Aug 31, 2008

Expecting Adam

by Martha Beck
Expecting Adam describes the author's experiences as a Harvard graduate student expecting a child, who she discovers has down's syndrome. First she has to decide whether to keep the child, or abort him. Then she struggles with confronting those who find her decision unacceptable- portraying the Harvard community as being totally intellectual-driven, elitist and unsympathetic to students who have difficulties balancing academics and challenges in their personal lives. Even after her son is born, the book still focuses mostly on the author's personal problems and not what it is like to raise a disabled child. Eventually she realizes she needs a change in perspective- but the way she goes about it really surprised me. Her exploration into supernatural and paranormal spiritual experiences totally strained my ability to believe her story. The were just too many unbelievable events, one after another. Beck's writing is wry, sarcastic, funny- and terribly unflattering (even condescending and unkind) to her family members and academic peers. I have to say if I knew her personally, I'd really cringe at reading this book. She herself comes across as being emotionally unstable and quite selfish at times.

Sadly, I found out this book was first written as a fictional novel, but Beck couldn't get any publishers interested until she marketed it as non-fiction. So is this another fake memoir? I've become highly skeptical of the veracity of any memoir by this point. And because reading Expecting Adam raised doubts of the author's credibility in my mind, I wonder now how much of Leaving the Saints was purely fabricated or exaggerated too? You can read more about the author here and here.

Rating: 3/5                    335 pages, 2000

Aug 30, 2008

New Kitchen Garden

by Adam Caplin

I sat up through some wee hours last night because I just couldn't put this down! New Kitchen Garden is a beautiful book highlighting herbs, vegetables and fruit. Rather than giving detailed instructions on how to garden (although it does cover some basics), this book is an enticement of visual beauty. It introduces the reader to types of produce that are not only good to eat, but also look pleasing tucked into your already-existing perennial border or flower bed. Suggestions abound on how to arrange and intermingle the plants so that they are not only next to beneficial flowers (like california poppies with zucchini), but also juxtaposed with those that make a pleasing visual contrast or display. Tips on growing plants (including fruit trees!) in limited space, recommendations of particularly tasty, hardy or pretty varieties, and a collection of scrumptious looking recipes at the end make this book a treasure. A few times I felt like some pertinent information was left out. For example, when going through the fruit trees, it clearly states why some kinds are difficult to grow, but when twice mentioning that radishes are tricky, doesn't say why.

I have to admit, I was mostly drooling over the photographs. The plants all look gorgeous, lush and healthy. The recipes look spectacular, and yet they appear simple to make, most only requiring the garden produce, fresh herbs, and some staple kitchen ingredients. New Kitchen Garden introduced me to a number of plants I'm unfamiliar with: angelica, borage, chervil, cardoon, chocolate-flavored mint! and suggested cooking them in ways new to me: asparagus flan, lettuce soup (the leaves pureed), pumpkin-cilantro curry. I just tried the lavender scones, pleased to find a recipe for this plant that has so far remained untouched in my garden (I'm not big on tea, nor interested in making potpourri, and didn't know what else to do with it). The scones are delicious. This evening I'm going to try the roasted zucchini recipe, too.

Rating: 4/5                        143 pages

Aug 29, 2008

The Midwife's Tale

by Gretchen Moran Laskas

This story is set in a secluded valley in the Appalacian mountains of West Virginia, during the 1930's. In a time when there were few conveniences, drugs were quackery viewed with suspicion, most everybody knew each other and was interrelated somehow. The main character, Elizabeth, is the daughter of a midwife. Her mother has trained her in the lore, but when Elizabeth learns that the midwives not only delivery babies but silently murder those born deformed or unwanted, she can't bear the thought of performing such acts. Especially since she's an illegitimate child herself.

I took The Midwife's Tale to my favorite, seldom-used reading spot: a nice, hot bath. And it failed me. I thought the story sounded intriguing, but the characters were not. The moment when Elizabeth discovered her mother's "red book" listing the names of murdered infants, and her inner struggle with the issue felt totally downplayed. The setting and details did not come alive for me- even the herbal lore, which I was curious about. And the love stories just seemed too silly. Elizabeth only wants one man, who's married to a foreign woman. Then she dies, so Elizabeth moves right in, marries the guy, raises his child. But he doesn't love her back... After seventy-five pages, I just couldn't read any more. It was so disappointing. There's another book I read several years ago placed in the same setting- and it was much better. When I can remember the title, I'll write about it here.

PS: there's only three days left to enter my blogiversary giveaway! The winner gets their pick from two different stacks of books, or four Book Mooch points. So go on over and leave a comment for a chance to win.

Abandoned                    243 pages, 2003

Aug 28, 2008

Notes from The Virginia Gardener

Vol II
edited by Diane Relf

Like the first volume, Notes from The Virginia Gardener, Vol II contains a bunch of tips and ideas on gardening. It's easy to read and I skimmed through both volumes fairly quickly, jotting down lots of notes. Some of the information is repetitive, not only shared between the two volumes but often repeated within the same one several times. I must have read about wiping dust off houseplant leaves five times! My favorite tips from this volume were instructions on how to make your own biodegradable seedling pots from newspaper or brown paper bags, and some novel ideas for deer repellent. I've read before about using hot pepper sauce, hanging strong-smelling bars of soap in trees, or (of course) fencing. But this volume also suggests applying lion or tiger manure! (Isn't manure from carnivores bad for the garden? and where would you get it from?) or mixing a dozen rotten eggs into five gallons of water, which will spray an acre. The booklet says it "emits enough odor to repel deer, but not offend the gardener." What about the person mixing the rotten eggs into the bucket? I can't imagine any way of plugging my nose to make the stench from twelve to eighteen rotten eggs bearable!

As with the previous volume, I really liked the illustrations, which look like they come from publications at the turn of the century. Many show farming tools and implements (horse-pulled lawn mower, anyone?) or different varieties of things like cucumbers and corn.

Rating: 3/5 ........ unpaged, ?

Notes from The Virginia Gardener

Vol I
edited by Diane Relf

As far as I can figure out, this is a reprinting of selections from The Virginia Gardener Newsletter (1983-1989) which publication comes from the Department of Horticulture at Virginia Tech in Blackburn, VA. It's the first item I've borrowed from my local library that wasn't a regular book. Notes from the Virginia Gardener is a little spiral-bound volume, with un-numbered pages divided into sections by season. It's mainly a collection of gardening tips. I was pretty pleased to discover this, because I wanted to find information specific to gardening where I now live. Although a lot of the tips have to do with things I don't have in my yard- roses, tons of perennial flowers, fruit trees- it gave me a good idea of what grows well here just by reading about them. There's lots of information on what time of year is best to do certain things in the yard like planting, pruning, dividing perennials, fertilizing certain flowers, etc. Also some info on seasonal care for houseplants. I really appreciated the ideas on reusing common household items for things like making garden labels or measuring inches of rainfall. Charming, antique-looking woodcuts illustrate the pages very nicely. And I really liked the little tidbits like this:
An experiment at the University of Massachusetts demonstrated that a hubbard squash can lift a John Deere tractor. As it grew within a set-up of springs and beams, the squash raised the tractor off the ground. Now if only that power could be harnessed for garden work!
Rating: 3/5                        unpaged, ?

Aug 26, 2008

Letters for Our Children

Fifty Americans Share Lessons in Living
edited by Erica Goode

A collection of letters from adults written to children offering insight, advice, moral guidance and encouragement, often sharing their own experiences. These are not only from parent to child but also directed at grandchildren, nieces and nephews, or kids that the adults have mentored in some way. Written by celebrities as well as ordinary everyday people, the authors of these Letters to Our Children come from all walks of life, but their counsel all has a common thread. They care deeply about and feel responsible for these children, and want to pass on values and integrity learned in their own lives. Many of the letters discuss issues the authors found difficult to address in face-to-face conversation, which made them more interesting to me. Some I found very inspiring, others not so much. This is a book I picked up at random when visiting someone's home and looking for reading material. I wasn't expecting much, and was pleasantly surprised.

Rating: 3/5                        256 pages, 1996

blog award!

Lezlie of Books 'n Border Collies gave me the Super Commenter award today. Thanks so much, Lezlie! For me, one of the most rewarding things about blogging is the comments. That's the only way you know someone's actually reading what you have to say, not just glancing and passing on. I always like hearing from my readers. Here's some bloggers I appreciate for frequently helping to carry on the bookish conversation:

Janet of Findings
Verbivore of Incurable Logophilia
Trish- Trish's Reading Nook
Bybee of Naked Without Books
Nymeth of Things Mean a Lot
Bookfool - Bookfoolery and Babble
Nyssaneala of Book Haven

It's always fun when I get an award to try and trace it back to its originator. With this one, I got as far as Hootin' Anni, seeing many different and interesting blogs along the way (most of them not about books). If you've been awarded here, please pass it on to seven other bloggers!

Aug 25, 2008

A Knot in the Grain

and Other Stories
by Robin McKinley

Robin McKinley is one of those hit-or-miss authors for me. The first book of hers I read was Beauty, and it remains my very favorite. I've liked a lot of her other works, and found others just- well, uninteresting. This was one. A Knot in the Grain contains five short stories. Four are rooted in fantasy worlds (several in Damar), the last titular one has a modern setting.

A mute girl travels with a dis-empowered mage to his master's mountain, where they both seek healing and she must choose between a unsuspected opportunity or returning to her humble home and those she loves.

An orphaned princess is oppressed into ignorance by her cruel uncle, then given in sacrifice to a beast half man, half stag. But the Stagman rescues her instead, carrying her off to Luthe's mountain...

A desperate woodsman steals herbs from a witch's garden, who exacts the payment of his unborn child. The girl grows up as the witch's daughter. When she learns who her real parents are and the witch's intentions for her, she runs away. But nothing she finds in the greater world compares to the love she has- for the witch's troll son.

A humble farmer marries a beautiful girl much younger than himself. He's very happy until he overhears rumors casting doubts on their relationship. He must learn to accept who she really is- and not to fear the mysterious hill of buttercups on his farm.

The last story tells of a girl whose family moves during her last year in high school. Upset at leaving her friends behind, she finds solace in re-reading old fairy tale favorites from the small local library and hiding out in attic of their new, old farmhouse. But then she discovers the attic has a secret.... What I liked best about this one was the descriptions of her forays to the library and into novels. And I did like the message of "Buttercups".

These stories are mysterious and dreamlike, full of hidden portent. And that's just what frustrated me about them. I kept having lots of questions that never got answered. Threads left hanging. I don't mind a few mysteries remaining at the end of a story- sometimes that makes it fell more real because after all, in real life you never know the reasons behind everything. But here I wanted to know. Things like where did the Stagman come from? What were those things the girl buried in the ground? What was the curse on Coral's family? What was living inside Buttercup Hill? Why did Erana love the troll? I suppose that's another thing that left me unsatisfied: I didn't feel like I really got to know any of the characters very well, their motivations or personalities. Maybe that's just what you get with short stories- there's not enough room to fit it all in. I rather wish some of these stories were developed into full-length novels; the premises are very interesting.

Rating: 2/5                   195 pages, 1994

Aug 24, 2008

Extraordinary Chickens

by Stephen Green-Armytage

If you've ever thought chickens are dull, take a look at this book! Extraordinary Chickens showcases dozens of exotic and unusual breeds. I knew that some chickens are bred for show, but I had no idea how beautiful and bizarre they can be. There are chickens little and big, streamlined and fat. There are chickens who look like they've had a perm (frizzles) and ones with such fine feathers it looks like mammal fur (silkies). Chickens with pom-poms on their heads, or on their feet. Some have fantastically strange combs- including ones split like two horns- others have no combs at all and look like vultures or crows. Chickens with no tail, and chickens with tails twenty feet long! Chickens with beards, with mowhawks, with whiskers! There's even a chicken with a naked neck. It made me think of the sphinx cat. I thought the most striking feather pattern was on the Sebright. And the most beautiful the Yokohama. There's even a photo of the red jungle fowl, which looks just like a chicken to me! Besides the stunning photographs, there is an essay "The Strange and Beautiful World of Exotic Chickens" which was quite interesting, and brief notes on all the featured breeds.

Rating: 3/5                112 pages, 2000

Aug 23, 2008

Meme: Libraries

It's been some time since I did any Booking Through Thursday memes. I wasn't going to do this one, since I feel I've already talked about the library I visited as a child here. But I really enjoyed reading about others' library experiences, so I wanted to share a few more (even though I'm several days late). Here's the BTT question:

What is your earliest memory of a library? Who took you? Do you have you any funny/odd memories of the library?

I don't remember when I first visited a library. My mother always read to us daily as children, and I'm sure she took me to the public library before I could do more than chew on board books. It seems like we went almost every week. There were always library activities: storytimes, crafts, puppet shows, summer reading programs, etc. I remember two that were particularly cool: one where we made dragons (or dinosaurs?) out of clay, and then next week picked up them up baked and glazed from a kiln! I kept mine for the longest time before it broke. Another where we made Ukrainian easter eggs with a method that uses wax. Very cool!

But of course, the main memories of library visits are about books. When I was very small, I tried to remember the shelf locations of my favorite picture books, since I couldn't remember (or read) author names. I still know the layout of that library better than any other I've ever used. I remember the first time I went from the children's and juvenile fiction side of the room to browse the adult fiction. I felt so brave! I was nervous someone would tell me I wasn't old enough to read those books.

My sisters and I used to take piles of books home at a time. Even back then I liked re-reading my favorites. My mother would recognize which books she'd seen me read before, and make me pick out new ones as well. I remember protesting one time that I'd already read them all! Can you imagine how presumptuous I sounded? All the books in the entire library? I don't remember exactly what her reply was, but I felt sorely chastised for my ridiculous statement.

There was a time when my older sister and I read a lot of Chose Your Own Adventure books. We would first read them picking our natural responses, then try and read every possible combination of choices. I can't remember how many variations we got out of those books, but it was a lot. For some reason, my mother disapproved of them. I think they're pretty silly now, but back then it was highly entertaining. I'd like to think these books help get some kids interested in reading, because of their interactive nature.

I can't think of any funny stories from my early library visits. But thinking about the Burien Public Library I recall one of its most attractive features. Just inside the entrance there is a lobby/courtyard with a little glassed in atrium that has no roof. It was always full of plants, and I think there was a small fountain. I always remember the pleasant sound of dripping water (but that could just as well have been rain). It was so pretty.

First Person Plural

My Life as a Multiple
by Cameron West

I thought this book looked interesting. Picked up from the same time and place (probably the same shelf even) as Aftershock. It's a firsthand account of a man suffering from dissociative personality disorder. He had twenty-four different personalities. I read almost sixty pages before the first suggestion of child abuse arose, that of incest. From his grandmother. I knew there was going to be more, and probably more graphic, descriptions of the incidents from his childhood and I just didn't want to read about that. It's too much for me. Plus, I was bored by all the descriptions - by brand name- of his expensive possessions and the flat, uninteresting writing style. Curious what others had said about this book, I looked at some of the Amazon reviews. This one describes it pretty well: "This book must contain the largest collection of bad metaphors ever published."

Abandoned                     319 pages, 1999

Aug 22, 2008


the Story of a Psychotic Episode
by Ellen Wolfe

I picked this book up at random when visiting the Book Thing one day. First glance at the title I thought it had something to do with earthquakes; was I ever wrong! Aftershock is set in New York during the 1960s, the story of a woman who had a nervous breakdown and spent a month in a mental hospital, where she received electroshock therapy. The book begins at the end of her stay in the hospital, and describes in a quiet, conversational tone her attempts to resume normal life at home. It's very difficult, because her memory is in a terrible state. She can't remember who she spoke to yesterday, how to make breakfast for her children, that she and her husband are about to buy their first house. She can't even recall the incident that led to her admittance in the hospital, and is constantly afraid of running into people who know what happened, while she has no idea who they are or what she might have said to them while in her prior "manic state". Following through her days of bewilderment and frustration, I was waiting for the revelation of what had led to her nervous breakdown. It wasn't what I expected at all, and for several pages the book became a discussion of morality and abortion.

It was very interesting to me to see how this book reflected its times, especially the attitudes held by and towards women. I was rather dismayed to see how prevalent the use of electroshock therapy was- one statement said that this book details an experience faced by millions of families every year. That seems like a high number to me.

Rating: 3/5                   216 pages, 1969

Aug 21, 2008

America's Neighborhood Bats

Understanding and Learning to Live in Harmony with Them
by Merlin D. Tuttle

Our backyard seems to be a mosquito breeding ground. One night I saw a bat flitting about. Haven't since, but I want to know more about them. So when I saw this book offered as a two-for-one on Paperback Swap, I grabbed it. A quick read, short but very informative, with gorgeous photographs. America's Neighborhood Bats taught me that there are nearly a thousand species of bats, that flying foxes are more closely related to primates than rodents, that bat are natural pollinators of some plants like bananas, avocados, mangoes, and agave, from which tequila is made. And that one mouse-eared bat can eat six hundred mosquitoes in an hour! That's what I wanted to hear! Plus, bats do not attack people, rarely transmit rabies, and only bite if you pick them up. If you leave them alone, they leave you alone (and eat all your nasty bugs). Bats are cool. I want to install a bat house in my yard now, and I'm going to look for more to read about them. This book has sparked my interest.

Rating: 3/5                   96 pages, 1988

Aug 20, 2008

The Self-Taught Gardener

Lessons from a Country Garden
by Sydney Eddison

Thus far my focus in gardening has been to get something edible out of the ground. But I do want to plant some flowers next year, where the back part of my yard is all dreary. I didn't know The Self-Taught Gardener was mostly about flower gardening when I picked it up, and was delightfully surprised. I really like the way this book presents its information. It begins just as any new homeowner like myself does: contemplating the blank or messy slate of a piece of land and feeling the urge to do something with it. So Eddison encourages you to just jump in: clear some ground, dig a hole, plant something, and learn as you go. Based on the author's own thirty-odd years of gardening experience and those of several gardening friends, this book gives examples of a variety of gardening designs and how to make them work. Narrow city lots, sprawling country estates, formal and informal, gardens focused on roses, on evergreens, on color schemes. What I liked most were the discussions on color theory and basic landscape design, all of which rang familiar to me as an artist. There's also some basic gardening info on composting and transplanting, mail-ordering plants, dealing with pests, growing bulbs, etc. Written in a very friendly, informal fashion, this book is great for someone who wants to immediately go out and get their hands dirty in the garden, without a lot of extra fuss. And I really like the descriptions recommending lots of beautiful, hardy plants.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 238 pages, 1997

Aug 19, 2008


Win a free book or two, celebratory giveaway!
A year ago today I made my first post here. It's my blogiversary! (Is that a real word yet? Well, everyone seems to use it, so I will too.) I find it hard to believe that when my sister suggested we start a family blog to keep in touch (over two years ago), I had to ask "what's a blog?" Since discovering book blogging, it's become part of my daily routine. I've really enjoyed reading about so many good books (my TBR has grown out of control!), and conversing with so many nice people. Book bloggers are the best! To celebrate, I'm having a giveaway! Two winners will get their choice from the following:

one of these books (click on photo for a larger view):

or two of these books (click for larger view):

or, if none of those titles appeal to you, I'll give you four Book Mooch points (you have to be a Book Mooch member to receive the points, but it's easy to sign up!)

To enter you must do two things:

First, leave a comment here and let me know which prize you want! (Feel free to email me if you can't read a title: jeanenevarez AT gmail DOT com, or ask in the comments. As you can see, some spines have library stickers. Most of these books are gently used).

Second, visit one of my old blog posts that hasn't been commented on yet. There's a list below (by book title). Your comment must be relevant to the post. (As posts receive comments, they'll be removed from the list to keep things tidy).

If you blog about this post and link back here, you get two entries. On the day the contest closes, I'll throw all the names in a hat, and draw two. (If your name gets drawn second but your title of choice was the first winner's selection, I'll draw another name). Contest closes the last day of this month. The winners will be announced Sept 1st. Happy reading!

< the list has been removed so as to not interfere with title searches >

Aug 18, 2008


the Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind
by Sue Rumbaugh

Kanzi is a bonobo, or pygmy chimpanzee. In 1980 his mother was involved in language experiments. Kanzi sat with his mother through her lessons and tests. She did quite poorly. To everyone's surprise, one day when the mother ape was not there, Kanzi demonstrated that he had learned by observation the symbols they had been attempting to teach her. He was eventually able to identify and respond to over two hundred lexigrams, follow verbal directions given in English, play simple computer games (I saw him beat Pac-Man in a video) and forced his teachers to begin spelling words when they didn't want him to understand what they were saying. I thought of this book because I recently viewed a film made of Kanzi and the researcher who worked with him, Sue Rumbaugh. It was even more fascinating to watch a brief five-minute clip of Kanzi than to read a few hundred pages describing the research work and his abilities. If you doubt that apes can learn a rudimentary use of language, I'd say, go read Kanzi! It's a fascinating book.

Rating: 4/5                  299 pages, 1996

Aug 17, 2008

Leaving the Saints

by Martha Beck

This book is about one woman's search for truth, emotional healing and spirituality. Martha Beck grew up in the Mormon faith, the daughter of a prominent BYU scholar. Much of the book focuses on her family. They were highly intellectual- I enjoyed the many references to Shakespeare and other literary works- but also very dysfunctional. The book is organized in alternating chapters between Beck's drawn-out confrontation with her father in a hotel room, and her slow journey of discovery. Leaving the Saints is a very frank, outspoken insider's look at "Mormon culture." Having grown up in the church, a lot of her descriptions rang absolutely true to me. I laughed out loud at things like how she staved off boredom in sacrament meetings by going through the hymn book and adding the phrase "in the bathtub" to hymn titles ("Behold a Royal Army in the bathtub"). I almost flinched at how openly she described some of what goes on inside the sacred Mormon temples. In the midst of dealing with her depression and facing the sudden revelation repressed memories brought to her, Beck talks about polygamy, feminism, and the questionable origins of some LDS scripture. What shocked me the most was to read of how church authorities suppressed knowledge and heavily censored materials at BYU, where she was an instructor. This book ignited my mind with outrage, indignation and a barrage of questions. I found it rich food for thought, but at the time I read it I had already begun stepping away from my religious upbringing. I would not recommend it to any Latter-Day-Saints who want to avoid an open-minded challenge to their faith.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 306 pages, 2005

more opinions at:
Ardent Reader

Aug 16, 2008


by Mary Leister

This is a nature book with a similar feel to Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or A Sand County Almanac. It was a very pleasant surprise- especially when I discovered it describes the small wildlife inhabitants and flora of Maryland, where I recently lived. Illustrated by dated-looking but charming photographs by Robert Wirth, Wildlings is a series of nature essays from walks the author took with her dog (who has a very marginal presence in the book) through fields, marshes and woodlands. Like Dillard, Mary Leister focuses attention on the smaller things- frogs, insects, birds, flowers, mushrooms, leaf buds. Some of the more interesting thing I read were of spiders with maternal behavior, secrets of skunk cabbage regrowth, the existence of the wheel bug (I've never seen them before), and mushrooms that glow in the dark. I've always found tent caterpillars repulsive (we battled infestations in my mother's fruit trees, the only way to get rid of them was by cutting off tented branches and burning them) but she makes even these little crawlers interesting. This wonderful book was an enjoyable read that fully held my interest. It almost made me want to crawl through the grass to see the smaller creatures hidden underfoot in my own small yard.

Rating: 4/5                      180 pages, 1976

Aug 14, 2008


by Rebecca Sjonger and Bobbie Kalman

My daughter and I read this book last night. Produced by the same people as Mice, it has the exact same layout and scope of information. I found it particularly interesting since I know very little about the animals. Gerbils informs me that there are four breeds of gerbils kept as pets. That baby gerbils are called puppies, gerbils can get used to staying awake at day and need quiet to sleep (so not a problem to keep in the child's room) and they like to bathe by rolling in sand! Again, like in Mice, the information was great, the illustrations awful. The one of a gerbil bathing in sand was so bad I could not even figure out what it was until I read the text.

Rating: 3/5                   32 pages, 2004

Aug 13, 2008

How Weaning Happens

by Diane Bengson

This book was written by a La Leche League leader, so of course it is strongly pro-breastfeeding. How Weaning Happens really advocates child-led weaning, which basically means you nurse until your child decides to quit! I wasn't about to do that, myself. But I read this book months before I was ready to try and wean, so I actually found it a very encouraging book. It gives a lot of personal stories of mothers and their nursing children, their weaning experiences (attempts, in some cases) and looks at weaning practices in other cultures. Also discussed are how to wean suddenly when you have to (in the case of medical problems), how to wean gradually (substituting other activities strongly suggested) and understand how different stages of growth and development affect the mother-child relationship and the child's experience of weaning. For someone who isn't ready yet, but wants to know more about weaning, this book is very useful.

Rating: 4/5                   160 pages, 2000

Aug 12, 2008


A Pet's Life
by Anita Ganeri

Another book read with my daughter in our research on pets. Rabbits is a very simple book, along the same lines as Goldfish. It's fairly informative for a four-year-old, and quite charming. The bunnies all look very cute and bright-eyed. There were two points where I was left questioning, though. At one point the book stated "Rabbits can have lots of babies. It is best not to let them breed." Bold words are defined in the book. But when I glanced at the short glossary, the definition for breed was a "type or kind of animal". Probably no little kids would care about this kind of error, but it bugged me. At another point the book said that it's not a good idea to keep a rabbit with a guinea pig. It doesn't say why. Do they fight? Compete for food? Does it just mean don't keep them in the same cage? Can they pass diseases to each other? Now I'm curious.

Rating: 3/5                32 pages, 2003

Aug 11, 2008

The Elm at the Edge of the Earth

by Robert D. Hale

This is a book I found browsing in a public library one day many, many years ago. I read it several times from the library, then finally acquired my own copy. It's the story of a young boy growing up in a most curious circumstance. His mother being ill, David is sent to live with his Aunt Maude, who is head cook at the County Home. This nearly self-sustaining farm is home to a hundred and sixty people who don't fit into society for one reason or another- some have physical handicaps, mental disabilities or illness, others have been "put away" for misconduct. Although it is never clearly explained (since everything is seen through the eyes of a child), the Home seems to fill roles of Social Services, mental institution and orphanage all in one. David roams the buildings and landscape making unlikely friends such as Rose, committed for killing her husband, and Adeline, a black girl who practices voodoo. He raises ducks and causes trouble, struggles in school, tries to deal with bullies, and thoroughly enjoys life. David accepts everyone as they are, innocent to the prejudices and antipathies many of the people he encounters have against each other. While his aunt can't always keep track of him, David finds friendship and guidance from other residents of the Home- some whose advice and teaching aren't exactly conventional. The Elm at the Edge of the Earth is a touching, often amusing story. It looks at human nature from the inside out- through the eyes of an innocent boy learning about life from some uncommon people who care about him deeply, each in their own way.

Rating: 3/5                             351 pages, 1990

Aug 10, 2008

Alligators, Raccoons and Other Survivors

The Wildlife of the Future
by Barbara Ford

After reading the weed appreciation book, I was curious about this one that's been sitting on my shelf for months. It's about wildlife species which have remained successful or even increased in number alongside the growth of human populations. There are several reasons posited why these species thrive, including: they are secretive and require little space, they reproduce rapidly, they eat our garbage, or they are protected by man (endangered species like alligators or game animals like whitetail deer). A lot of the information in Alligators, Raccoons and Other Survivors is about wildlife management programs and protection efforts. Animals getting the spotlight here are alligators and coyotes (included in the chapter titled "Weed Animals") but numerous others are mentioned, such as opossums, snowy egrets, red foxes, beavers, mountain goats and harbor seals. I was surprised to learn that herring gulls are protected animals, because in the heyday of feathered women's hats, they were hunted to near extinction. I would have liked to see pigeons included, but I'm sure there's other books that talk about that pervasive creature. Although written for a juvenile audience, this book kept my attention and was quite interesting. It was written twenty-seven years ago; I'd like to read a more current book about the same subject, with more depth and scope.

Rating: 3/5                   160 pages, 1981

Aug 9, 2008

Mr. Blue

by Margaret Embry

When we were young, my sisters and I would spend a few weeks at our great-aunt's house each summer. She has a whole wall of bookshelves in one room downstairs, and I always picked out some to read during our stay. Mr. Blue is one I remember well. It is a charming little book about a big, blue cross-eyed cat who talks (he must be part siamese). There's lots of lively pen and ink drawings illustrating the pages. Mr. Blue shows up one rainy day outside a third-grade classroom window, and the kids convince their teacher to let him inside. Before long Mr. Blue has established himself as the classroom cat, even though his curiosity and playfulness cause plenty of trouble. The story is not without suspense, as several times Mr. Blue disappears and the children get anxious about him. My daughter did, too. This is the first book I've read to her from my own collection, and she loved it! We spread the story out over several days, and she was quite willing to pause and utilize the bookmark each evening because she wanted to be sure there'd be more to read the next night! Now she wants to read it over and over again because "Mr. Blue is really cool." For some time I have been setting aside on one shelf all the books I want to share with her someday: Ramona Quimby, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, The Jungle Book, James and the Giant Peach, The Secret Garden, etc. This is the first one we've opened (it's the simplest story, with the most pictures) and it was a delightful experience. I can't wait to introduce her to more!

Rating: 3/5                      72 pages, 1963

Aug 8, 2008


by Susan Meredith

This book about hamsters is very cute and informative. It has a lot more information in it than the last one we read, but my four year old was so intrigued by the pictures and charm of hamsters she wanted to read it all in one sitting. So we did. Like the other books on pet care we've been recently perusing, Hamsters discusses the pets' origins, needs and care. It also tells about the differences between syrian (or golden) hamsters and dwarf hamsters, how to understand your hamster's natural behavior, and how to tame it. I learned some interesting things about these small creatures- like they will eat their own droppings (yuck!) and like treats of yogurt (yum!) My daughter and I were both intrigued by the idea of building hamster runs or mazes out of empty tissue boxes, cardboard toilet paper rolls and paper towel tubes. It looks like fun, and a two-page spread explains how. It appears that a hamster would be a better choice of pet for us than mice, as they can adjust to waking up in the early evening for play, and you can let them roam the house in an exercise ball. One of the great things about this book is the illustrations- a mixture of photos and cute cartoon-like drawings- very engaging. A negative aspect was the inclusion of "internet links" as stated on the cover. This proved to consist of nothing more than a certain website mentioned repeatedly at the top of numerous pages. It was always the same link, and not to a site about hamsters, but a search engine where you'd have to do more navigating to find what you want. I found that quite irritating and pointless.

Rating: 3/5                      32 pages, 2004

To Everything There is a Season

by Dr. Alice G. Miller

This is a book about a garden, written by a christian psychotherapist. It's mostly about gardening as a spiritual experience and journey of growth, as far as I can tell. I really liked the conversational tone, personal stories, and some of the quotes. There are lovely line drawings of plants decorating the pages, and a hand-drawn map of the author's extensive gardens in the back. It's the kind of look I'd like if I had so much land- mature trees forming a small woodland, ferny undergrowth, flowers for the butterflies, wandering paths.... but reading about it all became rather ho-hum. When I dropped it on the floor in a gesture of dismissal my husband asked about the book's premise. I told him (the first two sentences here) and he said in mild surprise: "and you thought that would be good?" I shrugged. It seemed so in the beginning, but turns out that To Everything There is a Season just isn't the book for me right now.

Abandoned                        163 pages, 2005

Aug 7, 2008


by Rebecca Sjonger and Bobbie Kalman

The second book I read to my daughter about small pets. It is written for ages 6-12, but she found it quite comprehensible broken down in three shorter readings with lots of discussion. Mice gives easily understood info on the pet house mouse and its care. Especially helpful are a few short lists of questions to help you decide if a mouse pet is right for you. I have decided mice are not for us. Mainly because mice are nocturnal- they sleep all day, and may be provoked to bite if startled awake. Also because you cannot let a pet mouse run around loose to play- our old house has too many small holes and crannies, exposed electric cords, and two cats! I can just picture the first time she would try to hold her pet, it jumping down and disappearing fast. Or getting eaten. Our cats are very good mousers.

My daughter is not convinced. When throughout the book I pointed out to her various reasons a mouse might not be the best pet she always had a quick response. When I told her the mouse sleeps all day so she won't have much time to play with it she said "I'll just wake him up!" I said what if Daddy's allergic? and she replied "We'll keep the mousie in the mudroom. Daddy never goes in there." Then we tried to think of a safe place to keep a mouse away from our cats, and she got more creative. Her suggestions were: shut up in a dresser drawer, inside my jewelry box, on top of the curtain rod, under daddy's pillow, or inside the furnace! What a three-year-old will think of!

I have only one criticism of the book and that is the illustrations. Most are nice photographs, but there are a few drawings, and they're terrible. One page of drawings is used to show how mice communicate with body language, but my daughter assumed it was telling you about mice that are old, sick and have fleas, because they all look so poorly!

Rating: 3/5                      32 pages, 2004

Paths of Desire

The Passions of a Suburban Gardener
by Dominique Browning

I wanted to read a novelistic book about gardening, and what better than one written by an author whose backyard garden was in the suburbs, like me? But Paths of Desire, promising at the beginning, failed to keep my attention after some forty pages. I got tired of reading about the history and architecture of her house, the difficulties in rebuilding a collapsed wall, the arguments with neighbors over trees. I wanted to read about horiculture. I began skimming passages (always a bad sign) and then skipped to the chapter about vermin. Sadly, even the descriptions of her small war against raccoons and skunks was uninteresting. So I quit.

Abandoned ..0/5..... 237 pages, 2004

Aug 6, 2008

Animal Crackers

by Hannah Tinti

I don't quite know what to say about this book. I picked it up totally on a whim from a used bookstore, curious and intrigued by the descriptions inside the flap. Animal Crackers contains eleven short stories, which all feature animals, but not in ways I expected at all. I approached them at random, opening to whichever caught my attention when I had a moment to turn pages. The first story I read, about a boy who throws his pet rabbit out the window to see if it can fly, horrified me. The last one, about an italian boy who becomes a hit man, with some symbolic reference to buffalo- was totally uninteresting. The rest of the stories struck me as deeply ironic, mysterious and rooted firmly in a graphic, gritty reality.

In one, the animals take center stage- three giraffes in a zoo who pretend to be dead in attempt to force their demands on the zookeeper. In others the animals are minor figures that nevertheless loom large- a dog innocently walks through a murder scene, the son of a turkey farmer runs away from home with two classmates, a dead kitten is found in the closet of a disturbed boy. My favorite story was that of an artist who is repainting the background scenery of displays in a natural history museum- and through the glass sees the stuffed bear in the hall come terrifyingly to life. In many of the stories the animals are victimized or used; mirroring some aspect of the main character's inner nature or circumstances. It feels like they are the key to each story's puzzle but that I understood none of them; quietly in the background they are shouting out a mute message I fail to hear. So even though I find it all disturbing and downright creepy, I'm shelving this book to read again one day, and see if I can't figure out the elusive significance of the animals here- I want to crack the kernels of meaning to their core.

Strange that in this collection, I felt the author's intelligence shining through a carefully crafted story that I found perplexing, disconcerting and yet utterly fascinating, but with Capote the similar lack of understanding left me totally untouched and bored. Is it just the presence of the animals? Or something more?

Rating: 3/5                   197 pages, 2004


A Pet's Life
by Anita Ganeri

My daughter, almost four years old, wants a pet of her own. I feel she's not old enough to take care of a pet by herself (or avoid squeezing it to death). So I agreed (stalling) we will just begin by learning about different kinds of small pets now, and find out which is most suitable, for when she is older. Today we checked out a small pile of juvenile nonfiction titles on keeping fish and small mammals. I don't want the responsibility of a puppy yet (or ever, I'm more fond of cats) and I have no experience with reptiles or birds, so this seemed a good place to start.

The first title I read to her was A Pet's Life: Goldfish. It was perfectly suited to her age and scope of interest. It gives very basic information on how to choose a healthy goldfish, set up the tank, feed it properly and keep its environment clean. All in brief paragraphs with simple sentences and bright photographs. We were both pleasantly surprised to learn that you can feed a goldfish fresh chopped lettuce or spinach. At the end of the book is a brief list of facts (and suggestions for further reading)- my daughter didn't want to hear them, she'd already got all the info she needed! But I found a few things interesting- like that the Chinese first kept pet goldfish 4,500 years ago and the oldest living goldfish survived to the incredible age of fifty. Average lifespan of a well-cared for goldfish is about 25 years. This was news to me- the ones in our house growing up were always rather short-lived (weeks alone in the fishbowl, never more than a year or two when I had a proper tank). So apparently I've got more learning to do as well, if we're going to keep fish!

Rating: 3/5                   32 pages, 2003

Aug 5, 2008

The Nursing Mother's Guide to Weaning

by Kathleen Huggins and Linda Zeidrich

This book is full of information on historical aspects of breastfeeding, weaning practices in other cultures, why formula could be bad for your baby, various reasons you'd want to wean at different ages, solutions to breastfeeding difficulties and how to juggle nursing with work. The focus seems to be more on continuing breastfeeding as long as possible, with brief instructions on how to wean "if you must" (as the tone implies). Each section discusses a different age group: when your child is younger than four months old, between four and twelve months, one to two years, and over three years old. The first actual weaning instruction isn't until page 73 (halfway through the book) and total pages on that subject only comprise 44 of the total book. If I hadn't happened to read this book before I was ready to wean my daughter, I think I would have found it very frustrating. It's very useful if you need practical information on breastfeeding, especially in regards to the benefits, nutrition, your child's behavior and common setbacks. But if you really want to wean you child, The Nursing Mother's Guide to Weaning is more apt to make you change your mind, or feel guilty about it. I wish it had a different title, so I could give it a better recommendation! Because I did like reading it, and found it to be well-written, but the title felt misleading.

Rating: 2/5                 196 pages, 1994

Aug 4, 2008

The Pitiful Gardener's Handbook

Successful Gardening in Spite of Yourself
by Connie Eden and Tracy Cheney

This is a gardening book for beginners. The Pitiful Gardener's Handbook is designed to give you confidence in gardening (and no longer feel like a pitiful "brown thumb"). It provides basic information on choosing plants, how to transplant, prune, compost, fertilize, etc. Emphasis is on how to make gardening easier by knowing what kind of plants will thrive in your gardening site (so they don't die easily), understanding what kind of gardener you are (you can choose plants that match the type of gardening chores you won't avoid or forget to do) and working with Mother Nature (instead of against her). Most of the stuff here I already knew from growing up helping in my mom's garden. Some info was new to me, and I particularly appreciated the brief explanation of descriptive words in some plants' scientific names- so when reading them you automatically know important things about those plants- like they do well in sun, or have a certain color of flower, or creep all over the ground. There's nothing really spectacular about this book, but it is quite useful for novice gardeners and a very quick, easy read.

Rating: 3/5                     175 pages, 1999

Aug 2, 2008

The Parrot's Lament

by Eugene Linden

This is another book full of anecdotes about animals displaying intelligence. "True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence, and Ingenuity, " the long subtitle informs. Stories in The Parrot's Lament have been collected from zookeepers, animal researchers, gamekeepers, hunters and pet owners. Although most of the focus subjects are dolphins and great apes, there are also examples of many other species including parrots, pigs, leopards, dogs, housecats, etc. Animals are shown displaying playfulness and creativity, understanding others' state of mind and practicing deceit, ingeniously making tools and finding means to escape enclosures, altruistically assisting other species in need of help or comfort and making friendships with dissimilar animals, sometimes even those who are usually their enemies. Some of the stories are rather far-fetched and hard to believe, but most were entertaining and though-provoking. To balance it all out a little bit, Linden also includes some information from research on animal cognition and emotions. An enjoyable read, especially if you're an animal lover!

Rating: 3/5                       224 pages, 1999

Aug 1, 2008

Weedless Gardening

by Lee Reich

For the experienced gardener, this book may have nothing new. But for me, it was very useful indeed. Weedless Gardening explains how to garden "from the top down." The idea is to disturb the soil as little as possible. So instead of turning everything under each spring, you layer stuff on top to smother weeds and feed the plants. I had never heard of this method before. My mother always tilled her garden. I did, too- and it was a tedious, back-breaking chore that I put off for weeks. Made more difficult by the fact we have clay soil- slick and heavy when wet, rock-hard when dry. I have to admit I felt really proud and satisfied to look over the freshly turned, evenly spread dark earth after tilling.

Reich explains very thoroughly why tilling actually creates more of a weed problem, and how respecting the soil by leaving it virtually untouched gives you healthier plants and significantly less weeds. He outlines each step in setting up such a garden, with lots of particulars. Most of it is focused on gardening for vegetables, but there are also two sections at the end about how to use the "weedless gardening" method for flower beds, shrubs, newly planted trees, and decorative meadows. I found it very useful indeed, took lots of notes and intend to try it out with a small patch I'm preparing under my kitchen window for fall lettuces and cabbage. If the amazon reviews are any indication (yes, I still read them to judge a book by, even though I know they're often very biased) most people who have tried this method got wonderful results.

One interesting fact I learned. Ever wonder what a bell jar was originally for? In France they used to put glass bell jars over individual plants to create a miniature greenhouse effect, and grow produce out of season for restaurants and markets. My long-seated curiosity about Sylvia Plath's title is finally laid to rest!

Rating: 3/5          200 pages, 2001