Sep 30, 2008

The Dragons of Blueland

by Ruth Stiles Gannett

Finished reading this book with my kid last night. We both liked it better than the last one, but still not quite as much as My Father's Dragon. Still, the story is cute and the illustrations are charming. In The Dragons of Blueland, the baby dragon has just arrived home to discover his family is trapped by a bunch of men who want to put the dragons in a zoo or circus. So he flies back to get Elmer for help. Of course Elmer packs his bag with a bunch of unexplained items. Their usefulness isn't revealed until the final escape at the end. It's not as clever as the first book, and my daughter's favorite part seemed to be re-imagining the story afterwards via the map that covers the endpapers.

My favorite illustration was a double-spread in the middle of the book showing the baby dragon hiding in a steam shovel. The only other place my daughter has ever seen such a thing is in the pages of Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. I thought it was nice that she encountered this archaic piece of machinery again, and already knew what it was. It was curious to me how the names of the characters shifted through the three different books. In the first title, the boy is always referred to as "my father" even though we know his name is Elmer. I thought this might be confusing to a child, to have a little boy constantly called "father" in the story. In the second book, he's always called Elmer, but his companion is still just "the baby dragon". The last book revels the dragon's name: Boris, and that he found his name embarassing, so never told it. But he's still called "the baby dragon" most of the time.

Rating: 3/5                       88 pages, 1951

Sep 29, 2008

Thousand Pieces of Gold

by Ruthanne Lum McCunn

In 1871 a famine swept China, and an impoverished peasant sold his young daughter into slavery. Lalu went through the hands of many abusive owners in China, then was shipped to America where she ended up sold at auction to be the slave of a Chinese saloon-keeper in California. He treated her terribly. Polly (as she was renamed in America) suffered for years under his ownership but never gave up hope of improving her situation. Eventually she was used as transaction in a gambling bet and won by a new owner, a white man called Charlie. A much kinder man, he bought Polly her freedom and together they ran a boarding house. Slowly their partnership developed into a romance, which was quite controversial back then- racism is also part of this story. Polly finally found some happiness in marriage to Charlie, but even then her trials and heartaches were not over....

Thousand Pieces of Gold is full of interesting history, especially depicting how poorly Chinese immigrants were treated on the western frontier. Unfortunately, it's not very well-written. Despite the turmoil of events it chronicles (which are based on a true story) and oppressive situations Polly lives through, the book did little to touch my emotions. It's just not very memorable. I would recommend it if you're really interested in learning more about Chinese Americans in the 1800's. But as far as inspirational stories about women overcoming adversity, it leaves a lot to be desired.

Rating: 2/5                      338 pages, 2002

Sep 28, 2008

The Wild Boy of Aveyron

by Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard
translated by George Humphry

In the late 1700's, a young boy was seen running naked in the forest near a French village. He was captured and given into the care of a widow, then escaped and survived the winter alone in the forest before being caught a second time. The villagers reported having seen a naked child in the woods some five years earlier, so many of them believed the boy had been living in the wild all that time. Some physicians from Paris examined him and decided he was not really a feral child, but simply mentally handicapped. Itard, a young medical doctor, undertook to "civilize" Victor and educate him. The Wild Boy of Aveyron is Itard's firsthand account of his attempts. It details all the painstaking methods Itard invented to try and help Victor. Most of it appears to have failed- Victor never learned to speak more than a few words, and even as an adult still behaved in many ways more like an animal than a human being. Yet Itard's work was a breakthrough in terms of how mentally handicapped children were treated, and some of his work became (as far as I understand) the foundation of modern sign language.

At the time of his discovery, people were fascinated by Victor because they thought by studying his case they could determine what divided humans from animals- what aspects were learned human behavior, or innate human nature. In the wake of The Wild Boy of Aveyron came many publications studying accounts of feral children thought to have been raised by wolves or other wild animals. The subject fascinated me, and I read half a dozen of them in 2004 (all to be featured here eventually).

Rating: 3/5 ........ 102 pages, 1894

more opinions:
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Sep 27, 2008


A Celebration of Birth
by Carroll Dunham

One of the books I read when pregnant with my daughter (she's now three). Mamatoto is a collection of cultural practices and beliefs surrounding pregnancy and birth. It's full of art, poetry, fables and stories from all around the world. Some of the content is humorous, most of it is encouraging, giving advice, or just showing how different cultures view the process of birth. The art and photographs are lovely. I remember when reading it being astonished at some of the folklore, and wish I had a copy in hand to share examples with you, but my local library doesn't have it. This is a beautiful book, wonderful for any new or expecting mother.

Rating: 4/5                     176 pages, 1992

Sep 26, 2008

The War Between the Pitiful Teachers and the Splendid Kids

by Stanley Kiesel

I don't recall how I first found this book, but I read it when I was a teen and enjoyed it, even though it's written for a younger age group. The War Between the Pitiful Teachers and the Splendid Kids is about a student rebellion in a public grade school. Led by a skinny, nerdy boy who unites all the different groups of students in sabotage against their teachers and the evil principal who wants to force them all into conformity. Eventually events escalate into outright warfare. This book is pretty funny, and at the same time makes some good points about friendship, loyalty, and the value of individuality- even if it's all very exaggerated. There's a matronly janitor who acts as mentor and spy, a wild girl who will eat anything, and of course, the bookworms. They don't want to have anything to do with the war, just sit in peace in their hidey-holes (sewer tunnels under the school), read and swap books! I think my favorite part was reading about the titles they traded and coveted. Eventually they're convinced to join in the rebellion as well. I had to search long and hard to find the sequel, Skinny Malinky Leads the War for Kidness, but it wasn't half as good as The War and I can't even remember much about it now.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 214 pages, 1980

Sep 25, 2008

Elmer and the Dragon

by Ruth Stiles Gannett

This book isn't nearly as charming as My Father's Dragon, the first in its small series. Elmer and the Dragon picks up the story immediately where the last book left off, with Elmer and the rescued baby dragon flying away from Wild Island. The dragon is trying to take Elmer home, but they get delayed by a storm and end up on an island populated solely by canaries. The canaries are suffering from "a terrible disease of curiosity," so Elmer and the dragon stay to help them out, get rewarded nicely, and then head on home. Cute, but the whole curiosity thing was rather lame. Even my daughter was not very into it this time. She didn't mind if we skipped reading it for a few days, and after looking at the pictures so often, told me she'd already "read the last chapter" and didn't even want me to finish the book! Too eager to move on to "the blue dragon book". Each copy of the trio has a different colored spine: red, yellow and blue for the last one, The Dragons of Blueland.

Rating: 2/5                     87 pages, 1950

Meme: That was Different!

from Booking Through Thursday:

What was the most unusual (for you) book you ever read? Either because the book itself was completely from out in left field somewhere, or was a genre you never read… what was furthest outside your usual comfort zone/familiar territory?

The book furthest from my familiar territory was probably The Reincarnationist, by M. J. Rose. I just don't usually read suspense novels, mysteries or thrillers (this one seemed to have elements of all three) and I certainly found out that the hunch I always had of disliking these kinds of books was true. I did not enjoy it. The writing style, the pace of the story, anything. I had to force myself to finish it. Put it aside with relief, and I doubt I will be convinced to read a similar book in a long, long time.

The absolutely strangest book I've ever picked up was Pincher Martin by William Golding. In high school Lord of the Flies was required reading, and I liked it so much I always wanted to try more of Golding's works. I'd never heard of Pincher Martin before, but found a paperback copy at the Book Thing one day. It's a book about a man stranded on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean. There's nothing to eat, no fresh water, no shelter. For pages and pages he struggles to survive on the spray-soaked rocks, his body ravaged by the elements, starvation and sickness. The description of the landscape and Martin's actions was so weird most of the time I could not tell what was going on. It got so confusing I skipped the middle and read the end, to figure out what happened. That did not make any sense either. So really I don't know if this one counts; I did not understand the book, and did not read the entire thing. It was really bizarre. Has anyone else read it? What did you think?

Sep 24, 2008

So That Others May Live

Caroline Hebard & Her Search-And-Rescue Dogs
by Hank Whittemore

So That Others May Live is the inspiring story of a woman who trained and worked with search-and-rescue dogs, particularly two german shepherds. The book describes how she became interested in doing search-and-rescue, how she acquired her dogs, methods of working with them, several missions to disaster sites (earthquakes and the Oklahoma City bombing) and her pioneering work in organizing rescue teams. It also talks about the psychological trauma of her work, especially how the search for dead victims was difficult for both her and the dogs. While the main focus is on rescue efforts at disaster sites, she also used the dogs to help search for missing persons and criminals; this is discussed briefly. The writing style of this book is pretty simple, so it's a quick read, one that will warm the heart of a dog-lover or those interested in similar types of volunteer rescue work.

Rating: 3/5                       295 pages, 1995

Sep 23, 2008

Speaker for the Dead

by Orson Scott Card

This is one of those books packed with a complex story and thought-provoking ideas. Yet at the same time it really disappointed me, and I just cannot love it the way I did Ender's Game. In Speaker for the Dead, thousands of years have passed since Ender nearly obliterated the alien Buggers, causing his name to be vilified by the universe for killing an entire race. Now mankind has discovered another form of alien life, and they don't want to repeat the same mistake. Contact is strictly guarded, so many restrictions its nearly ludicrous. Life on the new planet is complicated further by the presence of a deadly disease, the secrets of its pathology deliberately hidden by those who found its cure. Members of the scientist family involved summon a Speaker for the Dead to reveal the true desires and motivations of their dead father in a public ceremony- not knowing that the Speaker is Ender himself, who by some quirks of space travel has skipped over the centuries while only ageing minimally. Ender has his own motivations for coming to this planet- to redeem what he did to the Buggers by facilitating understanding between humans and the new aliens, and finding a place where the Bugger hive queen can come back to life.

It's a great story, fraught with moral and religious dilemmas and showing how vast misunderstandings can be, not only between the obvious alien races, but between people of the same community and family. The problem for me was that it covered so great a scope of time- and several generations- that I felt like I was just observing all the characters from a distance (rather like in Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang) and couldn't get close to any of them. Even the passages describing Ender's inner conflict and emotional moments left me unmoved. What really motivated me to get through the book was curiosity about the alien race, but there was far too little information about them. In fact, there was very little description at all, of the setting, the characters, or anything else. This is a story almost totally expressed in dialog and heated conversations, quite the opposite from the last book I read (which was a stream-of-consciousness monologue inside a teenager's head). So even though I think Speaker for the Dead is a good book for the questions it raises, and heavy moral quandaries it wrestles with, in comparison to Ender's Game it really fell flat for me. It's great for analyzing and arguing over with your spouse (we read it at about the same time), but not a book with characters who feel like friends I'd want to visit again.

Rating: 3/5                 382 pages, 1986

More opinions at:
Things Mean a Lot
An Adventure in Reading
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The Book of Flying

by Keith Miller

This gently moving story speaks in poetic language, each chapter a quiet vignette of its own. Set in an entirely imagined land, a world inhabited by fantastic beasts as well as men, where half the people have wings and can fly. The winged people and the earthbound don't really mix. Pico, lonely poet and librarian in his little town, was born wingless, but he loves a girl who has them. So he sets off on a journey to a fabled city where supposedly there's a book that can teach him to gain wings and fly.

I had high hopes for The Book of Flying. The dreamlike setting and events, the beautiful language. The wandering poet who must travel the world. It feels like one long, elaborate parable. But two things failed me. I was unable to feel anything for Pico. He seemed such a gentle, almost innocent person I really wanted to like him. Yet although chasing a dream for the love of a girl evidences some passion, his actions appeared so passive; besides a token vocal protest, he never resisted (at least as far as I got) when others forced him to do things against his character. After fifty pages I just didn't care enough about him to continue. And the sensual parts of the story bothered me (again, because of how Pico responds to them). Yet the setting and events are so imaginative the pages still tug my curiosity, so I'm setting this one aside, perhaps to return to later. Maybe I just wasn't in right mindset for it.

I first heard of this book on Chris' fantastic blog, Stuff As Dreams Are Made On. It's in such short supply I feel lucky to have acquired a copy from Paperback Swap, so I'm not going to let go of mine soon, even though it failed to enthrall me on the first reading attempt.

Abandoned                 272 pages, 2004

Sep 22, 2008

The Disapparation of James

by Anne Ursu

A family takes their two young children to the circus. Their usually shy, withdrawn little boy volunteers to be part of the clown's final magic trick. At first his parents are pleased with James' participation- then shocked, angered and dismayed when he actually disappears from the stage. The Disapparation of James then examines all the emotional turmoil following the incident- ranging from sorrow and rage to disbelief and denial. It not only covers the reactions of parents and sister, but delves into responses by the police, media, neighbors, even the clown himself. Interesting, but the brief chapters covered so many characters it was hard in the end to really care about any of them. The most intriguing one was the little girl, who seemed more determined than her parents to solve the mystery of James' disappearance. Being a parent myself, the book certainly did touch a chord: what would I do if my child suddenly vanished in a public place? how would I feel, how would I deal with it? how would I find her again? But as a reader, the lack of a final explanation for what happened to James left me feeling frustrated, and as a whole it was rather disappointing.

Rating: 2/5                     288 pages, 2003

Sep 18, 2008


by Robin McKinley

I actually finished reading this a few days ago, but my head has been too stuffy to think. So this may not be as coherent as usual, but here goes. Dragonhaven takes creatures of fantasy and puts them in the everyday world, realistic except that in this alternate universe there is a loch ness monster (with male suitors) and intelligent life on Mars (in the form of sentient lichens). Dragons are a rare, endangered species, and only exist in a few protected areas- one of which is Smokehill National Park. Jake grew up there at the park's Institute of Integrated Dragon Studies- which studies the dragons, fights to protect them, and displays their lizard relatives in a zoo to make (barely) enough money to stay afloat. Dragon conservation is a highly controversial thing- so this book has plenty of animal rights activists, conservation laws, politics, discussions of scientific attitudes, questions of animal intelligence, funding difficulties, dealings with tourists, and rescued orphaned wildlife. Most of which are ordinary things like raccoons and squirrels. It's against the law to save a dragon (because they're so dangerous). So when Jake finds an orphaned baby dragon and tries to raise it, he's doing something no one has attempted before, and causes a huge uproar. Told from Jake's point of view, the book is mostly a rambling account (with many asides) of being "mom" to the baby dragon. I liked the story, even though it requires a lot of patience to get through all Jake's wandering thoughts. There's not much action until near the end, and then some loose ends are wrapped up in the quiet final chapters.

I first heard of this title on It's All About Books.

Rating: 3/5                 342 pages, 2007

Sep 16, 2008

My Father's Dragon

by Ruth Stiles Gannett

I have been reading this book to my daughter over the past several days. I believe it is one my mother read to me as a child, but I remembered it only vaguely. My Father's Dragon is a cute little story about Elmer, a boy who runs away from home to rescue a baby dragon. The dragon is being held prisoner on an island full of wild animals. They keep him tied up next to a river, and use him to ferry across. Advised by an old alley cat he befriended, Elmer fills his backpack with some unlikely-sounding items: chewing gum, colored hair ribbons, pink lollipops, six magnifying glasses, etc. Each of these things eventually comes in handy as Elmer uses them to help and/or thwart the wild animals he meets in his journey. It's really quite clever. My daughter loved this book and all the distinctive, charming illustrations by Ruth Chrisman Gannett. She kept looking ahead at the pictures to guess what would happen next, and turning to the map across the endpapers, following the route of Elmer's journey. As soon as we were done reading the last chapter, she wanted to open the next book immediately.

Rating: 3/5                   87 pages, 1948

More opinions: Come With Me If You Want to Read

some notes

If you read any book blogs, I'm sure you've noticed that Book Blogger Appreciation Week is going on right now, organized by My Friend Amy, and tons of people have gotten involved, lots of giveaways and cool stuff going on. I did want to do something here too, but find that I just can't get into it. First, because a very nasty headcold is running through my household, and right now when my head isn't hurting, I just want to be asleep. Which is difficult with a three-year-old who doesn't quite understand that mommy isn't feeling well. So I don't have the concentration for much beyond my normal routine. Second, I have just been reading about the devestation in Texas from Hurricane Ike, and it makes my heart sick. If you go to this link on Daily Kos, especially read through the comments. I followed a few more links out, including those that went to photos, but at some point just could not handle knowing any more.

Between these two things, my heart is just not in celebration mood right now. I will be following along what others are doing, and posting when I finish a current book, but that's about it for the time being.

Sep 15, 2008


by Robin McKinley

This is the first vampire story I've ever read. I'm not big into horror or romance, so what appears typical in the vampire genre just never appealed to me. But McKinley is one of my favorite authors, and I heard this isn't your usual vampire tale. It's set in a world very like our own, only steeped in "all the mangling and malevolent kinds" of magic. Demons, werewolves, succubi, etc. The vampires are the worst, the most deadly. Society has all kinds of laws and protections against them. Most people try to stay safe, and turn a blind eye. Including Sunshine. She's a baker in a coffehouse, with a nice, ex-biker boyfriend and an eccentric old landlady. She doesn't know that magic blood is in her veins- from her missing father's side of the family. One day she drives out to an abandoned cabin on the lake for some alone time. Where she gets caught by a gang of vampires, then locked up with another vampire the gang is holding captive. Incredibly, he doesn't eat her. More incredibly, when she manages to escape, she takes him with her. And finds that in saving the vampire's life, a bond has been created between them- one which draws them together more and more, until Sunshine is pitched into a battle against evil, using abilities she never knew she had, feeling that not only are her loyalties divided, but that "they had hacked me in two and were disappearing over the horizon in different directions."

Throughout the book, Sunshine struggles to accept what she is learning about herself, and to come to terms with the unlikely alliance she has struck with one of mankind's deadliest enemies. The intricate details of the urban fantasy world McKinley created in Sunshine kept me riveted. I really liked the juxtaposition of magic and technology, and the contrast of the two main characters- one who embodied light, the other darkness. How they found themselves working together, when by nature they would be totally repelled by each other. I'm glad the author explained a lot of vampire lore, because I'm unfamiliar with most of it, and don't know how much is her own spin on things. So now I'm tempted to go read the original Bram Stoker Dracula, just to see where it all started.

Rating: 4/5                 389 pages, 2003

Sep 13, 2008

The Music of Dolphins

by Karen Hesse

It "began as a book about speech development, and evolved into something very different," the author says. The Music of Dolphins is the story of a feral child, a teenage girl found after living with dolphins in the ocean for twelve years. Rescued and taken to a research facility where scientists try to teach her to speak and act human. They also want to learn from her how dolphins communicate. Mila, the dolphin-girl, is confused by her new surroundings, ambiguous human behavior, and why people who profess to care about her keep her imprisoned. Although she likes learning English, and especially music, her greatest desire is to return to the ocean and the dolphins. Alongside her story is that of another girl, Shay, taken from neglectful parents who had kept her locked in a dark room. While Mila is constantly learning and thriving, Shay's rehabilitation goes very poorly. Told through Mila's diary, which begins as awkward sentence fragments (and presented in a very large font size), the story grows in complexity as Mila continues to learn and understand more and more (whereupon the font gets smaller). Targeted to a younger audience, the story is still well-enough crafted to be enjoyed by older readers who are interested in such examinations of human and animal nature.

Rating: 3/5                 181 pages, 1996

Sep 12, 2008

The History of Joseph Smith

by His Mother,
Lucy Mack Smith

When I began reading historical books about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I thought this one was a great find. What better source of information on Joseph Smith than his own mother's account? Through The History of Joseph Smith we get a clearer picture of his family life, their search for spiritual truth, the constant pressure and persecutions they suffered, their work in organizing and building up the early church. Several acquaintances who saw me reading this book praised it highly- but I did not find it as spiritual as they did. It was frustrating to read. There are huge gaps in the narration, many which I found confusing and inexplicable. Sometimes the text did not even make sense. When I discovered the edition I was reading had been edited by the church, I was very disappointed, and wondered what was missing from the original. I never got my hands on an earlier edition to find out but you can read something about the different versions here and here. The date I have on this post is from the edition I read; the original document was (as far as I know) first published in 1853.

Rating: 2/5 355 pages, 1954

Sep 11, 2008

The Butterfly Garden

Creating Beautiful Gardens to Attract Butterflies
by Jerry Sedenko

This book starts out with a brief overview of butterflies in art, literature and history. Then it describes a bit about butterfly biology and the life cycle of the monarch. Next is a portfolio of photos and descriptions displaying the twenty-five most common or beloved butterflies found in the United States, then an illustrated plant list of trees, shrubs, herbs and flowers that attract butterflies (with notes telling which caterpillars or adult butterflies like to feed on them). As a side note, The Butterfly Garden also has information about flowers that are attractive to moths and hummingbirds. The final section gives examples of a few garden designs that are well-suited for butterflies. The book has a nice design, pretty photographs, and taught me quite a bit about butterflies. But I felt like it was just an introduction, that every section could have included so much more. It almost came across as a juvenile nonfiction book, albeit for the older half of that audience. I enjoyed it, but was not at all satisfied and if I really want to encourage butterflies to visit my garden, feel the need to read a more in-depth book.

This is the last one from that stack of gardening books I brought home from the library so many weeks ago! I've had my fill of reading about plants, food, and gardening for now- so it's back to a lot of fantasy, fiction and (of course) books about animals of all kinds...

Rating: 2/5                  144 pages, 1991

Sep 10, 2008

Other Lives

by Andre Brink

This novel is composed of overlapping stories about three men in modern South Africa, whose lives are subtly interconnected. In the first two tales, the protagonist faces a sudden change which makes him question his very identity. A painter arrives at his studio to find an unknown family waiting for him; they enfold him into their lives with total familiarity, yet he has no idea who they are. When in confusion and guilt (at how delightful he finds this new woman who thinks she's his wife) he tries to return to the home he remembers, there ensues a Kafkaesque scene of frightening futility as he cannot locate his old apartment in the building. He has no choice but to return to his new family, now afraid of exposing how much he is a stranger to them.

The second story is about a successful white man who is an architect. He wakens one day to find that his skin color has suddenly, inexplicably changed- it is now black. At first terrified of being discovered as an intruder in his own home, he soon realizes that no one else notices anything amiss. Yet his sense of self has altered so much he cannot help acting differently to those around him- with some disturbing results.

The last story lacks a sudden, dreamlike change as impetus; its surreal elements move in undertones. It centers around the relationship of a concert pianist and the beautiful, famous soprano singer he accompanies. He is strongly attracted to her, but all her previous relationships ended badly, with suspicious and mysterious deaths. She makes him promise he will never, ever touch her. She says "I cannot risk dividing my concentration"- professing a need to focus all her passion on her music. But then they find themselves alone in her family's old, half-abandoned rambling farmhouse...

As the characters each engage in self-examination, many secrets they keep from each other become slowly revealed, betrayals that link each story to the next like threads twisted under the ground. Sex is a large part of these stories; some scenes are tender, others rather horrific. I have to say the architect's confrontation of his children's au-pair disturbed me the most. I found the first two stories more fascinating, the last one lost me at the beginning with a plethora of musical references (mostly names) unfamiliar to me. Mention of culture and political situations in South Africa went over my head as well, but did not detract from my enjoyment of the book, which I could hardly put down. Trust (or lack of it), self-identity and racism are all strong themes in Other Lives, which raises unsettling questions: how well can we know each other? and: how well do we even know ourselves? Like my last experiences reading short stories, the endings left so many unanswered puzzles- and yet that made them all the more intriguing to me.

This title I received as an ARC from Sourcebooks.

Rating: 4/5               321 pages, 2008

Sep 9, 2008

Covering Ground

Unexpected Ideas for Landscaping with Colorful, Low-Maintenance Ground Covers
by Barbara W. Ellis

Eh, I just couldn't get into this one. I think my brain is simply too saturated with gardening information right now. The first few pages I was really enjoying the easy prose and beautiful pictures, but before long my mind began just glazing over the words and sliding away. Covering Ground has a lot of how-to's and facts about selecting and growing plants to blanket the naked (or weed-ridden) earth. Not only ones that hug the soil at about the height of your lawn, but also some taller plants, low shrubs and diminutive trees are discussed. The book is nicely arranged into chapters about design, plant care, and species according to site conditions. This really is a lovely book, but I just wasn't in the right mood for it. It's one I think I'll come back to someday.

Abandoned                                224 pages, 2007

Sep 8, 2008

A Friend Like Henry

by Nuala Gardner

This is "the remarkable true story of an autistic boy and the dog that unlocked his world." When Dale was two, life at home was an endless struggle for his mother. Dale rarely spoke, never showed affection, failed to play appropriately and threw horrendous tantrums all the time. Then they got a golden retreiver named Henry, and Dale slowly began to change. Latching onto her son's acceptance of anything revolving around Henry, his mother used the dog as a foil to help Dale learn many skills and try numerous new experiences (which had heretofore been disastrous). The most surprising development to me was when his parents began impersonating Henry's voice, "talking" through the dog in order to have conversations with their son. He gradually learned to communicate directly (sans dog), use eye contact, and understand and express empathy. Dale progressed until he was able to move away from special education programs into the regular school system, and when he entered high school, anxious to fit in, he didn't tell his new friends that he had autism. They were unaware of his disability for years. Just when you begin to think the story is all over, it was discovered that Dale's little sister had autism too. Henry the dog was enlisted again (albeit in a slightly different manner) to help her as well.

Needless to say, this is a very special dog to the Gardner family. I admire their tireless efforts (when little professional help was available) and endless patience in teaching Dale. His story is really remarkable. I do wish that it had been told a little better. A Friend Like Henry is straightforward to the point of flatness, and not very fluid. The beginning is kind of awkward. Seeing as the dog was such an important part of Dale's growth and learning, I really expected him to be a central figure in the story. But a third way through the book he falls into the background. From that point on, it becomes a litany of all the different programs, schools and people who assisted Dale. The accounts of various personal struggles his mother had also receive a lot of emphasis- distracting from Dale's story. In fact, she was the only person whose personality showed through the pages- not that of Dale, or the dog, or anyone else. Through the last half of the book, I really struggled to stay interested.

This book reminded me of one I read many years ago called Karen, about a girl with cerebral palsy. Her family also struggled against public ignorance and lack of professional support, creating their own intensive therapy routine at home and working for years without seeing results before finding success beyond anyone's expectations.

I received this title from Sourcebooks. They very kindly sent me an entire catalog to browse and select from. I found quite a number of books that looked interesting, so a few more will be showing their faces here soon!

Rating: 2/5                         262 pages, 2007

Sep 7, 2008

The Yearling

by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

This morning I surveyed my half-flattened, waterlogged garden. Tropical storm Hannah passed by us yesterday. Seeing what a mess one day of heavy rain can make, I thought of a vivid passage from The Yearling, where after days of endless rain, the family's crops were totally destroyed, and what little they could salvage to bring inside promptly went moldy. I can fall back on the refrigerator and supermarket, but for them it was a sudden matter of near-starvation.

The Yearling
is set in central Florida's scrub wilderness, during the late 1800's. Its main character is the young boy Jody. His family is totally dependent upon the land for their survival, and much of the book is an ode to nature- wildlife and landscape abound in beautiful descriptions. Jody likes nothing better than to traipse off and enjoy nature by himself- or better yet, go hunting with his father. He longs for a pet, and when the opportunity to adopt an orphaned fawn presents itself, Jody is ecstatic. But when the deer grows up, it poses a serious threat to their crops. Facing what to do about his pet deer is only one of the tough decisions Jody has to make as he grows up. In fact, although the situation about the deer is pivotal in his coming of age, it is really not the focus of this book.

More than anything, this is a story about family, relationships and survival. Jody's father is a mild-mannered man, who tries to protect his son from harsh realities. His mother is far more domineering- and their contrasting personalities create an interesting family dynamic. Their closest neighbors are a clan of rough men, who alternately pose a threat, or the only nearby help in times of trouble. His best friend is a gentle, disabled boy. Jody also runs into strangers during trips to town, faces bullies at school, etc. As different dramatic events swirl around him, he veers between feeling admiration, love, disdain and hate towards other people- often experiencing opposite emotions towards the same individual. This book vividly portrays how conflicting feelings unfold inside the heart of a boy as he faces some very difficult life lessons. I highly recommend it.

Rating: 5/5                  373 pages, 1938

Sep 6, 2008

The Omnivore's Dilemma

A Natural History of Four Meals
by Michael Pollan

I enjoyed this book very much, but felt like it took me forever to read. The chapters were so packed with information, it made my head swim and periodically I had to set it aside and read something else, to let my brain rest and digest it all. The Omnivore's Dilemma is a detailed examination of how food gets to our tables- following the path of four different meals and then evaluating them in the final chapter of each section. Along the way Pollan talks about all different kinds of food sources- big agriculture, where corn has come to be included in almost every processed item you find in the grocery store; the atrocities of fast food (this section reminded me of Fast Food Nation); organic farming- both big, little and "off the grid" (think local and slow food movements); and surprisingly, food which he hunted and gathered himself from the forest. The part where the author followed a beef steer he had purchased himself brought to mind Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf. There is also a lot of overlap between The Omnivore's Dilemma and things discussed in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Pollan shares many of his experiences conducting first-hand research: visits to feedlots and cornfields, to chicken sheds and organic farms, to tracts of forestland in pursuit of wild pig and mushrooms. This book is a lot weightier than the previous ones I've read by him, but just as interesting.

I learned so many things I can't possibly mention them all. That organic food isn't always what you might think it is. That surplus war materials have been poured into the soil: fertilizers were made from ammonium nitrate left over from making explosives, and pesticides made from chemicals originally created for napalm and agent orange. That raw fish is made safer by eating it with wasabi, which has antimicrobial properties- yay for sushi! That we know next to nothing about mushrooms- they collect energy (it is speculated) from the moon, not the sun, so don't have calories, but some lunar equivalent. I never knew.

Edited to add: I have just discovered this very interesting letter which Michael Pollan wrote in response to the C.E.O. of Whole Foods "taking issue with some of the points I have made about his grocery chain in my book."

Rating: 4/5 ........ 450 pages, 2006

more opinions at:
Ardent Reader
Book Clutter

Sep 5, 2008

A Storyteller in Zion

by Orson Scott Card

This book is a collection of essays and speeches by Orson Scott Card. Mostly having to do with how writing fiction fits into the context of his religious beliefs. Unlike many LDS fiction writers (at least those I've encountered), Card's books do not feel like sappy, watered down versions of life. They include plenty of immoral characters who do terrible things, bad stuff happening to good people, who wrest with awful dilemmas. Thus I found quite interesting his essay "The Problem of Evil in Fiction." Other titles in the collection include "The Book of Mormon- Artifact or Artifice?" "Science Fiction and the Mormon Religion," and "Art as an Act of Charity." I particularly appreciated the chapters on creativity and the art of storytelling. While I don't agree with everything Card says or argues for, A Storyteller in Zion gives a very clear picture of where this author is coming from, his attitudes and the motivations behind what he writes.

Rating: 3/5                            215 pages, 1993

Meme: Pressure

I have shortened the question from Booking Through Thursday:

Have you ever felt pressured to read something because ‘everyone else’ was reading it? Have you ever given in and read the book(s) in question or do you resist?

Rarely do I succumb to this kind of pressure. I don't like reading books under feelings of obligation. It tarnishes the experience for me. I read what I like, when I want to. Even when I do read books which have gotten my attention because of their wild popularity, I usually wait until some of the hoopla has died down. I try to pick ones that I'm actually interested in personally, not just because I'm curious about why everyone else loved it (after all, they usually tell me that on their blogs!)

Sep 3, 2008

The Fire Rose

by Mercedes Lackey

One day I was reading more about Robin McKinley's Beauty online, and came across some reviews that compared it this novel by Mercedes Lackey. Of course I was curious! The Fire Rose takes the story of Beauty and the Beast and places it in San Francisco, 1905. Its main character, Rose, is a female scholar- quite the bookworm and very outspoken for women's rights. She finds herself suddenly destitute and ends up in the mansion of a recluse, assisting him in some strange research into alchemy and magic. When she finds out the truth, Rose becomes more and more involved until it seems her very life could be in danger... I liked the frequent literary references, and learning a bit more about San Francisco of the time period (although some of the seedier elements of the city were pretty distasteful). The ending pleased me- although it wasn't at all what I expected! But oh, it was difficult to get there. Even though I enjoyed the story, I did not like the manner in which it was told. Something about the prose struck me as very dull, and after about fifty pages I realized why- I could hardly find a single metaphor or simile in the entire book. The descriptions are full of details- but so straightforward it made me yawn (literally). Nevertheless, I was so curious how the story would work itself out that I forced myself to read it to the end.

There were a few other things that weakened my appreciation of the book- two inconsistencies in the text, which jumped right out at me. An obvious solution to a major dilemma in the story which I saw, but none of the characters realized (minor annoyance). Also, though this is no fault of the author's, the cover image is inaccurate. Over and over again in the story it states that the half-man, half-wolf character has misshapen paws, not hands. And the lizard creature? It's supposed to be a magical salamander. The image my mind created (based on the author's descriptions) was so far from this I can't believe the artist and I read the same book. I'm a very visual person, and every time I looked at the cover, it just bugged me.

I can see why fans of Mercedes Lackey prefer this novel to Beauty. It's much faster-paced, exciting, plenty of plot turns and suspenseful moments. But I still prefer Beauty. It may be a quieter tale, but there is more artistry in the words, and that's what enthralls me in the pages. Yet I'm not giving up on this author right away- I do want to try another of her books- any suggestions?

Rating: 2/5                        433 pages, 1995

Sep 2, 2008

Mind of the Raven

Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds
by Bernd Heinrich

Bernd Heinrich has a lifelong curiosity about ravens. This book is based on a decade of personal study. Not only did Heinrich observe ravens in the wild (from Alaska to Maine) and some kept as pets, but he also hand-raised birds in large outdoor aviaries. There he devised many experiments- half the time just to see what they would do. In many cases his experiments failed, because the ravens were too clever for him. Heinrich doesn't avoid sharing his errors and frustrations, and struggles to get his findings accepted by the scientific community. This was hampered by the informality of his studies (many were also incomplete). Yet the personal tone and numerous anecdotes make Mind of the Raven a pleasure to read. It's full of information about the birds' social interactions, relationships with predators, evidence of problem-solving, how they raise their young, what many of their calls mean, etc. Wrapped around all the facts are the author's personal opinions, conclusions and admiration for these fascinating birds.

Rating: 4/5                        432 pages, 1999

Sep 1, 2008


free books

Time to announce the winners of my Blogiversary Giveaway!
I just picked the names out of the bowl. And they are:

Tina Jewel won The World of Pooh
Nymeth of Things Mean a Lot won The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

If you would both send your physical address to jeanenevarez AT gmail DOT com, I will post your books in the next few days. Happy reading!

As a side note, Andi of Andi Lit just gave me the Brillante Blog award yesterday. It's the second time I received it, so I've already passed this one on to seven other wonderful book bloggers. Thank you so much for the recognition, Andi!

make a difference

change the world for the better
Have you ever learned about something terrible that is going on in the world, but feel there's not much you can do about it, it's so far away or removed from your influence? I often do. So Natasha of Maw Books has yet again earned my awe and admiration. She's making a difference, in the case of genocide happening right now in Darfur. I didn't know much about the problems in Sudan until I started seeing the books Natasha's read on her blog. For this entire month, she will be reading and writing in her own campaign for Darfur. You can participate by letting others know about it, donating to the cause, reading a book about it, sponsoring Natasha's reading (money goes straight to a charity organization of your chioce) and in many other ways as well! Read all about it here and here.