instead of being focused from one character's viewpoint. But once I began reading about Molly and her son, it became really interesting. Not only because they were artists, but because of the vivid contrast between the individuals and the clones. I think anyone who has read Never Let Me Go should read this book also. They both address issues of individuality and cloning, but in very different contexts.

I discovered Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang during a visit to, of all places, the Experience Music Project in Seattle, Wa. This place is all about music, so I was quite surprised to discover that it has a science fiction museum in the basement. With things like original costumes from the old Star Wars films. And an extensive display of notable sci-fi books, including brief descriptions about their key, innovative concepts. It was just before closing, so A. and I were scrambling for scraps of paper and a pen to write down titles from the exhibit before we had to leave. This is the second book I've opened from that list. The first one was the Years of Rice and Salt.

Rating: 3/5                  213 pages, 1976

Jul 9, 2008

Sea Glass

by Anita Shreve

I feel about Anita Shreve the same way I do about Jody Picoult. I want to like her books because they're so terribly popular. But after reading two or three, I just can't pick another one up. The reading experience is just so- dull. Sea Glass is a novel about a newly married couple in an old beach house on the New England Coast, and several of their friends and acquaintances. It switches viewpoints often. It's set in the 1920's, during the stock market crash and a strike among local mill workers. At first these events seem far from the beach house's quiet interior and its occupants, but soon it is right in their living room. The novel explores how all the characters are affected and struggle together with change. I could not come to know or care about any of them. Even with the pathetic love story included. I wanted the book to be beautiful, to glow like sea glass does under water with the light shining on it. But unfortunately, it's as dull as the pieces still lying undiscovered on the beach, barely discernible from their neighboring stones. Disappointing.

Rating: 2/5 ........ 376 pages, 2002

Jul 8, 2008

book giveaway!

Win a Free Book!
This week's giveaway is a gently used paperback copy of Ken Follet's suspense thriller, The Key to Rebecca. What Amazon says about it:
"His code name: "The Sphinx." His mission: to send Rommel's advancing army the secrets that would unlock the doors to Cairo...and the ultimate Nazi triumph in the war. And in all of Cairo, only two people could stop this brilliant and ruthless Nazi master agent. One was a down-on-his-luck English officer no one would listen to. The other was a young Jewish girl..."
If you would like to win this book, just leave a comment before tuesday 7/15 and tell me what you like best about this author. Blog about this giveaway with a link back to this post, and you'll get entered twice! Sorry, due to postal cost (my husband rolled his eyes at the stack I hauled to the post office last week: three books I gave away, plus four that went out to Paperback Swap requests!) this contest is only open to residents in the US or Canada.

Faith and Betrayal

A Pioneer Woman's Passage in the American West
by Sally Denton

This is the story of the author's ancestor, Jane Rio Griffiths, a woman of English aristocracy who emigrated to the United States in the 1800's, joined the Mormons, and traveled across the country to Utah. Faith and Betrayal is an awe-inspiring story of one woman's courage, stamina and ability to acquire whatever new skills were necessary in her new life (including those of a midwife). Denton does a wonderful job of depicting her great-great grandmother's experiences of crossing the ocean in a ship and traveling in a wagon train, overcoming numerous hardships. Unfortunately, soon after arrival in Utah, the diary upon which this book is largely based falls silent for seventeen years. After that space of time, she left the church and moved to California. Denton filled in the gap with plenty of reasons why Jane may have become disillusioned with her new religion. You must read this book with a grain of salt, as it is heavily opinionated- by the author. A lot of emphasis is placed upon the incident of a piano which Denton says her great-grandmother brought across the ocean and plains, only to have it end up in Brigham Young's possession- either as an object of tithe or traded in exchange for grain during a time of hardship. She stated that the piano is "now on display at the Mormon Temple Museum in Salt Lake City" and included a photograph of it. Curious, I looked online for the museum, wanting to know more about the piano. But I could not find any more information.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 216 pages, 2005

Jul 7, 2008

Birdman of Alcatraz

The Story of Robert Stroud
by Thomas E. Gaddis

Robert Stroud was sentenced for murder in 1912. His original term was for twelve years, but ended up being fifty-four, most of which were spent in solitary confinement. Despite only having a third-grade education, Stroud became an expert on bird behavior and diseases, from keeping and studying canaries in his prison cell. It all began when he picked up three baby sparrows which had fallen to the ground in the prison yard. He raised and trained his canaries, but was particularly interested in diseases, and how to cure them. He wrote books about the birds, too. I was absolutely astonished at all the things Stroud did while in a prison cell, and the things which he invented or made. And that he was allowed to keep the canaries at all. He raised hundreds of canaries during his time in prison. Although Birdman of Alcatraz is bound to have some inaccuracies (the most glaring being that Stroud never kept birds while at Alcatraz, but only when he was in the Leavenworth facility), it is an utterly fascinating read.

Rating: 4/5                        223 pages, 1955

Jul 5, 2008

The Devil's Storybook

by Natalie Babbitt

This charming little book is full of witty stories about the Devil- portrayed as a short-tempered trickster always trying to stir up trouble. Sometimes the Devil gets the results he wants, other times the people he's trying to deceive fool him instead. All the tales have a subtle moral- mostly about the consequence of choices or desires, and a lesson about human nature. The tales in The Devil's Storybook are titled:

"Wishes"- The Devil wants to trick people by granting them wishes in ways they don't expect. But the first two people he meets don't really want a wish. Then he meets the ideal victim- a foolish boy.

"The Very Pretty Lady"- A beautiful woman wants to be loved for more than just her looks. The Devil admires her beauty and tries to convince her to join him in Hell, but instead of getting what he wants, ends up granting her exactly what she's been looking for.

"The Harps of Heaven"- The Devil sends two brother who are thieves up to Heaven to steal a harp for him. But the brothers are always quarreling and fighting, so they keep messing up the job.

"The Imp in the Basket"- This story doesn't feature the Devil as a main character, but a good-hearted clergyman who tries to takes care of an imp- a baby devil- that's left on his doorstep.

"Nuts"- The Devil likes eating walnuts and hates cracking them. He tries to trick someone into cracking the nuts for him by hiding a pearl inside one.

"A Palindrome"- About an artist who is a good man beloved by all the people, but paints horrid pictures. The Devil admires his awful paintings, and wants them for himself. What happens to the artist when the Devil steals all his work is so strange and sad.

"Ashes"- An amusing story about an evil man who was cremated when he died. His ashes got mixed up with those of a pig, so when he showed up in Hell, there was this pig following him around everywhere. He tries to find a way to get rid of the pig.

"Perfection"- The Devil is annoyed by a girl who is always doing things right. He tries to get her to loose her temper so she won't be so perfect anymore.

"The Roses and the Minor Demon"- Features a minor demon who has a soft spot for roses. He wants to grow some, but of course the Devil objects to having roses in Hell.

"The Power of Speech"- The Devil wants an old woman's goat. But she knows he hates the sound of bells, so she's tied a bell on the goat's neck. Looking for a way to get the goat away from her, the Devil gives it the power of speech- with results no one was expecting! I think this is my favorite of all the stories.

Rating: 3/5                   101 pages, 1974

Meme: Five Things

Well, I haven't done a meme for a while, so it's good that Susan who Can Never Have Too Many Books tagged me for this one!

What was I doing 10 years ago?

I can't remember. Do I really need to pull out my old journals? I think this was one of my years at junior college as an illustration student. Living in a dorm with five other girls. Was that really ten years ago? Ugh, I feel old now!

Five snacks I enjoy in a perfect, non weight-gaining world:

Chocolate! in any form!
Salted, roasted peanuts
Ice cream
Ruffled potato chips
Trail mix- the kind that has peanuts, cashews, m&m's and sugared raisins

Five snacks I enjoy in the real world:

Um, chocolate
Cheese and crackers
Goldfish crackers (we have lots!)

Five things I would do if I were a billionaire:

Set aside for my daughter to go to college
Travel- Europe, Japan and Tasmania are top on the list
Pay off all our debt
Build all the cool inventions my husband thinks up but has no way to make
Give to a good cause- there's so many I'd have to do tons of research before choosing, so I can't really say who I'd donate to

Five jobs that I have had:

Assistant/cashier in a bakery
Forklift driver in a warehouse
Receptionist in a doctor's office (my dad's!)
In-home care for an elderly woman (cleaning and errands)
Recruiter at a blood bank- I'd call people and ask them to come back to donate again

Three of my habits:

Read every night in bed before sleeping
Pay my bills the old-fashioned way, stamps and envelopes!
Put away utensils, ingredients and kitchen tools during the cooking process after I use each one, so when I'm done, there's nothing left sitting out.

Five people I want to get to know better:

Trish (of the Reading Nook)

If you care to participate, consider yourselves tagged!

Jul 4, 2008


or A Knight's Tale
by Richard Monaco

Parsival is one of the minor figures (at least, I never heard of him before) in the Arthurian legends. His mother kept him shut up in their castle in total ignorance. Then he set out into the world as a young man, totally clueless and gullible. He wanders around the countryside looking for Arthur's castle, getting himself mixed up into all kinds of things. He is awestruck by the first knight he sees and determines to become one himself. This seemed to happen a bit too easily. Maybe that was part of the legend, that Parsival had a natural knack for fighting? I'm not sure. Anyway, he sets off originally to find the Grail, but ends up in the middle of a hideous war.

What I really liked about Parsival was the vividly depicted setting. Nature was a pervasive, almost towering presence. Trees loomed over the paths, forests were trackless unmapped expanses, human dwellings sat in small scraped clearings among the wild growth. The impact of the seasons, the dependence upon crops and game, the utter simplicity and squalor most of the people lived in. It felt so real. And the terrible brutality of warfare, total disregard of the noblemen for the lives of serfs, awful physical punishments, waste and horror of rape, plunder, destruction- all here in these pages. It gave me a very stark picture of how life might have been for people in medieval times.

But the story was awful to follow. In the first place, it jumps around between several different characters' views- sometimes as frequently as every paragraph or two! Several significant scenes never had an explanation. There are also many incidents which don't make sense if you're not familiar with details of the Arthurian legends. I missed some of the references. Some of the characters seemed to have no clear idea where they were going or why they were doing what they did- and neither did I. Parsival seemed to be always either fighting or tumbling women in the hay. It got rather disgusting after a while. The profanity bothered me too. It felt incongruous with the setting. I mean, how many medieval peasants or knights do you think had the f-word in their vocabularies?

Maybe if I read the complete series I'd get a better sense of it all. But based on reading Parsival, I'm not sure if I want to continue. In my experience, the first book in a series is usually the best one. However, the vivid descriptions in this book are such a strength I'm still ambivalent about keeping it or putting it on the swap shelf, and I feel compelled to give it a 3, in spite of its flaws. Make of that what you will.

There is a very interesting interview with the author here.

Rating: 3/5                  343 pages, 1977

Jul 3, 2008

more on Zoo Vet

I was pleased to receive a copy of Zoo Vet in the mail from Paperback Swap today. It brought the number up to 477 in my library! And I was able to refresh my memory, so now I can tell you more about it. What I mostly liked reading about was the wide variety of wildlife Taylor treated, and the ingenious ways he did so. Many of the animals were dangerous and difficult to handle. Medical practices were not well developed for them yet, so Taylor had to improvise a lot with what was on hand. He performed the first cesarean section on a zebra mare- while suffering a severe allergic reaction to the animal itself!

Other patients included an orca with ulcers, a sick hippo, an overly affectionate gorilla, some orphaned mountain lions, ill dolphins, a rattlesnake that refused to eat, an elephant with an abscessed tooth, a tiger with an injured spine and a giraffe with a damaged hoof. Most interesting were his visits to foreign countries to treat valuable wildlife owned by other zoos and the wealthy. During one visit to China, he was invited to observe an operation performed on a horse. The horse was not put to sleep or given any pain medication- it was treated with acupuncture alone, and lay quietly throughout the surgery. I was a bit incredulous. Taylor himself writes that he could hardly believe it- but he saw it with his own eyes. Fascinating book, highly recommended.

Jul 2, 2008

Keep the Aspidistra Flying

by George Orwell

Is the lucrative return of employment worth the awful tedium of spending your days at something you hate? Gordon Comstock doesn't think so. He turns down decent jobs and good opportunities, because they go against his principles, chooses instead to take a low-paying job in a bookshop and lives in a squalid rented room. He wants to make a living writing, but he isn't very good at it, and discovers that the woes of poverty (mainly hunger) make it harder and harder to concentrate on his poetry and write well. Sticking to his ideals, Gordon repeatedly refuses assistance from friends and family, sinking slowly deeper and deeper into poverty until he has to make a choice to survive. A job he doesn't want? or sticking true to his principles and creeping closer to starvation?

Keep the Aspidistra Flying is terribly depressing- for someone like me- an artist who failed to make a living at art. But it's also very witty, full of satire, which I half-missed the first time I read it. I was too stuck on the unhappy circumstance of Gordon- trying to do what he believed in, and getting mired in a downward spiral to the point of no return. A second reading provided more humor. Especially in the contrast of Gordon's friends- few in number- such as Ravelston, wealthy (but not happy with it) and his long-suffering girlfriend. Both sober and funny, this is one novel that I will not forget easily. It is interesting to compare this book to Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, which is semi-autobiographical account of the experience of poverty in said cities.

Side note: It must be prolific in English households (at least in Orwell's time), the aspidistra plant. Having a significant place in the title and also being very symbolic in the story. But I didn't know what it was and kept stumbling over the unfamiliar word. So to give my readers an idea (at least of its appearance) here are two old and very tacky book covers which feature the stubborn aspidistra. I don't like them, but they are illustrative, and so have a place here.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 248 pages, 1936

Jul 1, 2008


With three books to give away and three entrants, I thought hey, everybody's a winner! But then I realized Trish didn't actually want a book. So my daughter helped out. I gave her the stack of fat Grishams and two slips of paper in my hand. She picked a name and a book. Then the nameslips went back in my hand for second and third draws. And the results are:

Kari (the redhead in the corner) won The Firm
~ and ~
KT of What KT Reads won The Pelican Brief and A Time to Kill.

Congrats, happy readers! Send an address to jeanenevarez at gmail dot com and I'll pop your books in the mail before the week's out. Enjoy!