Sep 29, 2009

bookmarks giveaway

The second genet bookmark was never claimed, so I did another drawing with the random number generator. It gave me #2, which is Lezlie, of Books n' Border Collies! Congrats, Lezlie. Sending you a genet this week!

Next up is a trio of bookmarks with autumn leaves. I love it when the trees put on their fall colors, so I was in just the right mood to make these. Double-sided and laminated, with gold ribbon edging. Leave a comment to get your name in the hat. One winner will be drawn on tuesday, Oct 6th.
(click on the image for larger view)

Sep 28, 2009

The Red Pony

by John Steinbeck

I thought of this book because I saw it mentioned on The Zen Leaf among a list of banned books. I was really taken aback- what could be objectionable about The Red Pony? So I pulled my own copy (with lovely illustrations by Wesley Dennis) off the shelf to thumb through and refresh my memory.

Well, now I remember. It is kind of brutal. And the kid swears once or twice. Sorry, there will be some spoilers here, so don't read ahead if you want to avoid them.

The Red Pony is about a young boy living on a small ranch in California. It is really four short stories, which show Jody growing up, learning some bitter lessons about life and death. In the first story, Jody's father gives him a red pony, and it is his responsibility to care for it and train it. Jody delights in the pony's lively spirit and is proud to show him off to his friends. But one day the pony mistakenly gets left out in a rainstorm and becomes ill. The ranch hand, Billy Buck, tries to save the pony but it dies. The descriptions of the pony's sufferings are pretty stark. Jody is angry about the pony's death, and feels betrayed by Billy. The next story opens up with Jody venting his frustration on smaller creatures around him- teasing the dog, killing small birds, etc. Then his attention shifts when an old man shows up from the mountains. He says he was born on the ranch long ago, and now that his life is at an end, he wants to stay there until he dies. But Jody's father doesn't want him hanging around the ranch. In the third story, Jody is allowed to take his father's mare to be bred by a neighbor's stallion, and the new colt will be his. He and Billy watch carefully over the mare's pregnancy, but when it comes time for her to deliver the foal, something goes wrong and Billy must make an instant decision- to save the mare, or fulfill his promise to Jody and give him a live colt. In the last story, Jody's grandfather comes to visit, telling romanticized tales of the times he led a wagon train across the plains, to the delight of Jody, and the great annoyance of his father. Strife ensues when Jody's father openly admits he's sick of hearing his father-in-law's tales.

All the stories have a common theme of death. Jody's first colt dies, and so do his dreams (his fantasies of owning a fierce, prancing stallion were never realistic). His faith in Billy's infallible ability with horses dies. He sees the old man come to the ranch seeking a peaceful place to meet death, and being turned away. He sees his grandfather face the fact that his time of glory is passed, only interesting to small boys. And then he has to confront the reality that he can only have his longed-for colt if the mare dies. Not a pretty picture, all around. Jody isn't a nice, innocent little boy, either. But there's something in these stories that makes them vivid and real, throbbing with life, with the pain of growing up and the hardness of living on a small, poor ranch. I hate to see animals suffer as much as anyone, and yet I love this book. It is just so heartachingly real.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 120 pages, 1933

banned books

As I'm sure you know, it's Banned Books Week. I thought to participate in my own little way, I'd write this week about some books I've read that have been banned or challenged. In the TBR shelf by my bed I have a few titles from the lists of banned books: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolfe, Dubliners by James Joyce and Schindler's List. Hm. I've tried to read two of these before, and couldn't make it through. I'm going to give them another honest effort this week. Out of the several lists of banned books I've seen online, I counted up fifty-six titles that I've read. Forty-two of those are books that have a permanent place on my own shelves. That must say something for the quality of these books, objectionable material or no!

Some banned titles previously featured on this blog:
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
Black Like Me by John Griffin
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Call of the Wild by Jack London

I have to admit I haven't liked all of these books. In fact, they often make me squirm (I'm a bit of a prude, don't care to read lots of sex or violence). But at the same time, what better place to meet frightening or distasteful subjects than in a book? What better place to meet issues that often need to be faced, for the very reasons they make us want to avert our eyes? Reading these books broadens my mind and gives me lots to think on. Then, too, there are some whose spot on the list puzzles me. I have to think people who want to ban books are simply offended by or frightened of what's in them. Frightened by the influence books could have on our minds. Do you think books have such potent power?

After all, I've read Go Ask Alice and it didn't make me want to experiment with drugs (quite the opposite!) I've read all the Harry Potter books - and let my five year old kid watch the movies- and neither of us want to be a witch (we know it's just a story). My view is that if you object to what's in a book, just don't read it. I've set aside many a book (as my Abandoned list attests to) that made me too uncomfy (or, more frequently, was just boring me). But that doesn't mean I'd stop others from reading those books. Everyone should be free to read what they like.

Sep 26, 2009

The Long African Day

by Norman Myers

I think this book has sat longest of all on my shelves unread (six years). I still remember clearly when I acquired it. I was a student in San Francisco, and one of the used bookstores I liked to browse had an extensive section of coffee-table books, replete with beautiful images and heavy, glossy pages. This one always caught my eye, and finally one day I gave in and bought it. At the time I used it frequently for reference, practicing drawing from the photos of the animals.

The What an Animal Challenge II has finally motivated me to actually read it. Similar to The Marsh Lions, this book is wide in scope, describing more than forty species of animals- from the large, well-known elephants, lions and zebra through the middle ranges of antelopes, jackals and birds down to hyrax, termites and even the naked mole rat. The Long African Day is full of scientific information and statistics, light on the anecdotes and descriptive writing I usually enjoy. It examines the wildlife in view of their evolutionary development and ecological niches, also issues of land use and conservation. There is a lot of discussion about research- often noting how much was simply unknown in the 70's, and the need for further study. In that regard, it's rather outdated. Some of the attitudes feel dated, too- like the idea that animals should be conserved because we need to use them for research, or that animals solely act in mechanical response to environmental stimuli. But reading past that, the details are still interesting. Especially how it is organized.

The book sweeps across East Africa by each stage of the day- early morning, the heat of midday, afternoon, and the approach of night. Each major section discusses what the various animals are doing at that time, going on to examine further aspects of their behavior, how they fit into the environment, and what impact development, tourism, poaching, etc. has had on them. More than any other book I've read on wildlife, it reveals the complexity of how different species' lives interlock, how specific their various adaptations to the environment are, and how small-seeming changes can have far-reaching affects on many different plants and animals. The amount of information is overwhelming, and I have to admit I glossed over a few parts that started to feel dull. The photographs, mostly black-and-white, while having an older, slightly grainy look, are excellent in quality- I still pore through the book at times just for the pictures.

Rating: 3/5                  404 pages, 1972

Sep 25, 2009

a note

I have been unable to contact one of the winners of my genet bookmarks. slipbananapeel, please email me (jeanenevarez AT gmail DOT com) your address. If I don't get a reply by monday, I will draw another name from that giveaway post.

In a Green Shade

Writings from Homeground
by Allen Lacy

I feel a bit discouraged that this seems to be the week of books I don't care for. And that a lot of them are from the reading list I made for my own reading challenge, so I'm having to rework the entire list as I go! Here's another one- a collection of writings by a gardener. Just my thing. It's a nice enough book. It has a lot of information about different plants (mostly flowers) arranged by the seasons they show their colors in. Also a small section on thoughts about gardening work, and another about the author's pet peeves! But it wasn't nearly as engaging as Thalassa Cruso, and lacked the advice on horticulture that I appreciate. Lacy shares lots of info about the history of plants- their countries of origin, the persons who discovered them and made them popular. He quibbles a lot about plant names, too. But the discussion of nomenclature in Weeds in My Garden was far more interesting. I really only read a solid fifty pages, then started thumbing through to try the parts about my favorite flowers (nasturtiums) or plants I'm more familiar with (hostas and marigolds). Even the part about calling the stuff underfoot dirt or soil only vaguely annoyed me. Sorry, I had to put another one aside!

Abandoned             290 pages, 2000

Sep 23, 2009

The Worm Ouroboros

by Eric Eddison

I read this book once because I saw the title mentioned as a favorite of a character in a book I loved (how's that for a recommendation?) It's an epic-style fantasy about two warring kingdoms in a medieval world. It starts off with one man's quest to rescue his brother from the enemy and overthrow a tyrant- then the two factions battle endlessly to see who will control the entire world. Ordinary poor folk and foot soldiers die by the thousands for no good reason. The battles are huge and bloody, there's constant fighting, deceit and mass confusion going on. And sorcery, strange creatures, beautiful women who get ravished, etc etc. I can't say I've read another book so full of gory battle details (unless it's these by Richard Monaco). Looking back, I'm not sure what kept me going through the whole book- unless it was the fantastically rich, archaic language. Eddison writes like no other. His prose can be tedious, confusing and very beautiful. If you like reading epic sagas (particularly Nordic ones), or are interested in a fantasy tome that heavily influenced Tolkien's work, I could recommend The Worm Ouroboros. But for me, the storyline was too wandering and the ending frustrated me beyond belief. It's a complex work, that probably deserves a more discerning reader than myself (see below links for more appreciative reviews). It's full of heroism and romanticism, treachery and tragedy and headaches for this reader. I admire it very much but I hardly liked it at all.

Rating: 2/5                     445 pages, 1922

More opinions:
anyone else?

Sep 22, 2009

Running After Antelope

by Scott Carrier

This book wasn't really what I expected. I spotted it on a shelf in a bookstore one day and from the back cover blurb gathered that it was about the author's attempt to see if he could outrun a pronghorn antelope. The story unfolds in small pieces: his brother studies how mammals breathe while they run, theorizing that humans evolved an upright stance because they could regulate their breathing and have greater stamina for long-distance running. He wants to test the theory in person, as well as interview primitive people who are said to have run down game on foot. That in itself interested to me, but the antelope thread is interspersed with many other brief stories and vignettes. They chronicle Carrier's wanderings throughout his life, particularly his work as a fledgling journalist. The segments about his travels to Mexico, Kashmir and Cambodia were more in depth and most interesting- especially as I recently read about situations in Cambodia in Search for the Golden Moon Bear, and here a lot more light was thrown on that for me. But on the whole I found many of the pieces in Running After Antelope too brief to satisfy me. Colorful and intriguing snapshots of American life and journalistic travels, often ironic, sad, conflicting- but sometimes I was left wondering: what was the point? Belatedly I realized this book is an assemblage of radio pieces done on NPR for "This American Life." I'm not very familiar with the program; maybe if I'd heard them on the air first I would appreciate it more.

Rating: 2/5                    130 pages, 2001


Two luck winners today! each gets one of my African genet bookmarks. My daughter helped pick the names. And they are:

Esperanza and slipbananpeel !!!

Happy readers, send an email to jeanenevarez at gmail dot com with your snail mail info, and your bookmarks will be along shortly.

And just for the fun of sharing, here's a few photos of my kitten lounging atop one of my TBR piles. She's grown so big I can hardly call her "the kitten" anymore! I'm trying to think if I can work one of these into my header... (click on an image to see it larger)

Sep 21, 2009

Meme: ABC's of Me

Sandy Nawrot at You've GOTTA Read This! tagged me for this fun ABC meme several weeks ago, and I never got around to it until today. So here you go, some tidbits about me: Available or single? Nope. Married! Best Friend? my husband Cake or Pie? Cake Drink of choice? Horchata Essential item for every day use? Birkenstocks Favorite color? Blue Google? Yeah, I google everything Hometown? Born in San Francisco, grew up in Seattle. I consider Seattle my hometown. Indulgences? Chocolate. Books. Steaming hot baths. With candles. Preferably all together. January or February? um, what? Kids and their names? Isabel, 4 Life is incomplete without…? A cat in residence Marriage date? Jan 2nd. We wanted it to be New Year's Day, but that didn't happen Number of siblings? Three sisters Oranges or apples? Apples. Organic, so you can enjoy chewing the skin without a bitter taste of pesticides. Phobias and fears? Mold. Especially on food. Freaks me out. I can squash spiders and chase snakes, but have to call hubby to remove a fuzzy orange from the fruit bowl. Quote for the day? "A good novel tells us the truth about is hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author." - G.K. Chesterton Reason to smile? The smell of rain in springtime. Blooming nasturtiums. A purring cat. Season? Fall. I love the crisp smell in the air, and the colors of the leaves. Tag 3 people? Caribousmom, Jenny, Trish or anyone who wants to join in! Unknown fact about me? I played the clarinet in high school (not very well) Vegetable you hate? Turnips Worst habit? Chewing my nails X-rays you’ve had? My broken toe! Your fave food? Right now I'd love some chicken mole Zodiac sign? I don't read horoscopes, but I'm a Libra

Sep 19, 2009

Alligators and Crocodiles

by John and Deborah Behler

In the middle of reading The Long African Day, a passage about Nile crocodiles caught my interest. I know little about them, so I looked through my shelf and found another book specifically about these aquatic reptiles. Alligators and Crocodiles is an overview of all the crocodilian species: two kinds of alligators, six species of caiman, thirteen different crocodiles and the two gharials (an animal I never heard of before). The book is full of stunning photos- some of the large gators and crocs look very sinister and remind me that crocodiles are an ancient species that existed alongside dinosaurs. Others, especially the young caimans, strike me with the beauty of their patterned scales, and their fierce toothy grins. Although the book clearly explained the difference between alligators and crocodiles I know I still couldn't distinguish the two even if they were floating side by side!

I learned lots of interesting facts- did you know that the temperature in a crocodilian's nest determines what sex the hatchlings are? and they are dependent on heat to aid digestion- if their body temperature falls too low, the digestive enzymes don't function. I didn't know that while crocs can snap their jaws shut with great force, the muscles that open the jaws are relatively weak, and can easily be held closed with a rope or thick rubber band! or that some species dig burrows into mud banks, or that mother crocs are quite maternal, assisting their hatchlings to dig out of the nest, guarding them and sometimes carrying them about in her jaws. While I still find crocodiles and their relatives fearsome and unattractive beasts, I have to admit they are fascinating animals, successful predators well-adapted to their aquatic environment. There's a lot more interesting information on crocodiles and alligators in this book, although sometimes I felt that it was crowded out by all the stats on conservation (a trait it shares with the Pandas book, and probably the other one I have of the WorldLife Library, Killer Whales).

Rating: 3/5                    72 pages, 1998

Sep 18, 2009

The Old Country

by Mordicai Gerstein

Long ago, in a land simply called the Old Country, a young girl went after the fox that was stealing her family's chickens. She found herself deep in the forest, in a strangely magical place where the animals could talk. The animals demanded proof that the fox was guilty, and quickly arranged a trial where a spider was the judge, and the jury a crowd of birds. Although her grandmother had warned her never to look long into the eyes of a fox, she did- and found herself transformed into the fox's body, while the beast ran off with hers. Of course she set off at once to get her own shape back, but it's a hard task. For one thing, although she can speak to all the animals, people no longer understand her, only hear a fox's yapping. For another, her country is being ravaged by war, and her own family uprooted by the violence and suspicion. Her only hope is the assistance of a silly chicken, her pet cat who wants to be a lawyer, a bear that escaped from a circus and a shape-shifting forest sprite. Together they must navigate the horrors of war while seeking to find her family and convince the fox to trade places once again. By the end of the story, experiencing life in the fox's body has profoundly affected the girl, and she is surprised to find that choices she once thought were clear are now difficult to make. The Old Country is a wonderful meld of fairy tale and fantasy elements, a story of wartime survival and one little girl's search for herself. It's a bit grim at times, but a lively and captivating tale.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 130 pages, 2005

More opinions:
Fis-hing for Anthea
Collected Miscellany

Sep 17, 2009

No Room in the Ark

by Alan Moorehead

This book describes the author's various safaris to view wildlife in Africa during the 1950's. I really enjoyed reading his vivid descriptions of the weather, landscape and animals- especially incidents where he came into closer contact with the wildlife. One night a hyena snuck into his tent and ate his leather boots right from under his cot! Not so nice was reading his descriptions of the various native tribes- he only praised those that had tall, slender people, and spoke in really insulting and derogatory terms of others whose appearance did not please him, especially the pygmies. Some of the animals were also recipients of his prejudice- his party found wild dogs so distateful that they threw stones at them to drive them away. There is one chapter specifically about poaching operations- especially ivory- and another on how the Masai's needs for land to graze their cattle conflicted with wildlife. One of the most interesting sections of the books described a hike his party took into the foothills of Mount Muhavura in hopes of seeing moutain gorillas. He mentions some pioneering researchers- Carl Akeley and Jill Donisthorpe- whose names were new to me, as the fame of later scientists like George Schaller and Dian Fossey has eclipsed them. The final chapter is about his trip down the Nile, where I found a very interesting passage about which books are good to read while on vacation in Africa!
"In these circumstances one reads books in quite a different way. Not only do you make a re-appraisal of them, so that those which before seemed good now sometimes seem trivial; inevitably the actual experiences that happen to you on your journey get mixed up with the book you chance to have before you at the moment. And the results are often bizarre..."
He goes on to briefly discuss various genres and which make a good fit with the safari atmosphere. His final conclusion? "In the end Jane Austen may be the most rewarding." So all you Jane Austen fans, you must make the experiment of reading one of her novels next time you travel in Africa, and tell me if you agree with his assessment!

Rating: 3/5 ........ 227 pages, 1957

Sep 16, 2009

wondrous words

from the past week's reading. These new words I came across while reading The Marsh Lions:

Internecine- ".... which prevents the lions from wasting their energies in senseless internecine warfare."
Definition: fatal to both side, mutually destructible

Volplane- "At once his keen eager eyes picked out the inert shape on the ground, and he began his own stupdendous fall to earth, the wind hissing through his primary feathers as he vol-planed out of the blue."
Definition: to glide towards the earth (in a plane) with the engine cut off

Gralloch- "For long periods he would disappear altogether, patrolling the outer reaches of his territory, until the gralloched corpse of a young impala dangling from one of his larder trees announced his return."
Definition: to remove the entrails of (especially a deer)

Kopje- "The kopjes are very old."
Definition: a small hill rising up from the African plain

Ineluctable- "Her nostrils drew in a tangle of ripe odours: geese and reedbucks, buffalo dung, rotting flesh, lion, grass, wildebeest and the black ineluctable reek of the Marsh itself.
Definition: unavoidable, inescapable

Corsair- "Mysterious, elusive, enigmatic, they were the restless corsairs of the wide grass oceans."
Definition: a pirate, or a swift pirate ship

Vernal- "The sound of the grass was in the wind, and its rank vernal smell was everywhere."
Definition: occurring in the spring, or fresh and youthful

Alate- "All over the plains, their mounds and mud chimneys erupted, releasing hordes of winged alates into the waiting mouths...."
Definition: having wings, or wing-like extensions

Riparian- "There she grew up, a fierce recluse, keeping to the dense riparian forests..."
Definition: on the banks of a river

Pronk- "Some of the territorial bucks began to pronk, bouncing away in stiff-legged alarm."
Definition: to jump straight up

for more wondrous words, visit this meme's host Bermudaonion

I did want to write a book post, as I just finished No Room in the Ark. I have new words from that one, too, but not looked up yet. Either my head is too achy to think straight, or the cold medicine is making me sleepy- I'm not up to writing well, now. All the BBAW posts are putting me in a whirl. Maybe next year...

9/19/09 Edit to add: here are the ones from No Room in the Ark:

Grenadilla- "...we entered hot groves of semi-tropical fruits, oranges and grenadillas, pineapples and bananas."
Definition: fruit of the passionflower vine

Cafard- "But it was not enough to beguile loneliness, to keep the cafard at bay."
Definition: this is a French word, and I think it means depression or apathy

Propinquity- "This propinquity was altogether too much for one of our drivers who had not before this ventured far outside Nairobi."
Definition: close in time, place or relationship (in this case, close to a lion)

Intransigence- "And the issue was still further confused by the fact that the Masai, perhaps because of their very toughness and intransigence, are rather admired by white men in Africa..."
Definition: stubbornly refusing to compromise

Sep 15, 2009

bookmarks giveaway

win a free African genet bookmark!
Time for a giveaway!

I made these two bookmarks featuring the African genet. They're drawn with pen and ink and painted in watercolors. Edged with cream-colored ribbon and signed on the back (yours truly).

So this week there will be two winners! One for each. If you'd like a genet bookmark, just leave a comment here to enter the giveaway. Open until tuesday 9/21, to anyone anywhere. (Make sure there's an easy way for me to contact you, in case you win!)

Happy reading.

Sep 13, 2009

A Thousand Acres

by Jane Smiley

This was my first book for the Random Reading challenge. A few days ago I made a list of all the titles in my TBR stack, and plugged it into The number that came up was 40- A Thousand Acres. I found it at a library sale once, picked it up because I enjoyed Moo. I was expecting A Thousand Acres to be different, but not that it would be boring. Without the wry humor that permeated Moo, there was not much to keep me interested in this book. The setting is a thousand-acre farm in Iowa, a farm carefully built up from swamp to success by generations of the Cook family. When the patriarch of the family retires, he suddenly leaves the farm to his three daughters, dividing up the land. Caroline, a lawyer in the city, doesn't want it. Rose is bitter and outspoken, Ginny (the narrator) more compliant but harboring her own hurt feelings. They all have issues with their father and his rigid schedule, coldness towards his family, scorn of outsiders. Another key figure is Jess, a draft-dodger who returns to the community after fourteen years' absence. He brings new ideas about how to do things. That contrast interested me- the new methods versus traditional, or the smaller farm that did just enough to get by and be content, compared to all the other farmers who competed to have the biggest, and most profitable farm. But I didn't care about any of the characters, so I was unable to follow them through the story, to find what disaster and tragedy was looming. I put it aside at about 120 pages.

It might have been my mood that spoiled the book, though. Just when my foot is almost better, I caught an icky headcold and now my head is all stuffy. Not very good for certain kinds of reading. So I might hold onto this one, to try again later.

Abandoned               405 pages, 1991

More opinions:
Literary Lounge
Panorama of the Mountains

Sep 12, 2009


by Sydney van Scyoc

This is a really bizarre sci-fi novel. It's set on a strange world where interplanetary colonists struggled to overcome local plant life. Wild creeping grass strangled their crops, proliferate moss spores struck the people and livestock with a form of intoxication that drove them into madness. Then a sunstorm affected pregnant women with its rays, and thousands of the resulting newborns died of birth defects. The six that survived had some strange mutations- one had healing powers, one could see the future, one could commune with birds, another with the plants, etc. They were shunned by the community, and grew up wild and solitary, tended by a few nurses. At the point where I left off (about fifty pages in), they had started sneaking out of their cottage to run wild through the fields and forest, to spy on the "pilgrims" and frolic under the influence of the moss dust. I like the way Scyoc writes, and I picked up this book because Daughters of the Sunstone intrigued me and I wanted to read more by her. But Sunwaifs was just getting a little too crazy for me, and I didn't want to continue.

Abandoned                       214 pages, 1981

Sep 11, 2009

The Marsh Lions

The Story of an African Pride
by Brian Jackman

This book wasn't what I expected, but I still enjoyed reading it. I thought it was going to be all about one lion pride, and I thought it was going to be about a particular lion pride I'd seen in a tv documentary, that had adapted to hunting buffalo in the water when their marsh flooded during the rainy season. I don't think they are, but I found a website about a BBC documentary that filmed lions in this same area, apparently some years after the events chronicled in the book. In the book, Scar was a young lion in his prime, whereas on the Big Cat Diaries, he is an older lion recently pushed out of the territory by the new males coming in.

The Marsh Lions is more than just a book about lions. It's about the whole panorama of African wildlife living around the Musiara Marsh, on the borders of Kenya and Tanzania. It's the product of five years that Jonathan Scott spent photographing animals in the Masai Mara, keeping detailed notes about their behavior and interactions. He later collaborated with Jackman to have the book written and published. Not only does it tell the story of shifting dynamics among four different lion prides, but that of many other animals as well. Rhino, hippos, elephants, mongoose, zebra and many others are mentioned in the pages. One chapter follows a young wildebeest calf on its first migration journey, another tells of the vain efforts of a cheetah to raise cubs, loosing one litter after another. Yet another part of the book unfolds the story of the last pack of wild dogs to roam through the area, their numbers dwindling down until there's so few left it looks like they might not recover. With descriptive language and accurate details, the reader follows along on a midnight hunt with a hyena clan, circles the skies with the buzzards and vultures, hides in the brush with the reclusive leopard. Unlike most books I've read about African wildlife, this one doesn't have much to say about conservation or how wildlife is affected by humans. Instead, it's simply a broad picture of the animals' lives, accompanied by lots of photographs illustrating the events described.

Rating: 3/5                      224 pages, 1982

Sep 10, 2009

"National Velvet"

by Enid Bagnold

This is a story set in a small English village in the 1920's. Its protagonist is a teenage girl named Velvet, the local butcher's daughter. Although her father does well, she has lots of siblings, so there isn't enough money to indulge in her dreams- owning a horse. But when a horse considered a local nuisance- a black and white piebald with one blue eye who is constantly jumping fences and running about the streets- gets puts up for a raffle, Velvet wins. In another stroke of unexpected luck, an elderly gentleman becomes aware of her love for horses, and leaves her five ponies in his will. Now Velvet is the sudden owner of six horses. She and her sisters ride the ponies in small local gymkhanas, with various success. Then, inspired by a comment of her father's assistant who is an ex-jockey, Velvet gets the idea to train and enter the piebald in the most difficult and competitive equestrian event in the country- the Grand National steeplechase. There are several problems to overcome: her horse is wild and untrained, she's too young to enter the race, and at the time only men were allowed to participate, as it was considered too dangerous for female riders. Velvet is determined, though, and won't let any of these things stop her from pursuing her dream.

National Velvet is one of those books I almost missed falling in love with. It sat on my shelf for five or six years, and twice I tried reading it, giving up within the first twenty pages, finding it dull. But I think it just takes the right mindset and appreciation, for the third time I picked it up I fell in love with the story. It's not just about a girl who loves horses, it's also a story about growing up, about living in a large family, about life in a small coastal English village. Velvet's family is full of interesting characters and family dynamics. The sisters squabbling, keeping secrets, banding together against outsiders (or their parents). The obstinate little brother who makes the funniest remarks, so like any toddler with his fits of tears and fury. The solemn authority of their mother- who once won a medal for swimming the English channel but obscures her former glory in bustling housework. The at-first mysterious figure of Mi, the butcher's assistant, who doesn't speak of his past until the sudden influx of horses into the butcher's field can't help revealing his interest and knowledge of them. And besides her involvement with horses, Velvet has other trials- she's prone to fits of nerves and anxiety, she has to wear a gold bar wedged between her teeth to correct something (I had braces for six years, how I could relate!).

This is a wonderful book, and I wish I could find more reviews to point you to. Most of the ones I came across online were of various film adaptations, which changed the story somewhat- making Velvet an orphan, making the piebald her only horse, or a beautiful well-bred horse instead of the awkward unruly creature he was (potential hidden in an unlikely form!)

Rating: 4/5 ........ 288 pages, 1935

More opinions at:
Puss Reboots
The Brick Post
anyone else?

Sep 9, 2009

The Cats of Lamu

The Feral Cats of an Exotic African Island
by Jack Couffer

The Cats of Lamu is a beautiful book. Its author was vacationing on a small island off the coast of Kenya when he became interested in the local feral cats. He thought they looked like cats depicted in ancient Egyptian art, and was more intrigued when he learned that these cats had been on the island for hundreds of years without intermingling with other breeds. This book is the result of several years he spent living on Lamu island, studying and photographing the cats.

I first picked this book up in a San Francisco library because it has such gorgeous photos. The story is fascinating as well. Couffer describes how he first fell in love with Lamu, the island culture and his interactions with the natives (most who viewed him as slightly a crazy but harmless foreigner). There are some interesting and amusing stories that have nothing to do with the cats- like that of a local meuzzin who would sing the evening prayers next door to their garden, always studiously ignoring them as politeness required. Couffer and his wife wished to make contact with this man and let him know how they appreciated his beautiful voice, despite the fact that they were not Muslim, did not speak his language, and local etiquette frowned upon even making eye contact. They found a way to do so, and it made me smile. Another story tells about an elderly European woman who had come to the island to enjoy the tropical climate during her retirement. Being a cat lover, she was quite friendly with Couffer. One day by chance the locals came to think she could predict the future, and labeled her a witch. She enjoyed playing up this new status, until a neighboring hotel owner, getting rid of nuisance animals, was rumored to have drowned one of her favorite cats. Then she took her role as village witch seriously and made some threats, with a suprising outcome.

Most of the book however, is about the Lamu cats. Couffer watched the cats as often as he could, followed them around and took notes on their behavior. He came to recognize dozens of individuals, mapped out their territories and speculated on their family relationships. He found that most of the cats lived in groups like lion prides, associating together and sharing food resources- especially the ones that lived on the beach and ate the offal from the fishermen's daily catch. Whenever he had a question, he sought the answer. Local chickens roamed freely about the village- why did the cats not eat the baby chicks? Dogs did not live on the island- how would a Lamu cat react to meeting one? Why did the cats eagerly take advantage of some foods- the twice-yearly flight of termites- and ignore others- the hundreds of fiddler crabs on the beaches? How effective were the cats at rat control? The local people did not view the cats as pets, for the most part ignoring them- but was there more to their relationship than that? One of the more interesting chapters describes several well-meaning animal welfare groups that stepped in to vaccinate and sterilize the cats in order to improve their condition, and how that affected not only the cat population, but the sanitation of the town as well. (He was able to keep them from treating cats in his core study group to compare effects on treated populations and one left entirely alone). Couffer examines all these things (and more) with equal curiosity and insight, describing his findings in a casual, eloquent manner. It's a delight to read his book, and linger over the beautiful photographs.

Rating: 4/5                  156 pages, 1998

some photos of Lamu cats at:
Feline Meanderings

wondrous words

from Oryx and Crake:

Vermiform- "He'd used the vermiform appendix as the base on which to construct the necessary organ..."
Definition: shaped like a worm, long and thin

Inchoate- "... events had marked him, he'd had his own scars, his dark emotions. Ignorant, perhaps. Unformed, inchoate."
Definition: in an early stage, not yet fully developed

Troglodyte- "He was feeling more and more like a troglodyte."
Definition: a primitive person who lives in a cave

Plangent- "Maybe they'd pick it up now, in time for a heartfelt, plangent, and action-filled finale."
Definition: expressing sadness, or: loud and resounding

Homogenized- "Just in time, fear has homogenized his bowels."
Definition: to make uniform in consistency, especially through a fluid (ew)

Snaffle- "He fills up an empty beer bottle with boiled water, then snaffles a standard-issue micro-fibre laundry bag from the bedroom..."
Definition: to seize quickly and easily

and from The Cats of Lamu:

Raconteur- "A great raconteur, Kay was full of fun and always ready for a put-on or a joke, which the locals loved- when they understood the sometimes alien punch line."
Definition: a person skilled at telling stories

Find more new words at this meme's host: Bermudaonion.

Sep 8, 2009


There were so many entrants this time, I didn't do my usual paper-bound cut, fold and toss in a hat, but wrote a list and used the random number generator. And the winner of the panda bookmarks is

number 5-
Anna from
Diary of an Eccentric

Congrats, Anna! Send me your address and I'll mail you two pandas!

Sep 7, 2009

What An Animal II

After some thinking I've decided to change what I'm reading for the What An Animal I challenge. Mostly because all the books I listed before are ones I'd reach for anyways; I'm going to read them whether they're on my challenge list or not. And I want to stretch myself a bit. So I'm making a new list, to encourage myself to read more of the "coffee-table books" that have sat on my shelves unread, browsed so far only for their beautiful photos. They are: 

The Cats of Lamu by Jack Couffer 
The Long African Day by Norman Meyers 
The Majesty of the Horse by Dean Server 
The Wolf Almanac by Robert H. Busch 
Penguins of the World by Wayne Lynch 
Encyclopedia of the Cat by Bruce Fogle 
Marsh Lions by Brian Jackman 
Killer Whales by Sara Heimlich 
Frogs by David Badger 
Alligators and Crocodiles by John Behler 
Tigers in the Snow by Peter Matthiessen 

I'm going to try and read one a month, into February.

Oryx and Crake

by Margaret Atwood

There is something about Margaret Atwood's books that both fascinates and repels me. I found The Handmaid's Tale to be chilling, in a remote way. Cat's Eye was terribly dismal and depressing to me. And Oryx and Crake gave me the creeps- but at the same time I simply could not put it down. It is a horrifying vision of the future- a future in which humankind has altered the face of the world beyond belief. The effects of global warming are only a sidenote here; popultation growth beyond control causing a huge rift between the wealthy and poor, spawning violence and crime alongside ruthless pursuit of scientific answers to all problems. Genetic engineering and other kinds of tinkering has created things like pigs that grow human organs, fake boulders that water your lawn, babies with chosen characteristics. And society's utter moral degredation. It all eventually falls into chaos, until a man who calls himself Snowman is the only real human being left, alongside a group of genetically altered people who are impervious to many ills- sunburn, disease, hunger (they eat grass). Jealousy, hate, love? humor? There's not a lot left to make them human, so many things in their brains have been rewired by the scientist Crake. Who was once Snowman's childhood friend.

The main character in this story is Snowman and his younger self, Jimmy. The plot follows him through his daily struggle to survive in the present altered and (to him) harsh new environment, full of dangerous wildlife and killing heat. He starts off on a journey back to the ruins of civilization for supplies, on the way reminiscing on his childhood and all the events that led up to the final disaster- how he watched the world change and the part he played in key events.

And now a word about what frustrated me; skip this paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers. I found some things in this book really disturbing. Namely, the blatant s-x everywhere, and how the boys would watch violence (executions, suicides, killing of animals etc) for entertainment. I suppose this was to show how far society had gone, but it was pretty sickening. And I really didn't understand why Jimmy was so drawn to Oryx. For a character with such an important role, there wasn't much told about her, and she hardly felt real to me. Perhaps she was meant to remain a mystery. Then the ending of the book drove me crazy, because I got excited just as Snowman did, and hoped in those final pages to see a confrontation or discovery of some kind, and I got- nothing. For the first time I wanted to throw a book across the room! But then I found out that her upcoming book Year of The Flood, is a sequel to this one, so maybe my questions will be answered. I'm going to wait a while before I read it, though. I can't take this kind of heavy stuff one book after another.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 376 pages, 2003

More opinions:
Shelf Love
Book Maven's Blog

Sep 5, 2009

Enchantress from the Stars

by Sylvia Louise Engdahl

In the mood for more fantasy after finishing Daughters of the Sunstone, I simply picked up the next fantasy book off my TBR, and I was surprised to find it had a few similar themes, albeit presented in an entirely different way. Enchantress from the Stars is set in the future, when humankind has populated many different planets. Each world is in a different stage of development, some civilizations far more advanced than others. The most highly evolved peoples form the Federation, and are sworn to keep their presence secret from more primitive worlds, for fear of influencing their development in unforseen ways.

On the small green planet of Andrecia, some unenlightened space colonists have invaded, intending to wipe out the native inhabitants in order to use the planet's resources. At the same time, the Federation sends down a team of intergalactic anthropologists, who decide to intervene and save the native population- but they must do so without revealing their identity to either the natives or the colonists. What ensues is a fantastic story, as members of each group come into contact with ways of thinking and knowledge far different from their own. It is told in alternating viewpoints of the three main characters. Georyn, a native villager, is on a quest to slay the dragon that is ravaging his countryside (clearing land for the colony). Jarel, a doctor among the colonists, struggles with his conscience as he comes to realize the natives are people with real potential, not just primitives devoid of feelings as his companions think. And Elana, a teenager who snuck onto the rescue team, finds herself involved far more than she'd expected, as she must play the role of a magical enchantress to guide Georyn against a peril he cannot hope to face alone. What I really enjoyed was that each viewpoint is written in a different style- Georyn's formal and stylized like a fairytale, Elana's in the voice of a questioning teenager, Jarel straightforward in his growing outrage. It's a story about perspectives and new awareness. There's adventure, magic, philosophy, and even a love story. I wish I'd come across this book when I was younger, it would have blown me away.

Rating: 3/5                   288 pages, 1970

More opinions at:
Rebecca's Recommended Reads
Anthony Pacheco: Hack Writer

Sep 4, 2009

Every Pregnant Woman's Guide to Preventing Premature Birth

by Barbara Luke

Here's something you probably didn't know about me: I was born several months premature. When expecting my own child, I wasn't at risk for having a premature birth myself. But while browsing the library shelves for books about pregnancy, the title caught my eye and I was curious. Every Pregnant Woman's Guide to Preventing Premature Birth is based on studies done in France, where they have actually been able to lower the nation's rate of premature births per year. The main message is simply to take it easy while you're pregnant- don't push the vacuum cleaner, ride a jolting train, spend long hours on your feet, lift heavy objects, etc. Also info on how to recognize signs of premature labor and when to call the doctor. The section about maternity leave was kind of boring and felt longer than necessary, but overall this looks like a very useful book if you want to avoid the chances of being put on prolonged bed rest or having a premature baby.

Rating: 3/5                        239 pages, 1995

Sep 3, 2009

wondrous words

A day late, with this meme. Well, here are the rest of the new words I found, in Search for the Golden Moon Bear:

Ordnance- "Unexploded ordnance still infects the countryside."
Definition: weapons and other military supplies

Epiphyte- "The trees along the Mekong have epiphytes- ferns, orchids, and sometimes even cactic perch harmlessly on the branches..."
Definition: a plant that grows on another plant for support but does not take nutrients from it

Echelon- "No wonder he was still awaiting approval from the upper echelons of the Forest Department to proceed with his reintroduction plans..."
Definition: a level of power or responsibility

and from Daughters of the Sunstone:

Rapproachement- "She had made a final rapprochment with herself while she slept."
Definition: the re-establishment of friendly relations

Renege- "Finally, Reyna guessed, she had grown so oppressed by the daily terror of waking and realizing that her challenge still lay ahead that she had simply gone, impulsively, without preparation or ceremony, before she could renege."
Definition: to renounce, disown; to fail to carry out a promise or commitment

Abrogate- "Aberra had gone, abrogating every tradition of a palace daughter's leave-taking."
Definition: to abolish, do away with, cancel; especially by invested authority

Diffidently- "The hall monitor approached and spoke diffidently, his wizened face concerned."
Definition: timidly, reserved

Impinge- "Every sensory clue impinged upon her, demanding its brief moment of attention."
Definition: to trespass, encroach upon

for more wondrous words, visit Bermudaonion's Weblog


Majestic Creatures of the Wild
edited by Ian Stirling

I've been thinking about bears lately. Not only because I've read a few books about different species in the past week, but because they've also been featured in some of the fiction I read. In Reindeer Moon, the primitive people would sometimes find where a bear had denned for the winter, and dig it out for meat. In Daughters of the Sunstone, some of the people on an imaginary planet passed the winter in an induced sleep, to avoid starvation when resources were scarce, as bears do.

In Bears: Majestic Creatures of the Wild, I learned about how bears hibernate, and all kinds of other fascinating things. This is one of those heavy coffe-table type books full of beautiful photos I've had for a long time, enthralled by the pictures, but a bit intimidated by its size for reading. It was actually pretty easy to get through, most of it well-written and interesting. The book has several main sections, written by a variety of scientists. It discusses the evolutionary history of bears (answering a few of my questions about pandas), their biology and behavior. Each of the eight bear species has its own chapter, then there is a part about bears and people, everything from ancient bear myths and fables, to how bears have figured in art, to how bears have been affected by people hunting them, putting them in zoos and circuses, and finally, conservation efforts. This part dated the book somewhat, as it stated that the polar bear is the least threatened of all the bear species. Whereas whenever I think of global warming, the first thing that comes to mind is all those polar bears now facing starvation because the ice caps are melting. The only part of the book I found disappointing were the chapters on bears in mythology, culture and art. The information wasn't presented as well, some parts felt choppy, others not unclear. And this was the part I was most curious about! However, if you want an all-around book about bears, this is an excellent choice with many wonderful illustrations.

This book came to me as a library discard, with no cover. So the image shown here is one I put together from my scrap file.

Rating: 3/5 ....... 240 pages, 1993

Sep 2, 2009

Aug/Sept Reviews, DogEar Reading Challenge

Okay, I'm trying this again. If you're participating in the DogEar Reading Challenge (signup post here) this is the place to leave links to reviews for books you read in August and September (because the Mr. Linky I put up in Aug didn't work- sorry!) Make sure the link goes to your actual review post, and not the main page of your blog. List your name and the book's title. You can also mention the category you read it for in parenthsis. Like this: Name- Title (subject). If you don't have a blog, feel free to tell us a little bit about the books you read in the comments.

(If you're viewing this in a reader, you'll need to click through to see the mr. linky)

Sep 1, 2009

bookmarks giveaway!

win a free pair of panda bear bookmarks!
This week's giveaway (due to some great suggestions) is of panda bears! Aren't they cute? These are double-sided bookmarks, laminated, each about 2 x 7.5". Click on the photo to see it larger. If you'd like a chance to win this pair of pandas, just leave a comment here! The lucky name will be plucked from a hat next tuesday, 9/8.