Oct 31, 2013

The Life of the Robin

by David Lack

Early book by an avid ornithologist who was passionate about studying birds from a young age (wikipedia tells me by the age of nine he could recognize and name most birds, and already had a written life-list of ones he wanted to see). This book is his study of european robins. Lack was notable for being one of the first scientists to study the behavior of living birds (as opposed to measuring and comparing lifeless stuffed specimens, I imagine). He tagged many with bands on the feet, to track where they returned to each year. The book is full of facts about the little birds, but it is engaging and easily accessible to lay readers who approach it out of pure curiosity, like myself. Plus, the cover image is really endearing.

Rating: 3/5   224 pages, 1943

Oct 26, 2013

The Left Hand of Darkness

by Ursula K. LeGuin

I wasn't ready for this book when I first read it as a teen. At least, that's what I think now. Most of it went over my head and I found it to be, overall, boring in parts and frustrating in others, as I failed to really grasp the politics going on. Basically, it's a sci-fi futuristic story about an envoy from a united-planets kind of organization going to a foreign world that was long-ago colonized by humans who were then forgotten for centuries. They have evolved into different beings that basically don't have a gender except for a few days during the year when they are ready to mate and have children, and they can take either a male or female role during that time. Although the people look like our envoy he finds their culture very strange and they in turn see him as an alien and a freak. Even their history is vastly different from Earth's, as the lack of gender roles and identity as we see it shaped their society very differently. I remember some specific incidents where the envoy got into awkward situations from misunderstanding social cues, and other scenes which described the various arrangements of family life, but a lot of this book was a blur to me and I didn't really understand much of it. I'm making a note of it here as I do want to revisit it someday and see what a new impression will bring.

See some of the reviews linked to below for a much more comprehensive description.

Rating: 3/5   pages, 2001

more opinions:
A Good Book
Just Book Reading
Opinions of a Wolf

Oct 24, 2013

Rosy is My Relative

by Gerald Durrell

I had no idea this book was going to be so much fun. Nor did I realize before, that Gerald Durrell had written any novels. He's one of my favorite authors but a bit hard to find so I am trying to add as many of his books to my library as I can.

The story is about a man named Adrian whose life is thrown into turmoil when his uncle dies and leaves him an elephant to care for. Not knowing what else to do with the enormous (but gentle) beast, he decides to travel with the elephant to the seashore where he hopes a circus will take her off his hands. Rosy the elephant is very good-natured but has a weakness for alcohol, and also having been a performer, thinks that many exciting circumstances she ends up in are an opportunity to do her tricks. They cause various kinds of innocent havoc with a foxhunt in the countryside, a high-society birthday ball and a theater performance. In the end, various outraged people who want justice for injuries and damage come pursuing Adrian. He stands out, as there are no other elephants wandering the English countryside in 1900. In fact, most people they meet are astonished, having never seen an elephant before. But Adrian has also gathered some friends along the way, and Rosy's friendly personality has won her even more. There are several chapters about the court appearance and trial. Honestly I was dreading this part of the story when I saw it coming. I was afraid it would spoil the book for me, as I usually find such scenes very dull and tedious. On the contrary, it was the most amusing court scene I have ever read! I was laughing out loud for pages and pages. A wonderful, fun story. I do believe it is based on a real man and his elephant, but not sure how much else was true.

Rating: 4/5    239 pages, 1968

more opinions:
Book Burrow
Between the Covers
Kids Want to Read
The Opinionated Youth

Oct 22, 2013

The Elephant Keeper

by Christopher Nicholson

Set in the 1700's, this is the story of a stableboy who works for a wealthy man. In an odd turn of circumstance, he becomes an elephant keeper, a role which ends up consuming his entire life. One day he runs to the ship docks to see cargo unloaded from far away, including a few exotic animals (most already dead or near to it) and two young elephants, which his master purchases for their novelty. Our boy Tom cares for the elephants tenderly and learns through trial and error to train them to simple commands, and constantly wonders at their intelligence and gentleness. Until the male elephant reaches maturity and becomes irritable and violent during the mating time. No one really knows how to control him, plus it is getting expensive to keep them both so the elephants are separated, the male sold and Tom continues to care for the female, even as she passes from one owner to another. Finally they leave the countryside and eventually up in the busy, dank city of London, part of a dull menagerie on public display. Tom despairs of their situation but continues to pay close attention to the elephant's needs, until he feels so close to her he imagines he can hear her speak (at least, my impression was that he imagined it!)

I found this a very interesting story, and the most convincing thing to me was the time setting. The awkward spelling and quaint turns of phrase, as well as descriptions of how people lived seemed to place it solidly in a previous century. I was rather appalled at the ignorance of most people, their cures for sick animals usually involved shoving disgusting concoctions down their throats or bleeding them. Most of the captive wild animals Tom encounters, in private collections or on display in the city's menagerie (lion, giraffe, monkey of some kind, etc) are in sorry condition and suffering. The descriptions of some of their treatment reminded me of Black Beauty.

There are a lot of unpleasant characters here, who try to harm the elephant, teasing her (and Tom as well), or just bullying them and using Tom and the elephant for their own ends. When Tom tries to stand up to bad treatment and misuse, he doesn't come off very well. He starts to withdraw from other people, finding the elephant his closest companion. Her character was drawn very well, and she felt more real to me as an animal character than the elephant in, say, Modoc. I was afraid at one point that Tom's affections for the elephant were going too far, and the book was going to veer into unforgivable territory like The Giraffe, but it didn't. The final chapter, which leaps into the future, was a bit strange and didn't really add credibility to the story for me, although that's what I felt it was probably supposed to do.

It had some interesting themes that I only started to pick up on later in the story, such as how do our expectations of what people will be, color the real impressions we have of them? how does our treatment of others shape our own character, and the comparison of the elephant's calm nature with the often violent and deceitful people around her was well done.

Rating: 3/5     298 pages, 2009

more opinions:
A.V. Club
Travel with Intent
Charlotte Vlogs

Oct 19, 2013


by Mark Seal

This is one from the pile of books I recently picked up from a library sale. I started reading it the same day and it's been hard to set it down again! It's about the life of Joan Root, a woman in Kenya who was involved in making documentary films about the wildlife and also conservation efforts. Her story starts out somewhat idyllic, when she was married to Alan Root and spend many years on endless safari filming wildlife and having adventures all over Africa. Their methods of filming without human intervention and Alan's skill with the camera earned them fame as wildlife filmmakers. Through it all, Joan worked in the background organizing everything, while Alan was in the spotlight. Spoiler: his good looks and fame caught the attention of another woman who practically stole him from Joan. She was devastated at first, then rebuilt her life, now focused on the animals. She had always rescued injured and orphaned wildlife, but now became heavily involved in protecting wild animals that lived on her property on Lake Naivasha. She recognized that the poachers who illegally overfished the lake and the hothouse flower industry that grew around it were threatening to collapse the lake's ecosystem, and she did what she could to stop that. Including hiring "reformed' poachers to thwart the poaching. It might have cost her her life. She was murdered in 2006, and who did it still remains something of a mystery, but Seal tells a good story with all the details leading up to her end. She was an incredible woman and I wished to hear more about her work, especially with the wildlife. I'm curious now to see some of the films she and Alan made; in the 70's they were winning Academy Awards for best documentary of the year, using techniques and capturing on film wildlife behavior that no one had ever seen before.

Rating: 3/5   234 pages, 2009

more opinions:
Book Group of One

Oct 16, 2013

Dances with Trout

by John Gierach

This was a fun, lighthearted read. It's a bunch of stories about fly-fishing. Well, not all. There's also chapters about hunting grouse, snowshoe hares, deer and a few other things but the majority of it is fish. I don't go hunting or fishing myself, but my father does and my uncle and others in the family and I doubly appreciated that this author has the same attitude towards hunting and fishing as the men in my family. Being out there more to enjoy nature and the challenge of it all, than for killing something.

His stories range all over different aspects of fishing, but it's mostly about fly-fishing in rivers he knows well at home, or travelling to different places with friends. He goes to Texas after Guadalupe bass, Alaska and Scotland for different kinds of salmon, West Yellowstone to fish on a bunch of rivers famed among fly-fishermen. He even goes fishing through holes in the ice in winter (that description was particularly intriguing), and casting at night. Mostly it's trout, though. In the daytime. There's some stuff about tying your own flies, and local fishing competitions, and a few amusing bits about how much he hates doing book tours, but all in all it's stories of him and his friends and other fishermen they run into and the experiences they have. I really enjoyed it. Gierach really knows how to tell a story well. He's got wry humor and friendly wisdom and keeps enough details of the craft in there to interest me, but doesn't get so technical I'm lost (I couldn't picture all the flies and bugs named, but it didn't matter to me). It was useful having read Trout Reflections directly before this book, so that I knew a little about the life cycle of the fish and the insects they feed on and when he spoke of those things in context to the story it wasn't just blank words but meant something.

I liked this book. Enough that if I come across more by this author, I'm very likely to read it.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 205 pages, 1994

more opinions:
Tennessee Valley Angler

Oct 15, 2013

happy finds

I don't do a post like this very often now, because over the years I have gotten much more strict with myself about buying books. The reason is obvious (and probably familiar to you, dear readers)- I accumulate books far faster than I can read them, and they pile up like mad. But every now and then I take a chance.

Recently I came home from my first-ever trip to Europe (amazing!) and one of the first things I saw when stepping out of the train station in London was this:
a floating bookstore! I so much wanted to go in there, but we only walked by this location at night, when it was closed. I'm guessing that during the day it was traveling up and down the river plying its wares. But I was tickled just to have seen it.
We did, however, stop in a used bookshop called Shakespeare and Sons when in Prague, where I bought three books. I was delighted to find a bookstore with mostly English stock in the middle of Prague, and a bit dismayed at the prices, which made me very choosy. They were each marked at 200 or 300 koruna, which amounts to ten or fourteen US dollars apiece, and that's a lot more than I'm used to paying for used books. On the flip side, I also bought a pair of shoes for the equivalent of $15, that would have cost twice as much here at home. So... in the Czech Repulic books are valued more, and shoes less? Hm.... I kind of like that, even if it restricts my purchases!

Well, about the books. The Orwell was a given; I've been gradually replacing my collection of Orwell's works (they went with my ex when we separated) and had read this one before. The other two were a chance I took, and it turned out I liked them both immensely. I read Animals on the journey home (several hours' wait when a plane delayed) and Noah's Garden immediately on arriving home- another unusual thing for me- normally recently-acquired books wait a long time on the shelf before I actually read them.
So that was a few weeks ago. Just the day before yesterday I did a bit of secondhand shopping. Drove up to a little rural community north of us called Lucketts, where I like to poke around in this huge antique store on the main corner. I rarely find anything I really feel like spending money on, but I made a discovery this time. This shop tends to use books as decorative objects; they're arranged into displays holding up knick-knacks and the like, often I can't even read the spines. But after going through several rooms I happened on a stack of books about horsemanship (most too technical for me) from which I picked out a collection of short stories about sports. It seems to feature a lot of stories about equestrian sports, fishing, and hunting with dogs which I might like. (I'm reading a book of fly fishing stories right now, it's quite fun).

The real prize was an 1860 edition of Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour. For some reason I felt like I'd heard of this book before, and pounced on it. And it was only four dollars! It puzzled me to no end that neither the title page, publication information, dedication or forward actually named the author. (There don't seem to be any pages missing that would have held this info) It stated that this was the same author as other works (which must have been famed in his time) but never actually gave a name. I had to look it up online to discover that this book was written by Robert Surtees, and it's about a guy who goes around the countryside pulling scams in hunting clubs (as far as I can tell). It has the most amazing illustrations and I spent a half hour just turning all the pages to look at them. Wood and steel engravings by John Leech, awesome linework and excellent characterization with just a few strokes. I can't wait to read this.

The last book, on the top, I found at a thrift store on the way home. I don't look for books there very often anymore, because where they used to be only fifty cents to a dollar, now the hardcovers go for two or three dollars and that's a bit much for me when I can usually find the same books at the library for free, until I fall in love with them. In fact, I passed up a copy of Racing in the Rain and Pearl S. Buck's Peony for that very reason- felt sure I'd find them in the library system. The one about the bookseller looked too interesting to leave behind, though.
And then today the topper was the local library's annual book sale. The pickings were slim, and their prices, like those in the thrift store, have gone up in recent years. It used to be on the final day of the sale you could fill a box or bag for five bucks, but this time they were asking the initial price even though unsold books were getting packed up around me to go to charities and the like. I was a bit disappointed at that, but understand that the library needs its funds more than ever so I didn't mind paying more, to support them in my own small way. I came home with this pile:
I started reading Wildflower on the way home, and it looks real good- about a woman who lived in Africa, married to a wildlife filmmaker and very involved in conservation efforts with the local wildlife herself. The book is based on tons of journals and letters that were found after her untimely death (she was murdered, and the author tried to figure out why).

Peony- the very book I passed up at the thrift shop! I never read any Pearl S. Buck but have always meant to.

Marley: A Dog Like No Other- Well, I did enjoy the intial Marley book, but after thumbing through this one I'm suspicious if it has much new material. Didn't the first book end with the dog getting old and dying? Is he finding more stories to tell that weren't included in the first book? I'm a sucker for animal stories, so I'll read it and find out.

Elephant Keeper- Set in the 18th century, about a young man who is keeper to two elephants privately owned by a rich family. That's all I know, but it was enough to whet my curiosity.

People of the Sea and People of the Nightland- some novels about prehistoric people. This could be good, or not, I have no idea yet. Some prehistoric novels I really enjoy.

The Complete Sherlock Holmes- I might have made an error here. I believe I already have a volume of Sherlock Holmes stories, but not sure if it includes the Holmes novels (as this one does) or just short stories. I haven't looked yet to see if this is a duplicate. Won't be the first time that's happened!

World of Birds- beautifully illustrated encyclopedia on birds and their behavior. Sometimes I find books with nice illustrations on birds more attractive than those full of photographs, and this one really caught my eye.

The real treasure in this pile is Relentless Enemies, a book of stunning photographs that chronicles the constant friction between lion prides and cape buffalo in Botswana. I never ever expected to find a book like this at a library sale. And it was only one dollar!

The best way ever to spend a birthday: book hunting!

Oct 13, 2013

Trout Reflections

by David M. Carroll

The writer who enthralled me with his descriptions of swamps and wetlands has penned a lovely book describing the lives of trout. I'm not one who goes fishing, so I probably didn't love this book quite as much as an avid fly fisherman would but I do like reading about natural habitats and the behavior of different kinds of animals, so there was much here to interest me. The lives of fish are pretty unfamiliar to me. I did not realize, for example, that trout prefer very cold water; to them the hard times are summer when they must avoid the warm areas and suffer from low water levels. I never thought about the fact that trout, like most animals, mate in fall and their young hatch in spring- but that means that their eggs lie unattended all winter long under the cold and ice. Fish eggs seem such small, fragile things to me but of course they're not. I also did not know how territorial the fish can be, shuffling hierarchy amongst themselves, their movements to different kinds of water flow or shelter according to the season and needs they face.

There is, within the narrative, some discourse on how human meddling has altered the numbers of native trout and how species intermingle, and the problems that releasing  hatchery-raised fish into wild populations cause. And encounters the author has with other wildlife: herons, kingfishers, mink, beavers and their structures. But mostly it's all about the elusive fish.

Trout seem to be such wary, sensitive creatures, always with an eye to the ceiling of their world, watching for prey to snatch or predators to avoid. A lot of this book is just a description of the turning seasons (it begins and ends in the chill of winter) and of how the author moves stealthily along streamsides, exploring them and trying to approach without alerting the fish. He releases most of his catch, extols their beautiful colors, and sketches their forms. Exquisite artwork decorates nearly every page. This guy is even better at drawing fish than he is sketching turtles and birds. It is a very quiet, musing, contemplative sort of book. Rarely do any other people make an appearance. Mostly the author's thoughts and the quiet woods and the changing weather and the subtle fish hidden under moving water. I often had this Escher print in mind when reading.

It's the kind of book you want to read uninterrupted, surrounded by quietness- or at least, the sound of wind in trees and bird calls perhaps, as opposed to traffic noise or background tv or kids yelling. No. It requires a calm background to really appreciate.

Rating: 4/5 .......... 143 pages, 1993

More opinions:
Books- any which way they come

Oct 9, 2013

Katy No-Pocket

by Emmy Payne and H.A. Rey

This has got to be one of my favorite picture books, ever. It's a charming story about a mother kangaroo who inexplicably has no pouch to carry her baby in. She sobs and frets about the inconvenience and then decides to find a solution. First she asks other mother animals how they carry their babies, and tries a few different methods. Nothing works for her and her little joey. In despair she goes to the owl who tells her to find a pocket in the city. The kangaroo travels to the city where she happens to meet a handyman wearing an apron simply full of pockets in all sizes. She is so amazed and he is so surprised to meet a kangaroo asking for help that he kindly gives her the apron. Delighted, the mother kangaroo hops back home where she proudly becomes the local babysitter, because now she has more pockets than any kangaroo, and can tend to all the other baby animals!

I knew this story from my childhood, and read it to my older daughter when she was little. Now, some six years later, I'm reading it again. I had forgotten how much the mama kangaroo cries about her predicament, and also how lengthy the text can seem to a listening toddler. I left out probably half the words when reading this to my two-year-old, and she enjoyed it anyways. The pictures really tell the story well (done by the same man who illustrated the original Curious George books, with a very signature style). I'm sure eventually I'll be reading the entire text to her, and then hopefully she'll be reading it someday on her own!

Rating: 5/5 ........ 32 pages, 1944

more opinions:
Mom Always Finds Out
Vintage Kids' Books My Kid Loves

Oct 8, 2013

Noah's Garden

Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Back Yards
by Sara Stein

This is one of those books so awesome I don't quite know how to describe it all. Even though it's not really what I expected upon first reading the back cover. It's more, and better, than I had imagined. It's informative and descriptive about plants and wildlife ecosystems in one person's yard, how she tried to improve that- but it's also written with a sense of humor. If you chuckle aloud at how someone describes the growth habits of plants, you know that's a darn good writer!

The book is about how the author quit trying to control her land with gardening and landscaping but instead thinking of what habitats the animals need, let things grow up their own way and planted native foliage and took out exotic or invasive trees and weeds. Sounds straightforward perhaps, but she details precisely how complicated it is. Discusses so many things. How out of balance things get in nature when we get involved. How un-inviting to wildlife and birds the open spaces and empty, uniform lawns we like are. How problematic -on many levels- alien species are in the ecosystem. How important and scare open water like ponds are, and their efforts to build and dredge one. How varied the trees of the forest are, their stages of growth, their needs. How the land and plants will take care of themselves if you have the right ones in the right place. How marvelous the return of living wild things to the places you make welcoming for them. How childhood memories of certain birds, insects, frogs and other living things came back when she restructured and left alone the landscape for them. How to make things look appealing (appeasing neighbors who don't like messy or neglected-looking yards) and yet have the foliage, food sources and cover the wild things need. How communities could interlink the plant cover in their yards to create the "corridors" animals need to travel and disperse. And on and on and on.

Most of all, it makes me realize how wrong my own ways of going about gardening and plant tending are (if I want to be nature-friendly and stress-free, that is). Why all my gardening efforts fall prey to insects and diseases- because the plants aren't native or are varieties cultivated for beauty and food value, which of course means they've lost the natural means to fend for themselves. We tend to breed the bitter taste and stomach-cramping factors out of plants we want to eat, of course- the very thing those plants use to ward off insects! I now feel guilty for having dug up and harbored in pots hibiscus and mimosa from seedlings that sprouted in my old yard, just because they were pretty, when they are strangers introduced here...

And I know she's just mentioned a few of the things her reading and research and delving educated herself to, so I wish I could hear the all of it. She's published another book prior to this one, about her gardening before she went the ecology route, and another volume continuing where this one lets off, and I want to read them both but of course my library has none of her works so it's another name/title combo stored in my head for those lovely hours spent poking and browsing through used bookstores in the hopes of coming across a treasure.

I just learned that I will have to enjoy whatever books of hers are extant, and this having only now discovered the author! This post at Sphere about her property informs me that she passed on in 2005. I wonder what has become of her land now.

Rating: 5/5 ........ 294 pages, 1993

more opinions:
Writing and Healing Year 2
What all the cool kids are reading
Town Mouse and Country Mouse

Oct 7, 2013

more TBR

culpable book bloggers duly noted below
Animal Wise by Virginia Morell from At Home with Books
Still Alice by Lisa Genova- Caroline Bookbinder
The Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood- Farm Lane Books Blog
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan- books i done read
Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson- The Lost Entwife
A Dog So Small by Phillipa Pearce- Things Mean a Lot
Touch Not the Cat by Mary Steward- Indextrious Reader
Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart- A Work in Progress
A House in the Woods by Kai Fagerstrom- very unlikely it seems, that I'll find this

Oct 6, 2013

Bowser the Hound

by Thornton W. Burgess

A bit of different focus for a Burgess story, this one is about the hound dog that lives on the farm. Bowser is feared by many of the forest creatures, and an annoyance to the fox and coyote, who can outwit him but are bothered when he chases them for miles, which he loves to do. One day the coyote determines to get rid of Boswer by leading him on a long run, confusing him and leaving him lost far from home. This works well, and for quite some time the other animals enjoy a respite from the dog's presence at the farm and in the surrounding woods. In particular, the fox quickly discovers that Bowser is missing and launches new raids on the chicken house. Blacky the crow, however, finds the dog when he is injured and disorientated, and feels sorry for his plight. He helps the dog locate a populated farm, where he gets temporarily adopted and cared for. Later, the crow tricks the fox into showing Bowser the direction of his old home, and the reunion when he meets the farmer's boy again is joyful.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 96 pages, 1920

Oct 5, 2013

Down and Out in Paris and London

by George Orwell

This is the second or third time I've read this book; you can read my earlier post of it here. I found that my memories of it had gotten quite mixed up with Jack London's People of the Abyss. Orwell's book is much narrower in scope than I had recalled; it details mainly his fruitless searches for work in Paris and finally landing a few jobs- first scrubbing dishes in the basement of a "nice" hotel, then working in a poorly-run restaurant (the source of my revulsion, it was much worse conditions than the hotel, which I had remembered incorrectly). In between jobs he scrapes pennies, pawns his clothes, follows up useless leads, and often just lies around bereft of energy due to hunger. The second half is about his time spent as a tramp in London, when he showed up for a job that did not materialize for several weeks. Having nowhere to go and no money he slept in various charity wards, other homeless men showing him the ropes. He analyses the system of public assistance (such as it was in his day) from the perspective of the recipients, makes suggestions for its improvement and most of all, lays bare how insulting and demeaning the offers of aid can actually feel to men in dire straits.

I had forgotten completely that the book opened with an unsavory scene where a friend of his pays a nun for the privilege of raping a girl- or so it seemed to me; the scene was more suggestive than than explicit. I think if I had been a bit more of an astute reader the first time around, this would have put me off the entire book! More interesting to me than the narrative itself this time around, what what I gleaned from the introduction. I did not realize before, for instance, that Orwell used a pen name. His real name is Eric Blair, and he assumed a pen name because his parents were appalled that he wanted to be a writer. I also found interesting the descriptions of how much he had to edit out swearwords from the original text, and the variations between the French translation and the English version. Orwell's own little list of local slang terms he encountered on the streets and their various meanings intrigued me as well.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 230 pages, 1933

more opinions:
Much Ado About Books
the Oddness of Moving Things
another cookie crumbles
wandering walls

Oct 4, 2013


by Keith Ridgway

I seldom, nowadays, purchase an unfamiliar book from a shop. Usually try to read them first, from the library. This one was an exception, and even more exceptional, I started reading it that very same day and couldn't put it down. Animals is one of those curious, amusing and disturbing books that makes you wince and laugh aloud at the same time. Or at least, it did for me. On public transit, no less!

It's all about the disintegration of an unnamed character. He is an illustrator but does not draw much during the short course of the novel; however the frequent references to his manner of thinking, desire to sketch things, assessment of good pens, fears of being unoriginal and such felt like very familiar territory to me, so I enjoyed that. As the title would have you guess, he has quite a few encounters in his big-city environment with animals; they are all unsettling, and he worries and frets about his reactions to each. He muses internally a lot, over decisions that haven't even been made. His inner monologue reminded me a lot of Holden Caulfield. Also like Catcher in the Rye, the book covers just a few days, or perhaps a week, turning around and around.

The main events are not really solid events at all, and before long you start to wonder how much in just in the narrator's mind, and not really occuring at all... It starts when the illustrator is disturbed at seeing a dead mouse in a gutter and examines it in detail; he is fascinated and upset at his friend's description of a haunted building; he gets locked into a public park after hours and has a run-in with an amicable policeman; he has an encounter with a famous woman which goes all wrong; he has an inexplicable row with his partner and bunks with various friends for a few days, but that all goes awry as well. His friends are experimental artists, architects and writers, all very interesting characters in their own right. One, which never ceased to amuse me, was a man who had created an elaborate imaginary country (centuries of detailed history and all) for the sake of writing anonymously about politics but had never yet penned a political novel; our narrator bluntly points out flaws in this fabricated world and causes that friendship to go sour as well. Threaded through it all is a fascinating look at societal norms and blunders, an examination of details that often go unremarked.

I was reminded somewhat of Animal Crackers.

The ending took me completely by surprise. I didn't know what to think. It made me realize how utterly unreliable this narrator was. How much of what he related was just imagined? It's one of those endings that makes you sit and flip your brain back and forth: did what I think just happened, really happen? I was doubly frustrated because I also wanted to know, of course, what happened to his partner, if it really was what the narrator had suggested, because his memory turned out to be unreliable as well. I'm definitely going to have to read this book again to see if I can pick it all apart and read between the lines better.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 265 pages, 2006

more opinions:
anyone else?

Oct 3, 2013

Blacky the Crow

by Thornton W. Burgess

This little book is about some things that happen to Blacky, a crow in Burgess's community of talking wildlife. There are some daily doings of Blacky as he moves about searching for food, pestering his neighbors, rousing up his flock to mob larger birds of prey, acting with great curiosity and caution when he finds new things, and other typical crow behavior.

There are three storylines, and they don't quite fit together well. The first story tells how Blacky discovers that the owls have set up housekeeping very early in the spring, and he tries to find a way to steal the owls' eggs to eat. Unable to get them by himself, he enlists the (unknowing) help first of his fellow crows, then of the farmer's boy. Neither plan succeeds, and Blacky is frustrated that the boys' recent change of heart (which I still have yet to pinpoint in the chronology of these little books) causes him to relent at the last moment and put back the owl eggs, instead of keeping them for his collection.

Then the timeline suddenly jumps to fall and we have a new storyline about Blacky getting involved with two different groups of ducks, warning them from the threat of hunters. The second little duck flock doesn't listen and further concerned, Blacky tries to get rid of the hunter himself but fails. So he alerts the farmer's boy to the hunter's presence and then watches to see what the boy will do. This kid has a very strong moral sense; because the hunter is on public land and has a right to be there, the boy doesn't feel like he can rightfully tear down the hunter's blind. He finds another way to spoil the man's hunting and save the ducks.

The final story is again about eggs. Blacky spies two eggs in a hen's nest just inside the door of the henhouse and is tempted to steal them, although normally he would not dare approach so close. He is greedy and takes the larger of the two eggs, and then finds out later to his anger and dismay that he has been duped. I chuckled at this story. Blacky stole a fake egg which was put there to coax the hen to lay. The crow realizes his mistake and after being thoroughly upset, he then treasures the egg as a pretty object, part of his collection of shiny things.

Well. I did like these stories. They are a bit repititious and stuffed with moral lessons as usual for Burgess, but I don't mind. I did find the arrangment odd, that the storyline suddenly jumped from early spring into fall, but that's a small matter too.

Rating: 3/5 ......... 80 pages, 1920

Oct 2, 2013

The Whale Rider

by Witi Ihimaera

I recall when I first saw the film made from this book, several years ago, and how moving it was. It's the story of a Maori community on Whangara, set in modern times. Reading it, there is a distinct familiarity to The Bone People (the local language and customs) and the role of a young man being friend and protector to a little girl reminded me a lot of the books with Fynn and Anna. That's one of the main differences between film and movie; that in the book the story is told from the viewpoint of Kahu's young uncle, even though to me she still seemed to be the main character.

Kahu loves her grandfather and is anxious for his attention and approval but he dismisses her entirely for being "a mere girl." He is looking for a boy child to be born into the family line and become the next leader. Kahu is shunned from the gatherings where Maori culture and ancient songs are taught to the young boys, but she sneaks near and listens anyways. She absorbs the old ways like no one else, but it goes practically unnoticed. When a group of whales becomes stranded on the beach nearby, the event feels catastrophic to the islanders, who see the whale as an important figure in their cultural heritage. They feel it is a sign of  impending doom and work frantically to return the whales to the water, but all their efforts seem to be in vain. Kahu steps forward against the voices of the men, and proves herself attuned to nature and the power of the Maori ancestors.

I liked this story well enough, although some parts were a bit of a stretch of the imagination (namely, the segments that showed things from the whales' point of view, and some of the things that happened when Kahu connected with the whales). But the great frustration for me was the frequent inclusion of Maori words in the narrative. There were so many words and phrases, it made my reading very choppy and I often misunderstood or just guessed at the meaning of entire conversations and fragments of paragraphs. I had the great misfortune to read an edition that has no glossary whatsoever. It is a must in this situation! I would not have minded at all to constantly flip to the back to find the translation of things; I actually enjoy the inclusion of foreign words in narratives about a different culture. But in this case I felt like I had to constantly read adjacent to a Maori/English dictionary online, and that was very annoying.

It's the whole reason I didn't enjoy this book. I have no desire to read it ever again, without a glossary included. Then I might be able to immerse myself into it more, and even like it.

Rating: 2/5 ......... 122 pages, 1987

more opinions:
the Book Coop
forest of paper
Fifty Books Project
Little Bonobo's Book Cafe
a strong belief in wicker

Oct 1, 2013

The World Without Us

by Alan Weisman

Imagine humanity suddenly vanished from the earth. Wiped out by a virus, raptured up, abducted by aliens, whatever. How would the Earth recover? Would it, at all? How long would the effects of changes we have wrought here last, how long would edifices we had built remain (perhaps for future intelligences to discover and puzzle over)? Weisman explores all these questions in detail, including the variables between how things would differ if we had time to turn stuff off before we disappeared. In the process, he makes very clear how terrible the things we have done are, and thus it became one of those books that both fascinated, educated and absolutely horrified me.

I learned about vast storage spaces underground (some dug into salt domes!) that harbor extremely toxic and volatile waste. I learned about how huge the explosions and radioactive fires would be if our chemical production and nuclear energy plants were suddenly unmanned. How quickly the subterranean transport systems around the world would flood, how the tweaking we have done with animal and plant genetics would spread (or not) through biological gene pools. I have a new loathing of plastics, now. I never again want to purchase a plastic product that cannot be recycled onto something else. Because plastics are not part of nature. They break down smaller and smaller until you cannot even see them, but they never biodegrade. This means that in the ocean, the little plankton and microscopic filter-feeders are dying of constipation when they eat teensy plastic bits. And what happens when the base of the ocean's food chain ALL DIES? I am horrified. I think we should worldwide quit creating any new plastics right now and only reuse what is extant. My kids? I am buying them no more plastic toys, unless they are obviously recyclable. Wood, cardboard, even metals are fine. NO PLASTICS! *

I do have a new fondness for copper and sculpture, by the way. I have always been fond of copper, it's my favorite metal (um, how many other people have a favorite mineral?) And I've always liked sculpture, but now that I know that bronze will far outlast (thousands of years) all the paintings in the world, my appreciation for this art form is even more heightened. Parts of this book are even encouraging. The sum conclusion is that even though we have overburdened and contaminated and poisoned and denuded our beloved Earth, it will eventually recover. Life will survive, even if we don't, and become something new and interesting again.

And all that is just barely scratching the surface. Read this book!! It has given me so much to think about and bolstered my resolve to even more environmentally conscious in my purchases and actions and eating habits that in my own small way, affect our Earth.

*After writing this little rant on plastics, I did a search and found several ways old plastic toys can be recycled. I can't just throw them in the recycling bin and there isn't a toy recycling center option here. Other than reusing for craft projects or donating those in relatively good condition, the most useful option seems to be downcycling, where plastics are used as filler in other materials. Even that doesn't seem to be the best thing either, though...

Rating: 4/5 ........ 416 pages, 2007

more opinions:
A Variety of Words
Green Fudge
Amateur Earthling
think or swim
Science Book a Day
book of joe