May 31, 2014

Queen of Shaba

by Joy Adamson

Joy Adamson is famous for the lioness she raised and then released into the wild, recounted in Born Free (I can't believe I haven't written about that book yet). She also raised and rehabilitated into the wild a female cheetah. Then determined to do the same with a leopard. It took her some time to find an orphaned leopard cub, but she did and named it Penny. The leopard was a bit different from the lions and cheetah; it wasn't quite as affectionate. This combined with Adamson's very matter-of-fact writing style makes it a bit of dry reading but I was intrigued regardless, if just for the novelty of what she was trying to do. The book is a very straightforward account of how Adamson raised the leopard, along with some glimpses into the difficulties of living in the bush and dealing with various problems- shortage of supplies, accidents, the local wildlife and dishonest (or disgruntled?) employees. I found most interesting reading about how she taught the leopard to hunt. With all the wild cats Adamson considered it a success when the female could live on its own, mated with wild males and raised her own cubs. In each instance the grown female brought her cubs back to Adamson's camp, showing trust and affection even after living in a wild state. This still amazes me.

Rating: 3/5    180 pages, 1980

May 29, 2014

Bear Goes Shopping

by Harriet Ziefert

Cute picture book my kid found at the library. Each day Bear goes to a different store- what will he buy? One page shows four different items, the child can guess which one is found at that particular store. Then lift a full-page flap to see Bear in the store choosing his item and making a comment about why he likes it or what he will do with it.  Kids can learn about days of the week, plus associate certain items with the stores- grocery store, pet store, bakery, etc. At the end of the book, Bear has a relaxing weekend using his new stuff. My kid likes this book a lot, she's even been "reading" it to herself!

Rating: 3/5    16 pages, 2005

May 27, 2014

The Sea-Wolf

by Jack London

A seafaring adventure that at first glance would be something like Captain's Courageous (which I actually liked) but similarities are only on the surface, as I surprisingly found this book very forgettable. Not sure why, as I've like other books of adventures at sea before, and also London's books about intrepid canines in the North (Call of the Wild and White Fang) are among my favorites, very memorable. Maybe this one waxed too philosophical. Or got me lost in nautical terminology and descriptions I couldn't quite follow.

Anyway, it's about a well-to-do young man named Humphrey (unfortunately his nickname is Hump) who survives when the ferry he's on capsizes, and gets picked up by a sealing vessel. The captain, Wolf Larsen, is a cruel taskmaster and forces Humphrey to work as part of the crew. So a lot of the story is about how life at sea hardens this young man, and friction among the crew. The main points I remember are an attempted mutiny, and that somehow a young woman ended up on board. Of course Humphrey falls in love with her, then has to protect her from the attentions of all the other men on board. I think at the end Humphrey and the woman end up shipwrecked on an island, surviving off seals, but that somehow the captain ended up there with them as well and there is some final confrontation. But I forgot most of it, and don't really feel inclined to read it again.

Rating: 2/5     244 pages, 1904

more opinions:
James Reads Books
Come With Me If You Want to Read

May 25, 2014

Bread and Jam for Frances

by Russell Hoban

Some of my favorite childhood books are the series about a little badger family. Frances is the main character, a little girl who struggles with things like a new baby in the family, friends who don't want to share, managing her money when she gets an allowance and so on. This book is about being a picky eater (how many parents can relate!)

Frances likes bread and jam. She doesn't like the way her eggs are cooked, or her dinner either so her mom patiently just keeps serving her bread and jam. And then gives it to her for every meal- snacks as well, until Frances realizes she would actually like to eat something else. Your favorite food quickly becomes less appetizing when it's the only thing you eat all day! I thought it very clever how Frances' mom gave the kid exactly what she thought she wanted so that she changed her mind on her own. It's a cute story with lots of funny little rhymes that Frances makes up along the way (my kids do that too, so I find this charming).

Rating: 4/5      48 pages, 1964

May 22, 2014

The Appalachian Trail

by Ronald M. Fisher

After reading A Walk in the Woods I though it would be nice to see a different view of what hiking the AT is like. Had this one on my shelf from a library discard sale. It's written decades ago, which is interesting because you see how the trail has changed over the years. The author hiked through small farming communities, sheep fields, even people's backyards. By the time Bryson came along, most people had been moved out of the area, or the trail re-routed so it was pretty much all through wilderness.

So this book is more a look at the culture and livelihoods of people who live near the trail, than the hiking experience itself. The author and his two photographer friends took frequent side trips to see local festivals or visit farmsteads. It's a sampling of small-town American life in the Appalachians. I did enjoy the photographs- dated as they are- and got through the book much quicker than I expected because they really are a main feature, but near the end found myself simply bored. There was never enough. The nature writing and descriptions of scenery not really satisfying. Never much explanation about where they were or why. It took me twenty pages in to realize they weren't thru-hikers at all but just doing segments. So it wasn't really what I expected. I learned some history, looked at some nice photos, now it's done.

By the way, did you ever heard of grass-skiing? I hadn't!

Rating: 2/5      200 pages, 1972

May 21, 2014

A Walk in the Woods

by Bill Bryson

He walked the Appalachian Trail. Georgia to Maine. Or at least, some of it. Enough to feel proud. Started out rather ineptly, with some experience under his belt but honestly not well-prepared. Took along a friend who was alarmingly out-of-shape, to say the least. Both of them cracked me up. The book is a wandering, laugh-out-loud funny account of their trek on the trail and the people they meet plus a smattering of history about the AT and its environs. I didn't find the history parts dull at all. The exploits of Bryson and his friend kept me chuckling. He has a way of describing things that is witty and acute. And in case you're wondering- he was constantly worried about meeting bears- quotes a lot of statistics and stories about other people meeting them- but pretty much the worst incident is his friend getting lost. They hiked 500 miles (almost a third) of the trail before realizing they weren't going to make it all the way and decided to sample portions of the rest; driving in and doing day hikes, other segments for a week or so at a time.

I really enjoyed reading about their experiences, plus all the lore about how the trail was made, how it has changed over the decades, management of the parks and so on. Meeting up with other hikers- some quite interesting characters!- struggling with the distance, planning, weather, occasionally running into wildlife, visits into small towns, etc. I have a sister hiking the Pacific Crest Trail right now, so I liked to think I was learning a wee bit of what her experience is like. Also appreciated that at one point Bryson explored parts of the trail that go through abandoned towns in the coal country of Pennsylvania, precise locations I have visited myself. (I wasn't expecting this at all, and the few pages describing what he saw, relating history of the area as well, satisfied me more than a certain book I finished recently). Lovely passages on the beauty of the wilderness, with many mishaps and amusements along the way. Fun read. Now I want to read more of Bryson's books- turns out there's quite a few. (Add to the list!)

Note: his friend is fond of women, working on overcoming a drinking problem and often uses the f-word. Usually this word makes me cringe, but here I just found myself chuckling. It fit the situation. But if that makes you uncomfortable, you might want to pass on this one.

Rating: 4/5     284 pages, 1998

More opinions:
Compulsive Overreader
Books n Tea
Pages of Julia's Blog
the Fire in our Heads
the Broke and the Bookish

May 19, 2014

The Hollow Ground

by Natalie S. Harnett

In 1962 the coal in Pennsylvania mines caught fire beneath the ground. This story is about a family that lived there during the fires. It's told from the viewpoint of a young girl, Brigid, who struggles to understand why her family always suffers so much. There is no mention of how the fire started, it is just always an ominous presence in the background. I was appalled to read of how the families lived; not only poor working conditions and low wages that often could not support a family (that subject could make another book all by itself I imagine) but the unsafe conditions caused by the fire, and reluctance of the company to do much about it. The underground heat caused snow to melt and flowers bloom midwinter, in many places the ground was too hot to walk on- playgrounds and schools were closed, streets blocked off, houses condemned. The earth caved in, swallowing buildings and many lives as well. Poisonous gas released by the fire took other lives. "Inspectors" would go around the homes at night testing the air for carbon monoxide; people regularly spent nights with all the windows open and drains plugged up so they wouldn't die in their sleep from the gas. And when their neighborhoods fell into decay, their houses torn down, they often had nowhere to go.

All this fascinated me, but it felt like merely background to a story that was really about the decay of Brigid's family. The bitterness they all held inside, the slow reveal of dark memories and past deeds that haunted people's lives. Brigid's mother was constantly full of anger and hurt from what seemed to her a childhood betrayal- having been put in an orphanage by her stepmother. Her father is nearly always out of work, brought down by a mining accident which took his brother's life and left him with a disabling injury. They drift from place to place, living with relatives and trying to get their own place but always struggling. Eventually the father gets a decent job and the mother finds some long-lost relatives, but neither of them really find the healing or security they are looking for. Things are hard for Brigid as well, who nearly looses her best friend and end up living alone with her grandmother who has a sharp tongue and constant criticism.

Honestly I found it hard to care for all these characters even though they suffered so much. They were insulting each other so continually it was hard to read, especially when I didn't understand at first why they all despised each other so. The first part of the story was more interesting to me, as I read about Brigid's friendships, struggles with her family, explorations into abandoned mine shafts dared by other kids. There's also an element of mysticism, stories of a family curse and healing powers. But the storyline seemed to shift into being all about her mother's pain, this bitter woman trying to overcome a lifetime of feeling rejected. The ending has some closure and a bright outlook for Brigid, but it was sad that her family had dissolved so much, even though she repaired some friendships and became close to her grandmother after all.

I received an ARC copy of this book from the publisher. I was very interested to read it because I have visited parts of coal country in PA, looked for anthracite fossils near abandoned mine sites, drove through the ghost town of Centralia. There's more information about the mine fire at Centralia here. Reading about the experience of a family living through those events was something I looked forward to. There's more about the coal mine fires on the author's website as well.

Rating: 2/5       320 pages, 2014

more opinions:
The Book Stop
Jenn's Bookshelves
Bermudaonion's Weblog

May 13, 2014

Getting Stoned with Savages

by J. Maarten Troost

This one caught my eye because the author's prior book has been lingering on my TBR list. It's a kind of travel memoir, about the time the author and his wife spent in the South Pacific, visiting many islands but living mainly on Vanuatu and Fiji. Mostly humorous stories about often baffling circumstances, with a lot of asides into the history of the islands and their curious culture. Medley of cultures, really. Colonialism still a thing in some areas. How they became accepted by the locals, partaking of narcotic drinks made from potent roots (the author at least; his wife didn't like the stuff and I seriously doubt I would either!) but still occasionally (in spite of previous experience living on the islands) making an unforgivable faux-paus. Lack of amenities, large insects, frightful diseases all duly noted. Quite a number of sought-out adventures: visits to a live volcano, searching for someone who remembers experiencing cannibalism first hand (to answer pressing questions). They survived cyclones and mudslides, but still remained to have their first child on a remote island. In the end decided to return to America.

I found most interesting the slight but significant differences between all the islands in what was permissible or frowned upon. In some places women were allowed to join in certain ceremonies with the men, in other places they never could. In one village, women didn't even share housing with their men- the village had a side for each gender, strictly divided. Some descriptions of island life reminded me acutely of Fatu-Hiva. The largest impression I came away with was how life in the tropics had just as many difficulties and hardships as beauty and blissful moments. It was also sad to read about how in many villages the people would perform their traditional dances or display their lack of attire for tourist money. The parts about the history and political issues, especially the frequent coups, got a bit dull, but could also be amusing. As when he quoted Cook's disparaging description of natives he encountered on Malekula in 1774, followed by the author's own idea of how a native might have described Cook and his crew in turn- not at all flattering (and made me laugh out loud).

I enjoyed this read, but it's not one that's going to stay on my shelf. However, his references to The Sex Lives of Cannibals plus a few reviews of it, make me think I'll like the other book even more. Must look for it at the library sometime.

Rating: 3/5      239 pages, 2006

a few more opinions:
If It Has Words
I Read, I Knit, I Am
The Estella Collective

May 10, 2014

Ride the Right Horse

by Yvonne Barteau

The author of this book that caught my eye on a library shelf is a horse trainer. She has during her career taught and ridden horses in equine theatrical performances, schooled horses brought to her with training and behavioral issues and trained her own horses to ride in various competitions. This book is all about learning how to recognize the basic personality types among horses and how to work with them- each needing a different approach. She defines the personalities as being generally social, fearful, aloof or challenging, with intensity ranging from passive to aggressive and of course many variations- a horse can show characteristics of different types at the same time.The main part of the book is about learning what these types are, how to recognize them, and how to deal with issues each type may have. In the final chapters are instructions on how to work with each type of horse during weaning or starting them for the first time (introducing tack and rider). Also there is a chapter about recognizing your own personality type, with suggestions on which kind of horse (and trainer) you would be most compatible with- taking into consideration your experience and confidence level as well. All around it is a very solid book with excellent information and guidance, at least it seems so to me.

But I'm not the target audience for this book. So I found all the lists of points and instructions uninteresting after a while, and started just skipping through the book to read the case studies; samples from the author's own experience with many various horses are given for each point. I liked reading about the different animals and how she worked with them. Appreciated that not all were success stories- some animals (or their owners) were ultimately not curable of their bad habits, and with a few the author herself was not experienced enough at the time she encountered them, but they all made good examples. I also gleaned a little bit about things in the horse world never imagined existed before: there is a competition with a "champagne class" where a rider has to hold a full glass of champagne in one hand- whoever ends up spilling the least amount of champagne wins. There is a type of endurance race which is a 100-mile all-day ride. The author also worked a lot with standardbred horses, which compete at a trot in harness- a discipline I hadn't read about before so that was interesting. Amusing was the story of one horse named Shorty who won several races in a row, and seemed to enjoy the fuss made over him afterwards. At the end of subsequent races he would automatically turn to go into the winner's circle. When he then lost a race, it "was so close that even the tired and sweaty youngster thought he had won" and he sulked at not being allowed into the winner's circle!

So it feels rather unfair of me to give this book an "abandoned" rating. I did enjoy the parts of it that I read, I just skipped around to what interested me. I'm sure people who ride or work with horses would find this book very useful; I'd be interested to hear someone's opinion who really knows the subject matter and doesn't just read about it from the sidelines like me. I only found one (see below).

Abandoned        298 pages, 2007

more opinions:
Thoughts on Dressage

May 6, 2014

more TBR

of course. It never ends, does it? (I love that)
Saddled by Susan Richards- read about online, glad she's written another horsey memoir!
The Bear by Claire Cameron from Indextrious Reader and Bermudaonion
The Martian by Andy Weir - Indextrious Reader
The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida - Stuff as Dreams are Made On
The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara - Reading the End
A Sting in the Tale by Dave Goulson - Farm Lane Books Blog
The Winter Horses by Philip Kerr - Diary of an Eccentric
Still Life with Breadcrumbs by Anna Quindlen
Drawn from Life by E.H. Shepard- The Captive Reader
Drawn From Memory by E.H. Shepard- The Captive Reader
Shy Boy by Monty Roberts- from reading The Horses in My Life
Born Wild by Joe Camp- from reading The Soul of a Horse

May 5, 2014

The Horses in My Life

by Monty Roberts

Monty Roberts is known in the horse world for developing training methods that open trust and communication with a horse from the very beginning, instead of brutally forcing them into submission. I read his earlier book, The Man Who Listens to Horses a number of years ago, longer than I had thought because I can't find a post about it. Must have read it before I started blogging! His first book is about his methods and I remember being surprised at what it revealed about horse training. This book spotlights numerous horses he has worked with throughout his lifetime, including lessons he learned from each horse. Such as to give the animal a chance, to judge a horse by its conformation and ability not just breeding, to find another discipline a horse can excel at when it doesn't work out (for racing). He talks about the first few horses he rode as a child, how he got involved in work with racehorses, how he met the Queen of England and trained some horses for her, and how he kept his methods secret for decades because when he told other horsemen about it early on they mocked and disbelieved him. I remember the first book being mainly about horses used in cattle work and solving problems with horses owners brought to his training and remedial clinics; this book has a lot about his work with horses in the racing world. I admit I was a bit disappointed with the book. It was interesting at first but the more I read the briefer the stories got, with more about names and numbers (how much this racehorse cost, how much it earned or sold for, how much it won and so on) than the horses and their behavior. At least, that was my impression. The photos also left something to be desired. They are good quality for their time, but some were blown up into a double-page spread when obviously the original didn't have high enough resolution, and the result is all a blur. I don't see the point in that.

Found this one browsing at the public library. I was quite discouraged to find this article when I was looking for other blog posts about the book to link to. It's always disheartening to come across this kind of thing- I'd like to believe the author and take a book to heart, but don't know what to believe when it's one written word against another.

Rating: 3/5        248 pages, 2004

May 1, 2014

Give a Man a Horse

by Charles J. Finger

I've been slogging through this book lately, finally decided to just close it. It's an older juvenile fiction, one I must have once found at a library sale or free table. An adventure story about a young man named Bob, bored and restless working in an office, who gets sent by his company to oversee the delivery of two valuable horses to a prosperous South American ranch. Of course thing go wrong, starting with horse thieves. He sets off after the thieves with some local volunteers and borrowed horses. Many adventures follow, including a shipwreck, and Bob gets stranded in an area he thinks is uninhabited. He meets up with some natives, goes off travelling with them, finds gold, catches and tames wild horses and so on. Runs into other white men who have made settlements. I did like how the integrity of the characters was shown, but unfortunately never felt invested in any of them as a reader.There was an interesting part where Bob learns how to live among the natives, acquiring skills and realizing that he has much to learn from them. Later (I flipped ahead) one of his native companions ends up in New York City with just as much culture shock on his part - but even that did not interest me enough to finish reading the book. Transitions were abrupt throughout the storyline, and it often switched between character viewpoints as well. I also found the illustrations rather disturbing, although tried to ignore this. Nice linework, but the people and animals sometimes had odd proportions with necks and waists too long. It reminded me of Mannerism.

Oh, and SPOILER both the original horses intended for shipment die early on in the book. I was surprised and disappointed at this, although I guess it was realistic for the circumstances.

Abandoned      340 pages, 1938