Oct 30, 2008

Meme: Condition

.Question from Booking Through Thursday:

Are you a spine breaker? Or a dog-earer? Do you expect to keep your books in pristine condition even after you have read them? Does watching other readers bend the cover all the way round make you flinch or squeal in pain?

I try to treat my books nice. Especially because those I add to my collection are ones I want to read again someday. I don't expect that they'll always stay pristine, and seeing battered books at the public library actually pleases me: that shows they've been read many times! At the same time, spine-breaking, dog-earing pages or laying books down open on their faces is abusive. They really shorten the life of that book. Once a paperback has its spine broken, it's all downhill from there. Eventually it's just going to fall apart. That's why I prefer to get hardbound books, and if I do end up adding a paperback (usually trade size) to my library, I try to treat them gently.

It's sometimes hard to teach my family the same respect- my daughter does things like jump on her books (augh!) or use them as construction materials (okay, but at some point the building gets abandoned and then the books end up on the floor in reach of feet). And my husband takes books along on his commute. I love helping him choose titles to read on the train, but sometimes cringe when they come back. Hardbacks are too heavy for him to want to carry about, but paperbacks get jostled around in his bag and re-emerge worse for wear. It's terrible, but I'm often reluctant to loan him one of my own books and prefer he takes along a library copy.

Oct 29, 2008

A Bevy of Beasts

by Gerald Durrell

Gerald Durrell was an animal collector and wildlife conservationist. He began his career working in the Whipsnade Zoo (in England) during the 1940's. A Bevy of Beasts tells of his early apprenticeship there. The book mostly describes his experiences working with the animals and amusing incidents which occurred. His fellow keepers were colorful characters to say the least. Most of them had little factual knowledge about the animals, but would make things up to impress the visitors. Some of the more interesting passages include Durrell quoting passages out of old books full of misconceptions about animals, then countering them with his own careful observations. I enjoyed reading this book, it has an easy style which is entertaining and moves quickly. But a few things puzzled me. Like why the zoo had husky dogs on display. Petting-zoo areas with livestock make sense to me, but dogs?

Other parts where he described animals unfamiliar to me, and remarked upon their scarce numbers, saddened me. I looked them up and found out that many are still extremely threatened or exist now only in captivity: the Arabian oryx, borneo rhino, anoa (a small kind of buffalo), white-tailed gnu (or black wildebeest) and Pere David's deer among them. I appreciated reading about how while at Whipsnade the author came to realize the role zoos take in conservation efforts, especially with captive breeding programs and education. The last chapter closes with Durrell realizing it is time to move on with his plans and leave the zoo so he can pursue his dream of collecting animals. An epilogue describes in brief that at time of its publication he had in fact established his own zoo, lays out its mission, and asks readers to donate money. This plug at the end of the book annoyed me at first. Then I read in an online biography that Durrell had run out of money because when collecting he treated the animals better than his competitors, which wasn't as profitable. He began writing about his experiences in order to gain people's interest and sympathy for the plight of wildilfe, and secure more funds.

About halfway through the book it began to feel vaguely familiar to me. Some scenes in particular, like one where a bear fills his pool with hay. When I had to look up an unfamiliar word - mangold- I knew for sure. I instantly recognized the definition, but know I've never encountered that word anywhere else! I must have read A Bevy of Beasts once before and simply forgotten. This is one of those books which changed titles when it crossed the ocean. The copy I have takes its title from the first chapter; its European publication is called Beast in My Belfry, which is the title of the last chapter.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 253 pages, 1973

Oct 28, 2008

book giveaway!

win a free book
This week I'm giving away a hardbound copy of Frank Cottrell Boyce's Millions. If you'd like enter, just leave a comment here before tue 11/04/08. The winner will be chosen at random: I'm going to write all the names on slips of paper, fold them up tight, and my kid will toss them in the air. First name to land on the book gets it. Open to US and Canada.

Oct 27, 2008

Fire and Hemlock

by Diana Wynne Jones

A story within a story within a story. That's my broad impression of Fire and Hemlock. I first read this book years ago as a teen, and puzzled through the entire thing. I knew it was a reworked fairy tale, but had no idea which one. This despite the quotes from Thomas the Rymer and the ballad of Tam Lin heading every chapter. I wasn't familiar with the ballad until later when I read Pamela Dean's Tam Lin. Now I realize (thanks to some comments at Things Mean A Lot) that Fire and Hemlock is also a retelling of Tam Lin.

The book opens with its main character, Polly, musing over some confusing memories. They began when she was ten years old, dressed up in black for Halloween and accidentally intruded upon a funeral. A kind man named Thomas Lynn helped her sneak out again (but not undetected) and she engaged him in her game of "Let's Pretend"- creating alternative identities for them both as heroes-in-training. Thus began a lifelong friendship. Lynn was a musician and frequently traveled, but for years they wrote letters back and forth full of invented stories about their hero alter egos, and he constantly sent her books. Polly values Lynn's friendship- her own father is often absent- but neither her mum or grandmother approve of him. More disturbing, some people from the funeral house are spying on her, and then aspects of the stories she and Lynn have made up begin appearing in the real world. Polly begins to realize something unusual is going on, but she can't figure out what, and when she finally does, it may just be too late...

The story was definitely less opaque to me this time, although I still don't quite understand the significance of the hemlock picture (I've read that hemlock is poisonous, but does it have some mythical properties too?) and the closing scene is very confusing, even after reading it several times I'm still not sure what happened there. It's all set in England, and I enjoyed the sense of place and occasional foreign (to me) British words. All of the characters are interesting: Polly's stern and wise grandmother, suspicious and unhappy mother, bossy extroverted friend Nina, the dignified kindly Lynn himself, and many many others. When reading the part where Polly performs in a pantomime, I immediately recalled a similar scene from another British writer- a little boy's ballet performance as a cygnet in Thursday's Children by Rumer Godden. I've got to write about her books soon. They're among some of my favorites too.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 341 pages, 1985

More opinions at:
Rhinoa's Ramblings
Jenny's Books 
Book Nut

Oct 24, 2008


by Jane Smiley

I like reading about animals. I have fond memories of college. And one of my favorite books, Tam Lin, is set on a college campus. So on those slim associations I picked this book up with curiosity at a recent library sale. I wasn't disappointed. Moo is about an agricultural university in the midwest. Although horticulture, animal husbandry and cop sciences are featured, this story is really focused on people. All the different kinds of people who intermingle their lives at the university. Students, professors and groundskeepers. Wives of the professors, workers in the cafeteria and the dean himself. A plethora of very different characters, often ignorant of how they really affect each other. There are secretaries with secret machinations, a farmer with a invention in his barn, a student who eavesdrops on his roommates and works them into his writing assignments, and in the middle of campus, an enormous hog living in an abandoned building- part of someone's experiment on the porcine lifespan (reminiscent of The Good Good Pig). The inside look at academia in Moo is full of dry humor and ironic observations. Every few pages or so I burst out laughing- until I got a third way through the book. Then some of the incidents became more sobering. And I really could have done without the explicit details in the chapter about who was sleeping with whom. The way emphasized text was presented in all caps instead of italicized bugged me for a while, too. It was still good, though. Intriguing to the end. I want to read more by this author now, although I've heard that A Thousand Acres is quite different from Moo.

Rating: 3/5                   414 pages, 1995

Oct 23, 2008

Pregnancy Stories

Real Women Share the Joys, Fears, Thrills, and Anxieties of Pregnancy from Conception to Birth
edited by Cecelia A. Cancellaro

This is a book I read several years ago when expecting my own child. I think I picked it up off a shelf at the library when browsing by subject. It intrigued me because unlike many other pregnancy books, this one isn't full of advice and medical information. Instead, it's a collection of individual experiences, women sharing what they went through and how they felt about it. The women in Pregnancy Stories come from a wide range of backgrounds. Married, single, working, stay-at-home, first-time mothers and those who've been through it before. Mothers who have an easy delivery, others with medical difficulties. Women who've longed and planned for a baby, others who were surprised at finding themselves pregnant. There are even stories of a lesbian couple, and some from the fathers' point of view. All the stories are short, and begin with a paragraph introducing the author. They're helpfully arranged chronologically, through conception, pregnancy, birth, and postpartum experiences. Compelling in their honesty and frankness, there's something every expectant mother can relate to in these stories. I remember coming away with the thought: it will never be what you expect, so prepare for anything.

Rating: 3/5                     260 pages, 2001

Oct 22, 2008


A Novel Based on the Life of the Savage of Aveyron
by Mordicai Gerstein

Victor is an account of the wild boy of Aveyron told in novel form. The story is related from several different viewpoints: of the doctor Itard, the matronly housekeeper, the young household maid, and Victor himself. The most interesting chapters (to me) were those from Victor's point of view, expressed in a stream-of-consciousness flow of sensations and impressions, clearly illustrating Victor's apparent simplicity, confusion and lack of a sense of self. Itard is portrayed as not only being compassionate and creative in his attempts to teach Victor, but also a bit obsessive and sometimes even unkind when he looses patience. The maid is afraid of Victor, not only due to his strange and often wild behavior, but because when Victor reaches puberty, his awakening feelings of s-xuality are focused upon her. There are several scenes in the book I think are unsuitable for the age group its writing style is aimed at (ages 9-12, the publication info states) so I would recommend it for an older group, or to be read with an adult who can answer the inevitable questions it raises. Like the other books I've read about this feral child, Victor addresses (in a casual format) the education of mentally afflicted children, how society treats them, and questions of what it means to be human.

Reading this book made me think strongly of two others: An Imaginary Life, by David Malouf and Listen to the Silence, by David Elliott, both fiction. The first is about the ancient Roman poet Ovid being exiled to a primitive society where he befriends a feral child, the second about an unfortunate young boy's experience inside an insane asylum. I'll be writing about these two books sometime in the future.

Rating: 3/5                      272 pages, 1998

Oct 21, 2008

Tam Lin

by Pamela Dean

This is one of my very favorite books. It's based on the old Scottish ballad of Tam Lin, retold in a modern setting. The main character is Janet, student at a liberal arts college where her father teaches. Most of this story is simply about college life. Roommates, cafeteria food, picking courses, cramming for exams, mingling with theater students who quote Shakespeare every other sentence- at least, those are the boys Janet and her friends hook up with. The theater guys are elusive, charming, and have their heads absolutely stuffed with poetry and literature. All of Janet's life has been steeped in literature, so it's no question she wants to major in English herself... or Classics, perhaps? But the Classics department here is decidedly strange, a bit creepy. In fact, a lot of strange things go on at this college (like a ghost that throws books out of windows, bagpipers that wander the campus at night, traditions involving the bust of Schiller...) though most are simply rumors and odd incidents at the edges of the story- until the end draws near, where events from the ballad get woven more tightly into the story, and Janet herself begins to realize what she's gotten involved in, and the choice she must make.

There are so many literary references in this book I felt happy companionship at the ones I knew, and wrote down lists of all the others to look up and read some day. On the other hand, I'd never heard of the titular ballad before, but just enjoyed the story of itself and then found the ballad conveniently included at the end of the book. Reading it gave me a bit more insight into the story, and made me want to read the novel all over again! Tam Lin is a delight (especially if you like bookish references and subtle fantasy) full of one young woman's search for herself in an very ordinary place where mysterious things are happening.

Rating: 5/5                468 pages, 1991

More reviews at:
Jenny's Books
Things Mean a Lot
Shelf Love

Oct 20, 2008


by Bobbie Kalman and Tammy Everts

Ever since watching the Olympics my daughter has been really interested in gymnastics. So we got a few library books on the subject. This one is fairly simple and straightforward. It describes the different events, notes the importance of warming up properly, working safely and eating healthy. In the back is a little "bio" page highlighting several of the young gymnasts pictured in the book, and a picture index. The photographs are brightly colored, with bold geometric shapes splashed across the pages which accent them and make it feel more exciting and fun. Some of the photos are rather poor, though, and a lot of them have a rainbow-colored cloth backdrop, which made it difficult to see other parts of the picture, like the equipment the gymnasts were using. My daughter kept asking "what are they doing?" and I often couldn't answer. Clearer photos and better descriptive captions would have enhanced this book a lot.

Rating: 2/5                    32 pages, 1997

Oct 18, 2008

To Catch the Lightning

A Novel of American Dreaming
by Alan Cheuse

To Catch the Lightning is a fictional account chronicling the lifework of photographer Edward Curtis: documenting all the Native American tribes. It lays out his inspiration, his dreams, and the staggering scope of his aspiration. Although Curtis' work took him all across the American continent and into Alaska, many of the scenes take place in Seattle (my hometown) or in major East Coast cities (near where I now live). I felt some affinity with the places the author described, and loved reading in the opening pages of a climb up Mount Rainier (whose profile was constantly visible on the horizon of my childhood). But I was thrown off by the frequent use of the word "Seattlean" at the beginning of the book. If I remember correctly, we always referred to ourselves as "Seattlites." Maybe natives of Seattle called themselves differently in the 1890's? I don't know. It irked me.

I was eager to read this book, since my father's home has several books graced with Edward Curtis' photographs. I wanted to read more about things like the equipment he used, how he approached the natives, their reactions to him, the details he learned of the various tribal cultures... There's very little of that. Instead, Cheuse gives the reader a behind-the-scenes story of the work and how it affected the personal lives of those involved- especially Curtis' constant struggle to secure funds, and the strain his incessant travels put on his family. And all the dreams, desires, goals and yearnings of Curtis and Jimmy Fly-Wing, a native who assisted him for many years. Strangely, the presence of William Myers, Curtis' main assistant is very marginal, in spite of the fact that the bulk of the story is narrated from his point of view. (Alternating chapters about Jimmy Fly-Wing are also in first-person, and the voice of Curtis' wife interjects from time to time via letters and journal entries). In fact, the parts narrated by Myers tell omnisciently of Curtis- his actions in scenes where Myers is absent, his inner thoughts and feelings. I kept forgetting Myers was even a character in the story, much less its narrator, until sudden I'd stumble across an "I said..." and stop: wait, who's this? This confusion of voices put me off balance and distracted me through the entire book.

Two of my favorite parts were reading of Curtis' visit to the Havasupai tribe at the bottom of the Grand Canyon- I read about them earlier in People of the Blue Water. And a sudden insight Myers had about the significance of rattlesnakes in a rain dance ceremony when they were filming it- that scene was fascinating. I also liked the parts about Jimmy Fly-Wing before he encountered white men, especially his world view and spiritual communion with animals. His converstaions with insects brought to mind a certain scene from Lord of the Flies...

This is the third book I have received from Sourcebooks. I wanted to like it so much more than I did. It was interesting and curious- and strange. I said that once while reading: "this is such a strange book" and my husband looked at me and replied: "you read a lot of strange books." Well, yeah.

Rating: 3/5                   502 pages, 2008

Read more reviews at:
Bookfoolery and Babble

Oct 17, 2008

Buried Onions

by Gary Soto

A bitter, sad and gritty little novel, Buried Onions tells the story of Eddie, a Hispanic teenager struggling in a poor neighborhood of Fresno, CA. He tries hard to immerse himself in education, find work and stay out of trouble. But the deaths of some friends and family members brings the influence of gangs into his life, and no matter what Eddie does, escape from street violence and poverty seems impossible. This book has a close association with Always Running in my mind; both having to do with Latin American teens struggling with the presence of gangs in their lives. I found Buried Onions to be the better read. It has more poetic language and an admirable main character, who tries to make good decisions and steer his life in a better direction- but the odds are just stacked against him. Like when he finally found a job doing yard work in a well-to-do suburban neighborhood across town, only to have it sabotaged because a street kid stole his employer's truck. This line from the novel sums up Eddie's frustration pretty well: "I wanted to sprint straight into the future, but I kept going in circles." There is no happy ending to this story, but its closure is honest and fitting.

Rating: 3/5               149 pages, 1997

Oct 16, 2008

sorted books continue...

sorted books project
My husband saw my last posts of "sorted books" and wanted to try it for himself. Here are his creations:

(Can you tell we just finished watching the presidential debate?) And two more that I did as well:

This is really unprecedented. Three posts in a row of nothing but book pictures! Sorry, everybody. Really, I'm going to get back to reviews tomorrow.

Oct 15, 2008

more books!

I really wasn't going to post twice today, especially since it's photos of more book stacks! But I can't help it. Because what's a birthday without a book-buying spree? Here's what I got at the public library sale, this first pile (plus two kid books) for $15:

And the rest (plus three more children's books) for $4. I just can't resist interesting-looking books for cheap, especially when the money I pay helps support my library. Most of these titles I've never heard of, they just looked good. I've read The Dragonbone Chair and Wringer before, and I think maybe The Egg and I a long time ago. Oh, and Then We Came to the End I just won from of Laura at Reading Reflections; found it in my mailbox when I came home with the library box. I love getting book packages in the mail!

The complete title of the last book in this stack is: Making Friends: Training Your Dog Positively. No, I don't have a dog. But my interest in animal behavior extends to curiosity about how they're taught, and maybe someday we'll have a dog (my daughter sure wants one!). And though there's two books in these stacks about dealing with squirrels, I don't really think of myself as having a "squirrel problem." I don't feed the birds- that would just bring them closer to my hunting cats. But I'm a bit annoyed that they're always digging holes for their nuts in my vegetable garden, so I wanted to learn a bit more about them.

The "unread" stack next to my bed has now piled up to ninety-four. I didn't think I was terribly obsessed about acquiring books before, but this is too much. I simply can't allow myself to buy (or swap) any more until I've at least reduced the pile by half!

more sorted books

sorted books project
Here's some more "stories" I made out of book titles. It's lots of fun!

forest fire



leave out the "pig" of the third title and hopefully this one will make sense. (I suppose that's cheating, to use just part of a title, but I don't care!)

Oct 14, 2008


by Bram Stoker

Even though I'd been warned that Dracula would not be what I expected, it still surprised me. I thought it would be well, more frightening. But it wasn't. Maybe I just didn't get far enough. Or maybe it's that I don't read much horror and haven't learned to appreciate the genre. Dracula is certainly very creepy, moody and ominous. The characters themselves are frightened, but I couldn't manage to feel it myself. And the story moves so slowly, building up the suspense piece by piece of isolated mysterious incidents which by themselves aren't enough to alarm the characters into action, but seen as a whole by the reader, obviously point to what's going on... well, insofar as 112 pages told me. That's as far as I got before my eyes just began glazing over and I couldn't hold attention on the page. I was rather disappointed in myself for not being able to finish it, but I also don't try to force myself through books anymore... I found it interested that Dracula is told through letters and journal entries, rather similar to Frankenstein (which I did read in its entirety).

I have to credit Jena of Muse Books Reviews for advising me in the comments on my Sunshine post. She said: "re: Dracula--it's a very slow read. I took it on when I was 16 (had to start it twice, 'cause it was hard to get into). If you're not into vampire lore, I don't think I'd recommend Dracula. Maybe an abridged version..." When she left that comment I got my feathers all ruffled because I used to pride myself (in high school) on reading fat books like the unabridged Don Quixote. My apologies, Jena. I should have listened to you!

My husband even talked me into watching Interview with a Vampire last night, to see if I'd enjoy a vampire story more in film version. Nope. It was interesting, but still didn't really do it for me.

Abandoned                 430 pages, 1897

Oct 13, 2008

Children of the Mind

by Orson Scott Card

My attempts at reading this book have been on hold because A. has been carrying it with him to read during his commute to work. This weekend when it was in the house I tried again. And felt frustrated because I just could not get back into it. It's almost pathetic that I was even trying, because there was only one part of the story that still interested me, and it just wasn't enough to carry me through the whole book. If you're planning to read the entire series, skip the following spoiler.

--- SPOILER --- Near the end of the previous book Xenocide, there was a fascinating scene where Ender unintentionally brought to life two new people who embodied his strongest, subconscious emotions. They were his greatest love and his worst nemesis: a younger memory of his sister Valentine, and Peter in his prime. So suddenly a duplicate copy of his sister and his brother come back to life were wandering around. The curious dynamics this created interested me more than any other part of the story. Especially the premise that the resurrected Peter and young Valentine weren't true individuals, but fed off of Ender's energy; reflecting his current desires and interests even as they went about their own activities. I was really curious to see how their presence in the story was resolved. -- -- END SPOILER -- --

But I just couldn't slog my way through the invented politics and history. I had just said to myself: I think I'm going to like this book, it feels more personal like Ender's Game, when I ran into the first explanation of a complex political situation steeped in asian cultures and futuristic history. It was so boring I skipped ten pages. I tried a bit more but finally gave up on page 132. It just got too tedious. I'm almost ashamed to say this, but I'm going to go read a full-length summary to find out what happened to those two characters mentioned above, satisfy my curiosity about that one thread of the story, and call it quits.

Abandoned                     370 pages, 1996

Oct 11, 2008

The Swan in My Bathtub

and Other Adventures in the Aark
by Mary Jane Stretch

A physician's daughter who loved wildlife, even as a child Mary Jane Stretch was always trying to help and champion animals. Naturally adept at healing and caring for them, she established The Aark Foundation, a wildlife rehabilitation and rescue center in Pennsylvania. This book tells about her work- how she first got involved with wildlife, learned to run a non-profit organization, worked with educating children and the public, and constantly strove to learn more about saving wild animals. Mrs. Stretch has a very no-nonsense attitude about it all: she doesn't waste time on animals that can't be saved, tries to "uninterfere" as much as possible so they can be released back into the wild, and isn't squeamish about things like collecting roadkill to feed recupterating hawks. I learned some new things about wildlife behavior from the animal stories in this book. Some are funny and heart-warming; others are sad- not all the animals can be saved. There are so many of them- owls and hawks; raccoons, squirrels and baby birds; rabbits, sunks and possums... Several get the spotlight of an entire chapter- including two orphaned baby bats and Precious, the first fawn Mrs. Stretch hand-raised. The Swan in My Bathtub is an interesting and easy read. I just discovered she's written a second book called For the Love of Wild Things, which I'd also like to read someday.

Rating: 3/5                214 pages, 1991

Oct 10, 2008

Down to a Sunless Sea

by Mathias B. Freese

I've seen many reviews of this book around the blogs lately, but it was this one at Educating Petunia that finally made me interested in reading it. Shortly after I left a comment there, the author himself offered me a copy, which I accepted. Down to a Sunless Sea is a slender volume containing fifteen short vignettes about troubled characters. Each one is a person with an aberration, be it mental, physical or psychological. I would have enjoyed this book more had I felt able to comprehend the stories. But there were too many which I could not follow, the narrative switching viewpoints or tenses too often in its few pages, the descriptions giving me no clear idea what was going on. Many are simply a character's inner monologue, describing his circumstances or feelings. Events are circumscribed by memories. Here I'll just mention those I found more readable, or which I felt spoke to me:

"I'll Make It, I Think"- a young man with cerebral palsy describes his physical handicaps and the frustrations they cause him. He just wants to be accepted as normal, yet no one can see past the differences of his body.

"Nicholas"- a student who always does poorly defends his position, scoffing at education and criticizing his teacher with faulty grammar, crude language and slang.

"Unanswerable"- a boy goes to the beach with his family. Teaching him to swim, his father throws him into the water and leaves him there to struggle out by himself. The incident taints his life forever, especially how he perceives his father's motives.

"Little Errands" - trying to do a few simple errands, a man gets hung up on constantly worrying about whether or not he mailed some letters properly or remembered to turn off the radio in his car. Most poignant is the misunderstanding all this causes between himself and a neighbor.

"Echo" - the description of a man who feels himself unable to ever get close to another person, because of a rejection in his childhood. Always pushing his friends away, preferring his solitude.

"Mortise and Tenon"- viewing an exhibition of Klimt in an art museum, the son admires the picture frames, while his mother harshly criticizes the art. She even criticizes the objects he likes in the gift shop. While I was fascinated by how this boy saw and described spaces, what the last sentence suggested about him chilled me.

"For a While, Here, in This Moment" - this one seemed to be describing the mind of someone who was paralyzed. It had the most interesting metaphors, the language bringing alive such unique and vivid images that I kept rereading the phrases, to roll them through my mind.

To me, "Alabaster" was the most moving of all the stories. A little boy eavesdrops on an old woman and her daughter, when they sit on a public bench. One day the daughter leaves and the boy sits uneasily while the old woman speaks to him. He finds her frightening, but to her his company is a comfort. It soon becomes apparent to the reader what loss and trauma this woman has suffered...

All of the stories here are unsettling, some sad and others just downright disturbing. This is a book that I feel I probably ought to approach again, to see if I can understand it better (much like Animal Crackers). But so much of it was unpleasant or frustrating to read, that I don't know if I'll ever feel inclined to do so.

Rating: 2/5                134 pages, 2007

More opinions at:
Book Chase
Educating Petunia
Trish's Reading Nook
Bookfoolery and Babble
Musings of a Bookish Kitty

Oct 9, 2008

The City of Joy

by Dominique Lapierre
translated by Kathryn Spink

My older sister is a nurse. Her favorite country to visit is India, and she's there right now, traveling around and volunteering with charities that help the poor. Some of her work has been in homes for the dying originally set up by Mother Theresa in Kolkata (spelled Calcutta in my book). I felt it was only fitting that at this time I read a book she gave me a few years ago, about the poor in that very same city. After reading it I have even greater respect and admiration for the volunteer work my sister does.

Lapierre is a journalist who spent two years in India, mostly Calcutta, learning about life in one of its most destitute slums, called Anand Nagar- the City of Joy. The story is built around two main threads: the experiences of a young Catholic priest who decided that in order to really understand the needs of the poor and serve them best, he must live right amongst them in the slum; and the struggles of a refugee family from the country, who find themselves starving in the middle of the city until their father finds work as a rickshaw puller- a job that provides for his family, but also destroys his health. I knew the two stories would meet in the end, but did not forsee the drastic circumstances. The last words of the narrative struck my heart and mind mute with astonishment. If any of you have also read this book, please let me know that you thought of that last phrase! But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The City of Joy has such a wealth of material. Many side stories of friends and acquaintances are described, giving the reader a broader sense of circumstances in the city. Two of the more interesting parts described a group of eunuchs who lived next to the priest- they had a very specific role in society- and the leper colony he visited (no one else dared). I liked reading about the kite-flying escapades, very similar to those portrayed in The Kite Runner, except these kite battles were held by grown men! There is no end to the deprivation, squalor and disease the poor suffer. Yet even living in such poverty and suffering, the people had so much joy and compassion in their hearts. Every day some kind of religious festival or cultural ritual seemed to be taking place- and the people poured themselves into the celebrations. There were always those willing to help their fellow men, even when they had next to nothing to give. The City of Joy is a moving tribute to the greatness of the human spirit, shining here though the darkest of shadows.

Rating: 4/5                    464 pages, 1985

Oct 8, 2008

sorted books

sorted book project
I saw this idea on the blog Presenting Lenore. You take a bunch of books and see if you can arrange them so that the titles tell a story. I tried it. Even though I have over 400 books on my living room shelves, it was surprisingly difficult to put some together in a way that made sense, let alone suggest any kind of story! It was frustrating, and fun. Well, here are some of my attempts. See what you can make of them (click on the pictures for a larger view):

I don't know why the picture of this last one got so small. And I just realize one title got cut off in the photo. So here's the words (punctuation added):

In the Beginning
I Dreamed of Africa
The Undiscovered Country,
A Bevy of Beasts.
Daughter of Fortune,
Into the Wild.
Strange Meeting.
I Rasie My Eyes to Say Yes.
The Subtle Knife,
A Ring of Endless Light.

If you'd like to know the authors of any of these titles, just ask! Has anyone else done this? I'd love to see your results.

Oct 7, 2008

Dreaming Water

by Gail Tsukiyama

This quiet, poignant story is about a young woman dying of a genetic disorder that makes her body age twice as fast as normal. She and her mother live alone in a house suffused with calm, going stoically through their daily routine, trying to stave off the inevitable. A sudden visitor disrupts their lives: the daughter's childhood friend, uninvited and bringing along her two kids. They haven't seen each other in ten years. After some initial awkwardness, the household of women settles down to enfold each other in loving friendship. That's what Dreaming Water felt like it was mostly about: friendship, and the mother-daughter relationship. While the characters have some friction and misunderstanding, everything gets resolved pretty quietly. Each chapter is told from a different viewpoint. Added to this are flashbacks of earlier experiences with different family members. It was hard for me to get a sense of who they all were. I found the story interesting because I'd never heard of werner syndrome before, but the character is not very memorable.

Rating: 3/5                   288 pages, 2002

Oct 6, 2008

I Am Puppy, Hear Me Yap

by Roy Blount Jr.
Photographs by Valerie Shaff

Today at the public library while looking for something on the shelf of dog books, I pulled one out at random, glanced at the cover and handed it to my four-year-old to keep her busy and quiet for a moment. It looked like it had lots of photos. Moments later she was tugging at my sleeve: "Mommy, read this book to me!" So we brought it home and read it together at bedtime.

I Am Puppy, Hear Me Yap is full of beautiful and winsome photographs of dogs (mostly puppies), each one accompanied by a little poem written from the dogs' point of view. Most are humorous or cute, some more reflective and thoughtful. I have to say the quality of the photos far excelled the writing, which seemed aimed towards young readers. Still, that made it easy for my daughter to enjoy and understand them. She loved all the pictures and hearing what "the doggies had to say." Then she'd ask me questions about each one and make up her own little backstory about them. My favorite poem was alongside an image of a dog on a beach leaping into the water exuberantly:

When I'm beside
The seaside I'm outside
Enough to get all of
My inside out.

Rating: 3/5                     112 pages, 2000

Oct 5, 2008

Burmese Days

by George Orwell

During the 1920's, while India was still under British rule, George Orwell spent some years as an officer of the Imperial Police in Burma. His first novel, Burmese Days, is based on that experience. Here a small group of Englishmen languish in their shabby elitist European Club, suffering from the stifling heat and bickering pettily amongst themselves. Particularly about a recent order they've had to admit a native Indian into their club. The protagonist is John Flory, a lonely self-depreciating man who struggles to resist the conformity of the club members. He admires and befriends a native physician, whom he wants to see become their newest member. Meanwhile the local Magistrate is finagling to ruin the doctor's reputation, poking his fingers into others' lives. Interjected into all this is Elizabeth, a shallow, attractive young woman who arrives to live with her aunt and immediately becomes the center of conflict as the men of the Club vie for her attention. Every character is flawed, none are really likable, and yet Orwell makes it so easy to sympathize with them. Full of satire and wry humor, Burmese Days is a great read. Even though the ending dissatisfied me, because everything turned out as it would in real life, and it was kind of depressing. Somehow since it's a novel, I expected a different resolution. Yet that just serves to make the novel even stronger, because it so realistically portrays so many foibles of human nature.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 287 pages, 1934

Oct 4, 2008

A Primate's Memoir

by Robert M. Sapolsky

Sapolsky decided early in life that he wanted to study primates. This book is a humorous memoir of his early experiences in the field. When he first got the the bush in East Africa, things were not quite what he had expected. A Primate's Memoir describes not only his efforts to win the trust of his study group of baboons and some of the insights he gathered from witnessing their behavior, but also how he had to learn to live in the bush and navigate a foreign culture. He discusses the ins and outs of primatology, dealings with other scientists and working with local park rangers, wildlife advocates and farmers who live adjacent to the National Park where "his" baboons live. At one point Sapolsky travels to visit the area where Diane Fossey studied gorillas, and offers some criticism about her methods. Usually when I read a book about a field scientist studying animals I find all the information about their journey, culture shock and struggles with local authorities peripheral and rather boring. But in this case it was so amusing and interesting I enjoyed that part of the story very much. Although I would have liked to know more about the baboons.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 304 pages, 2001

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Oct 3, 2008

What Happened in Hamelin

by Gloria Skurzynski

What Happened in Hamelin tells the tale of a young man who is baker's assistant in a medieval German town. A stranger comes to Hamelin and befriends the boy, enthralling him with dreams of a greater life than his narrow existence in the bakery. This man thinks up an ingenious plan to rid the town of rats, with a little help from the baker's boy. But when the job is finally done, the people refuse to pay the stranger for his services. So he plots revenge on all their children. Those are just the bare bones of this story, which has plenty of interesting details and unexpected plot twists. I liked seeing how the old fable was woven into the narrative, demonstrating how real events could easily become a mysterious fantasy when all the facts aren't known.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 177 pages, 1979

Oct 1, 2008


by Orson Scott Card

This has got to be the heaviest sci-fi book I have ever read. Even more strongly than Speaker for the Dead it plunges into philosophical debates and religious issues. Though I still felt distanced from the characters, the impossible dilemma they were struggling with drew me in. I wanted to know the outcome, just because it seemed so impossible to solve their set of problems, which kept getting more and more complicated.

In Xenocide, the fate of three sentient races (one human, two alien) depend upon the efforts of one brilliant, utterly dysfunctional family. There are threats of biological warfare, deliberate genetic manipulations, heated debates over an insidious virus which is catalyst for both life and death, and plenty of martyrdom. Lots of drama.... but again, it's all told through dialog and I didn't really feel the urgency. It continually surprised me how the characters would suddenly solve problems just by sitting around talking, or how often a breakthrough idea came from an individual who had absolutely no expertise in the matter. I certainly got here what I was missing in Speaker for the Dead- more biological information on the alien "piggies" and the foreign, insect-like mind of the Hive Queen. I usually read books which lean more towards fantasy than hardcore sci-fi. Here the explanations of invented fields of science, futuristic discoveries in physics, genetics, computer technology, space travel, etc. made little sense to me. Even after reading those passages several times over I still didn't get it, and began glossing over them, following the storyline to its final astonishing conclusion. It was more strange than I ever could have imagined, and utterly fascinating. Unexpected events so obviously pointed the story in an entirely new direction that I can't help but continue the series into its conclusion: The Children of the Mind.

I was propelled throughout reading this book by my husband's cryptic hints and comments (he read it before me). He recently found out some details about the author's personal life which affected his reading of the book. He kept seeing inconsistencies between what the author professes to believe, and messages that came through the story, and also couldn't help looking for ways the author might have written himself into the book. It distracted him so much that he declared that he didn't want to learn any more about the author. I've found that sometimes when I learn details of an author's life, I also look for ways their life experience is reflected in their books, but usually it doesn't bother me too much. What about you? Has knowing more about an author ever dampened your pleasure in reading their words?

Rating: 4/5 ........ 592 pages, 1991


blog awards

This is a belated acknowledgement of two blog awards I received during that week when I was sick. I totally forgot to mention them, and by now they've probably been passed around to everyone else, so I'm not quite sure who to give them to. The "Kreativ Blogger" award came from Janet of Across the Page, and the "Kool Kids Klub" honorary member award came from Chartroose of Bloody Hell, it's a Book Barrage! Lovely bookish ladies, thank you so much for giving me these awesome awards!