Sep 26, 2010

weekly finds

I keep doing these posts on saturdays, even though they're supposed to be on fridays! Go here to see what the host of Friday Finds put up. Well, my energy has been kind of blah all week (or two) but here's some books I have nevertheless added to my TBR list recently (plus a link to the blogger who made me aware of each book!):

Tide Feather Snow by Miranda Weiss- Raging Bibliomania
Farm City by Novella Carpenter from Amy Reads
A Prickly Affair by Hugh Warwick- The Stay at Home Bookworm
Bad Karma by David Safier- Farm Lane Books
The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne duMaurie- Savidge Reads
Wolf Moon by Charles de Lint- Stuff as Dreams are Made On

Sep 25, 2010

How to Twist a Dragon's Tale

The Heroic Misadventures of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III 
by Cressida Cowell

In this fifth volume of Hiccup's awkward and funny viking adventures, a breed of "rouge dragon" is burning entire forests to a crisp, and a neighboring volcano threatens to erupt. Hiccup learns that instead of evacuating their home, or hopelessly standing their ground against the fearsome Exterminator dragons, he might just be able to stop the volcano from erupting by throwing the mysterious firestone back into it. So of course he sets off on the quest to do so, against his father's advice.

I'm not sure why, but this story started to loose me pretty early on. The plot is a bit more convoluted than the previous books, with explanations of various doings among sundry vikings in the past, including Hiccup's old enemy Al the Treacherous (a character I just find annoying). All of which past events affect the future course, and only Hiccup really figures out what happened and what's going on. It has to do with his parents' relationship as well, which I found a bit odd. I did like the part about the Viking tribal meeting where a special stone must be held in order to have the privilege of speaking, so of course they fought over the thing and the whole chaos was obviously meant to be the beginning of football. It was kind of clever. But my favorite character, Toothless, didn't seem to have much of a part this time, and the long pages of Hiccup arguing with Al got boring, especially as everything turned out to be not what it seemed. I get tired of that sometimes. So I didn't finish this one. Not sure if I'll try anymore in the series. I am curious about the one titled How to Break a Dragon's Heart- is it poor Toothless? but will take a good look at it before I start reading.

Abandoned ........ 246 pages, 2007

Sep 24, 2010

How to Cheat a Dragon's Curse

The Heroic Misadventures of Hiccup the Viking
 by Cressida Cowell

Further mishaps and glory of Hiccup the scrawny little viking. In this story, one of the young vikings is deathly ill from a poisonous dragon's bite, and only has a few hours to live. The only cure, according to Old Wrinkly (of unreliable predictions) is a strange, unknown vegetable called the potato (because potatoes are from America, which hadn't yet been discovered). Everyone laughs or shushes him when Hiccup says they must find a potato quickly, so he sets off on his own to fulfill a dangerous quest: sneak into enemy territory in the dead of night to steal a frozen potato that is one of other tribe's prize possessions. To make things worse, Hiccup has already antagonized the leader of this other viking tribe, and the sea surrounding their island is haunted by the enormous dreaded Doomfang dragon. But this time Hiccup has a new friend: in addition to his little mischievous dragon Toothless, he's got Camicazi at his side- a fierce viking girl who's an accomplished thief. Can the little team make it through all the dangers, procure the mysterious potato and make it back on time?

I liked a lot of this story, but some parts really bugged me. I found myself really enjoying the strings of imaginative insults (like "you pathetic pieces of earwig droppings!" or "you horrible halitosis haddock!") There are some really lively scenes including a mad escape sledding down a mountainside, and the most monstrously funny food fight ever (which also happens to be a battle). I kept picturing them as film scenes with 3-D animation, having the audience rolling. But on the other hand, I was a bit annoyed at the forumla I'm starting to see. Every one of these books opens with the young vikings out on a training lessons that goes wrong. The whole idea of Hiccup's tribe having already discovered America and "the feathered people" seemed kind of farfetched to me. And I was irritated that the potato was called "the Vegetable That No One Dares Name" (it being unlucky) because that constantly reminded me of Voldemort's title in the Harry Potter books (an extremely similar euphanism). There was also the deal about the arrow stuck in the potato which smacked of King Arthur's sword-in-the-stone episode. Now, I don't always mind it when an author borrows from other works, but for some reason here it really bothered me. Regardless, the story is quite lively and kept me chuckling, and the end had a twist that took me entirely by surprise.

Rating: 2/5 ........ 241 pages, 2006

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Sep 23, 2010

White Ruff

by Glenn Balch

Another attempt of mine to find a book by the author Glenn Balch that I like just as much as Buck, Wild, which I loved as a kid. White Ruff is a dog story very similar to Lassie Come-Home. It's about a smart valuable collie dog that originally belongs to a father and son who live up in the mountains, herding sheep and living off the land. Being a skilled sheep dog and a beautiful animal, White Ruff is stolen. He gets transporting a far distance and then the faithful dog tries to find his way back home (of course). He runs into all kinds of adventures: surviving a car wreck, being smuggled into a dog show, taking up with another herder and accidentally getting locked in a train car with a shipment of sheep. At one point he winds up in a dog pound, at another he's crammed in a pet shop cage. Lots of different people try to adopt or keep him -from wealthy spoiled kids to a wandering hobo- but the dog is always anxious to continue his journey and find his real family. He learns to judge which people to trust or flee from, and even figures out how to hitchhike. It was the end of the story that really stretched my credulity, when the dog gets involved in a circus and it turns out - so conveniently!- that the boy who originally owned him as a sheepdog had also trained him to ride horseback. So of course he gets put into a circus act and that's where his boy finds him. The final pages reminded me a lot of a certain scene in Beverly Cleary's book Ribsy, where the original owner and a new adopted owner are both vying to see who will keep the dog; they let the animal decide by seeing which one he comes to when called. This circus scene was a lot more spectacular, as the dog was called by the boy right in the middle of his circus act, but it also seemed kind of cheesy to me. I guess this story really had appeal a few decades ago; I gather it was something of a classic, but I can't see kids nowdays really enjoying it with all the exclamations of "gee whiz" and the over-handy coincidences.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 235 pages, 1958

Sep 22, 2010

A Wolf in the Family

by Jerome Hellmuth

Another book I've had a chance to read again after so many years passing I hardly remembered it. Which is kind of funny, because I mentioned this book earlier on my blog here. I like the other, newer cover image better (featured on my previous review) but this one, which is actually on my copy, is interesting too because the book blurb is right on the front! Kind of tacky, don't you think?

Right away I found it very enjoyable. Hellmuth writes in a way that is fun, informative and insightful altogether. The book reminded me a lot of Lois Crisler's Captive Wild, although this one doesn't seem quite as serious. So here's the basics: Hellmuth wanted to prove, in the 1940's, that wolves weren't all "big and bad" but social creatures that could respond to love. He raised a wolf alongside his children to prove the stereotype wrong. There were lots of things here that I had completely forgotten. The family originally lived in a New York apartment but then moved to Seattle before they got the wolf where they had a house with a large yard. He purchased two newborn wolves from a zoo in Tacoma, for a mere $30, intending to return one to the zoo once it was grown. But the smaller pup didn't make it. The surviving wolf was named Kunu, and the family attitude quickly went from trepidation and doubt to utter love and devotion to the animal. To the point that once when Hellmuth tried to physically chastise the wolf for stealing food from the refrigerator and table (it was so bad his wife could hardly cook) his daughters jumped to the wolf's defense! I had thought, with my faulty memory, that all his children were small when he got the wolf cub but it turns out only one was under 5, his three other girls were nine, twelve, and fifteen. They were not completely unprepared for living with a wild animal, having had any number of unconventional pets before (raccoons, skunks, you name it) and also had three dogs. It was really touching to see how one of his alaskan malamutes, who had recently lost her own litter, tenderly adopted the little wolf pup.

One of the most amusing things in the book, to me, was seeing how the attitudes of their neighbors and acquaintances changed (or didn't). At first they worried about telling people they had a wolf, so they passed Kunu off as the malamute's real offspring, and not many people questioned that. Later when they decided the whole experiment was pointless if they couldn't be honest about it, none of their friends believed she really was a wolf (too friendly). On the other hand, people who instantly recognized Kunu for a wolf were terrified by her friendly enthusiastic greetings, which they took to be attacks! In fact, one neighborhood which was petitioning to get rid of the wolf, completely changed their tune when Kunu frightened off some burglars she wanted to make friends with.

Near the end of the book, the Hellmuths decided they wanted puppies out of Kunu, but all their attempts to mate her with malamutes or husky dogs failed (some very amusingly so). The book ends on both a sad and happy note; the other dogs in their household passed away, leaving Kunu bereft of canine company. But then they made plans to add another wolf to the family, so that Kunu could have a mate when this new pup grew up. It left me only wanting to read more; what happened next? did the new wolf pup have an entirely different personality? did he become Kunu's mate? how did the family (and neighbors) handle living with two wolves? But I can't find any more books by him about wolves. O well. A Wolf in the Family really is an excellent book. I'm so glad I got to read it again.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 186 pages, 1964

Sep 21, 2010

Wild Animals I Have Known

by Ernest Thompson Seton

This is one of those books I read time and time again as a kid at the public library, but until very recently only had vague memories of. I remember often enough turning the pages of the borrowed book, an edition with pawprints running up and down each page margin and lots of pen-and-ink illustrations. I mentioned this book once before when I read the author's autobiography, and now finally had a chance to read it again, after finding a used copy.

Wild Animals I Have Known is a collection of stories about animals that the author claims are based on true events. One tells about a wolf famed for preying on livestock, that cleverly evaded all attempts to poison him. There is also the story of a partridge, a savvy crow that leads a large band, and a beautiful wild horse that can outrun anything. I recognized part of the story about the fox- where a vixen tried to free her captive cub by burying the chain it was tied to. And I was a bit incredulous at the rabbit story- would a mother rabbit really kick a snake to free her young? Just as interesting as the wild animal stories were two about dogs- which might just as well be called wild. The first was a dog that ran around free on the prairie, grappling with wolves and eating off dead livestock himself, in one marvelous incident assisting the author when he got caught in his own wolf traps! the other was about a "yaller dog" which had been trained to faithfully care for sheep, and when his owner ditched him on a journey, the dog waited ages at a ferry for him to return. By the time he managed to attach himself to a new master, the dog's temperament had changed entirely, and although he protected his own flock dutifully enough, he proved to be a terror to the neighboring farms. Anyhow, the stories are not all pretty. Most of them have some violent doings, animals being torn apart by gunshots or something like. There are quite a few sad or ironic endings. I liked them all the same.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 283 pages, 1941

Sep 20, 2010

The Galapagos

Exploring Darwin's Tapestry
by John Hess

This is a beautiful, beautiful book. John Hess combines gorgeous photography with lyrical words to bring the reader into an exotic, far-off place: the Galapagos islands. He describes their delicacy and harshness (I didn't know before that the islands were largely a desert environment). He talks about how the few endemic animal species have evolved specifically to survive there; mostly birds. There are only a scattering of reptiles there and no native mammals at all (unless you count ones that live mainly offshore, like the sea lions). I didn't know that penguins and flamingos live in the Galapagos, as well as some more-familiar birds like the great blue heron. The first part of the book describes the different habitats on and around the islands: the margin where the sea meets land, the dry desert areas, the upland daisy forests that get more precipitation. Many different species are mentioned in those sections, but in the later half of the book an individual chapter is dedicated to each of the seven Hess calls the "Galapagos royalty." They are the flightless cormorant, marine iguana, waved albatross, frigatebirds, Galapagos tortoise, three kinds of boobies and the swallow-tailed gull. I learned so much about these interesting and beautiful animals. Did you know that marine iguanas sneeze salt out of their bodies? that the swallow-tailed gull is the only seagull to fly and hunt at night (it eats fish and squid that glow in the dark)? that a pair of waved albatrosses will engage in courtship dances for several years before they raise their first chick together? Of course there is a lot of reflection in these pages on the evolutionary design of these animals, threats to their survival, and protective measures which have already shown signs of promise- tortoises are reared in safe enclosures until big enough to be safe from rats; invasive goats and other domestics have been eradicated from several of the islands. But Hess also tells stories about some of the animals, like a legend about how the cormorant lost its power of flight, which makes The Galapagos an even more engaging read. I really enjoyed the mix of inspired myth and factual science, all enhanced by beauty.

Found on a library shelf and borrowed.

Rating: 5/5 ........ 188 pages, 2009 pages

Sep 18, 2010


by Cornelia Funke

An imaginative adventure story revolving around books. Meggie's father restores old books, but when they suddenly pack up and visit her elderly book-obsessed aunt after she sees a sinister figure standing outside their house in the rain, Meggie suspects more is going on than just repairs on her aunt's collection. There's one particular book in her father's care that incites all kinds of interest- her father keeps it hidden, her aunt wants it so much she secretly swaps it for a different book, a very non-bookish person sends armed men to the house to wrest it from their possession, etc. Before she knows what is really happening Meggie is mixed up with kidnappers, a shifty fire-swallower and all sorts of interesting characters, all because of this one book. Even after they've narrowly escaped danger, some characters have a nagging desire to still return for the book.

It turns out that more interesting than the book Inkheart, is the secret ability her father has. I heard about it long before I read this so I don't have many qualms about telling you, although Meggie herself doesn't discover what he can do until halfway through the story. When he reads aloud, her father's voice draws characters out of the books and into real life. It sounds amazing, doesn't it? I was looking forward to this all through the pages, but it didn't play out as spectacularly as I'd hoped. In fact, I'm sorry to say, the whole story failed to really catch hold of me. I was reading along only half-interestedly and then suddenly at page 266 I thought: if I set this down now and walk away without feeling curious about what happens next, then I know I'm really not invested in this story. And that's what happened. I've been wanting to read it since last year, when I saw all the reviews going around; in particular one on Read Warbler caught my interest. But it didn't work out for me. The characters didn't feel very real. In spite of all the adventure the plot felt slow, I kept getting bored. I did like the literary quotes heading each chapter, and how I could recognize the familiar books characters mentioned; but then all the bookish metaphors and references started to feel forced. I always feel kinda bad when I don't fall in love with a book so many other readers adored. Get some second opinions below; I think I'm in the minority with my dislike here.

Abandoned ....... 534 pages, 2003

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Advanced Booking
Educating Petunia
Things Mean a Lot
A Striped Armchair
Bloggin' 'bout Books
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Book Addiction

Sep 17, 2010

challenge complete!

Yesterday I finished the What An Animal III Reading Challenge, hosted at Socrates' Book Review Blog. It might seem like something too easy for me, the reader of animal books, to take on a challenge about reading animal books! But I try to stretch myself a bit and have fun here by reading new subjects: animals I never read a whole book about them before. Hm. That sentence is kinda awkward. But I'm tired. Well! I read about kangaroos, insects and sundry small critters, deer in the woods, oceanic turtles, rats in New York City and squirrels plus other wildlife in someone's backyard. The titles (with links to my reviews) were:

Chasing Kangaroos by Tim Flannery
For Love of Insects by Thomas Eisner
The Hidden Life of Deer by Elizabeth Thomas Marshall
Voyage of the Turtle by Carl Safina
Suburban Safari by Hannah Holmes
Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan

Voyage of the Turtle and For Love of Insects were the best two, by far.

Sep 16, 2010

For Love of Insects

by Thomas Eisner

This hefty book, which weighs something like a small textbook but is actually much friendlier (in terms of readability), is all about the insect world. Eisner is an entomologist who was also fascinated by chemistry, and found a way to combine his two passions in studying how insects and other small creeping critters make use of chemicals for defense, communication and other life functions. Honestly, I almost gave up reading it on page 62 because there was so much chemistry involved and it was just over my head. But then I found by skipping over the chemical analysis parts I could still get the gist of what was going on, and read all the interesting bits. Further into the book there are more things about insect behavior that involves chemicals but is not so much about chemistry per se.

The way Eisner describes conducting his experiments really is quite interesting. He would basically take nature walks, just to see what kinds of different insects he could find, and then based on observations and brimming curiosity, create experiments to answer questions about what the insects were actually doing, or how and why they did things. Stuff like why do butterflies "puddle", how do insects circumvent the toxins plants use as defense, or what different methods bugs use to escape a spider's web. One brief study describes how an insect creates a camouflage out of its own poo, another how a caterpillar glues flower petals to its back to hide in plain sight. I knew before that bugs emit stinky smells and nasty-looking fluids when you handle them, but I didn't know that those fluids are often highly toxic to other insects, and thus used as defense. Some insects can spray acid, or secrete a sticky substance that basically glues up the mouthparts of its attacker. One even shoots mini bombs of something like cyanide!

The part I found most intriguing was about spider webs. Did you know that most spiders take their webs down during the day, and build them again at night? Of the spiders that do leave their webs up in the daytime, they weave patterns in them of a heavier, bright white thread which is easily visible. It's to keep birds from flying through their webs. Eisner describes all kinds of cool methods he used to prove this is just what was happening. Even more intriguing, he describes how on the island of Guam spiders used to commonly make these conspicuous weavings. But now, as birds have gone extinct on Guam (which I read about in Oliver Sack's book here) spiders don't weave the markings into their webs anymore. I find that so fascinating.

Well, if you've found any of this remotely interesting, you really should take a look at For the Love of Insects. I've really only scratched the surface here; there is so much more in the book than I could ever describe. It's got lots of very illuminating photographs, as well.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 447 pages, 2003

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Words by Annie
Danny Yee's Book Reviews
Julia Oldham

Sep 14, 2010

life happens

I feel like making excuses today. Not that it's useful, and if you think it lame, go ahead and skip over this post. But it makes me feel better, for some reason! My presence on the blogging scene has been waning here, lately. So much else has been going on in my life. My daughter just started her first week of kindergarten, and I'm still getting used to the change in schedule. My husband has been facing the possibility of a strike at work for the past few weeks, and we've been very worried about that (but thankfully found out last night it's not going to occur, they reached an agreement. I'm so glad!) My garden has been going through a transition from summer into fall, so I'm busy cleaning up dead plants and putting in new ones. And I just found out I'm now expecting my second child!

So all in all, I've been rather preoccupied. The original goal I had here of posting about a book every day, whether a new one I've finished or an old one I read in the past, has been sliding. I've just been keeping up with currently read books lately, and although I do have over a hundred blogs in my reader and look at all your posts every day, sadly I haven't been commenting much. It's just so hard to keep up with it all. I haven't even felt the energy to really take part in BBAW, although I'm enjoying following along with the excitement from the sidelines, as it were. But I'm still here! Still reading! Just a bit too busy to write much. As school gets settled in, the garden goes to sleep for the winter, and I get used to the idea of two kids, I'll be back in full blogging force. And then you'll get tired of me yapping here all the time about books in sundry.

Sep 12, 2010


Life, Motherhood and 180,000 Honeybees
 by Roseanne Daryle Thomas

I've been a little curious about the art of beekeeping lately, so this title caught my eye on the library shelf. I've got several other books about bees on my TBR list, as well. I think this one was a good start with the subject. It's a personal narrative of one woman's foray into beekeeping, after a painful divorce. She doesn't linger over her personal struggles, other than to show how the involvement with bees, the peace and focus this new endeavor brings her, settles some of the upheaval in her life. Most of it is about the bees, learning how to care for them, making mistakes, sourcing the local Bee Master for help, etc. There's also a love of the land, observations of nature, little tidbits on apian behavior, some quirky neighbors in her new town, and a beautiful ongoing portrait of her seven-year-old daughter, eager to dive into the newness of beekeeping alongside her mom. The writing is really engaging, so I breezed through this book in just a few days. It had my full attention.

I just found a site here which has the most amazing photograhps of honeybees, and the captions alone teach you a lot about them. Go take a look!

Rating: 3/5 ........ 228 pages, 2002

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Sep 10, 2010

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

by David Wroblewski

I've been reading and reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. It started out quite a compelling story, but halfway through I started to loose interest; it was still good, but didn't grip me as much. The writing style became a little boring to me. And I think it was also because I kept thinking about what was coming. I read too many reviews of this one before approaching it; several suggested that it was a modern retelling of Hamlet. At first I didn't see that in the narrative, but once the scene in the rain came up, I started to notice parallels and then couldn't help predicting future events, which unfolded pretty much as I expected them to. The final tragedy was more twisted and complex than I expected, but had the same end result. So to avoid giving another reader the same experience, I'll try not to tell too much here (although perhaps I have already).

So here's the gist of it: Edgar Sawtelle was born mute, on a farm where his family raised dogs. Extraordinary dogs, a completely made-up breed that was based on intelligence and response, not appearance- dogs that were remarkably receptive to human communication and direction. Edgar helped his mother train the dogs, using hand signals; his other main task was to give the new puppies names, searched out of a thick dictionary. Then his uncle showed up on the farm, and had frequent arguments and fights with his father, results of conflict stretching back through the years they grew up together. One day his father died in what appeared to be a freak accident. Grief-stricken, Edgar came to strongly resent the presence of his uncle on the farm. He began to suspect his uncle guilty of his father's death, but his attempts to prove it turned disastrous and Edgar fled the farm with three young dogs. They ran off in the woods, living a vagabond existence, scrabbling for survival. Eventually, Edgar realized he can't keep running, and the desire to get revenge on his uncle made him return to the farm, with every hope of a confrontation.

That's really just the bare bones of the story, there's so much more involved (how else do you get 500+ pages?) A bitter family entanglement, something of a murder mystery, and lots and lots of dogs. A few of the chapters are even narrated from a dog's point of view, which was very interesting. Sound appealing? give it a try. You might be unable to put this book down.

Rating: 2/5 ......... 566 pages, 2008

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Sep 6, 2010

Hanging Plants for Modern Living

by M. Jane Coleman

Okay, so this isn't really a book but more properly a booklet, or pamphlet. Or at least it feels so to me, because the binding is stapled, not sewn or stitched. It's a plant care book specifically about suspended houseplants. I've kind of taken a fancy to hanging plants lately, and so picked this one up mainly to look at the pictures. Like most plant books, it has information on specific plant care and troubleshooting problems with pests and health. It points out the special care hanging plants need, as they tend to dry out quicker. The bulk of the book is a gallery of plant species that do well or look nice in hung pots or baskets. I tend to think of trailing plants like pothos as suitable for such display, but others I'd never have thought to put up in the air are shown here too- like African violets, flowering geraniums and zebra plants. Mostly I used this book to make myself a list of all the new plants I find attractive, to add to my plant wishlist. As far as plant books go, the care information is pretty basic and the photos all look outdated; the style and decor feels very much from the seventies. I'm really only noting this book here for my own records; not really expecting anyone else will be moved to read it!

Rating: 2/5 ........ 80 pages, 1975

Sep 4, 2010

winners! picked three winners for me, from my blogiversary giveaway.

Christina wins the puffins

Sandy Nawrot wins the koalas

and Carolsnotebook wins the tigers!

Happy readers, just email your address to jeanenevarez (at) gmail (dot) com and I'll send them out to you!

Sep 3, 2010


Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants 
by Robert Sullivan

I was disappointed in Rats. I did not enjoy it much. At halfway through the book I started just skimming, and reading the parts that were actually about rats, but even those got to be dull or just plain gross. I was expecting the book to be all about rat behavior and ecology and how smart they are, always outwitting those trying to kill them. It starts out promising enough, this guy finding an obscure New York alley where trash from two restaurants accumulates, and he settles in to watch the rat colony there. But his descriptions aren't interesting. He never finds out anything new about rats himself. He doesn't pick apart their habits or social structure, or even recognize any individuals. There is an awful lot about efforts cities make to eradicate rats, and different methods of exterminators; Sullivan even goes to pest-control conventions to meet the big names in rat control. But there are so many long passages in the book that go into rambling historical jaunts describing people who have some vague connection to rats or some really buried history about the particular alley itself. It was just so dull. Equally boring the numerous detailed descriptions of every character Sullivan met or talked about, but the rats themselves? even the ones he finally trapped and viewed up close? you just get: it was a really big rat and not much else. If you like to read about obscure city history loosely tied to rats, this might be your book, but it didn't really work for me.

I do really like the cover, though. Borrowed this one from the public library. Don't remember how it first got on my reading list.

Rating: 2/5 ........ 242 pages, 2004

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Sep 2, 2010

challenge complete!

Just the other day I finished the Trish's Non-Fiction Five challenge. I read about immigration, mental illness, an expedition stranded in Antarctica, and several different kinds of neurological disease.

The titles I read were:

Enrique's Journey by Sonia Nazario
Awakenings by Oliver Sacks
Endurance by Alfred Lansing
The Quiet Room by Lori Schiller
The Island of the Colorblind by Oliver Sacks

They were all really interesting! This is the second time I've participated in Trish's non-fiction challenge, and I'm sure I'll join many more in the future.

Sep 1, 2010

The Island of the Colorblind

and Cycad Island 
by Oliver Sacks

This is one of the most interesting books by Oliver Sacks I've read yet. In The Island of the Colorblind, Sacks travels with a few colleagues to the remote islands of Pingelap and Pohnpei where a large percentage of the population suffered from complete color-blindness. He was curious to study this phenomenon and see how the local culture might have adapted itself to having so many people with a color disability. The later part of the book tackles a different subject, as Sacks goes to Guam, another remote island with a high incidence of a mysterious disease called lytico-bodig. For decades doctors and scientists have been trying to find the cause of this degenerative neurological disease. The strangeness of lytico-bodig was that it seemed to run in families, mostly affected people who were native to or had visited the island (very rarely were cases found in other countries) and apparently hid dormant in the body for a long time, symptoms manifesting themselves suddenly years after whatever infecting agent had been encountered. The number of cases peaked in the 1940's and 50's, and after 1961 no more people contracted the disease. All kinds of things have been investigating as possibly causing lytico-bodig, from something toxic concentrated in fish to abnormally high levels of mineral content in water to a virus spread by an animal that has vanished from the island. But all the scientists (Sacks included) kept coming back to the cycad trees: at times the islanders made a special flour out of the seeds, which were highly poisonous but carefully prepared to removed the toxin. Over and over research has studied different contents of the cycad seed, but always drawn a blank. From reading around a bit, I found that after publishing this book, Sacks came up with a theory that eating bats which themselves had eaten cycad seeds, could have given people high levels of the toxin (the natives ate so many bats they became extinct on the island). More than just medical speculation though, the final part of the book is also an ode to the cycads, as Sacks admired these ancient plants and was curious about all aspects of their biology. Island of the Colorblind contains liberal notes in the back, which are just as interesting as the main text, so I kept a second bookmark in the back to flip to the notes whenever they were indicated.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 312 pages, 1996

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