Jul 31, 2014


by Eve Bunting

This is the story of a family that moves west across the plains in a covered wagon: a father, expectant mother and two daughters. They settle on a claim in Nebraska Territory, but there are no near neighbors. The pictures show how wide, flat and empty the land seems. The older girl narrates the story, telling how lonely they feel. They have to do everything for themselves: sow the crops, dig a well, build a house. When driving three hours to the nearest homestead they can no longer see their sod home, swallowed up in the expanse of prairie grasses. Near the end of the book the older girl accompanies her father into town while her mother and younger sister stay with neighbors (there's some sibling jealousy here!) She's anxious about leaving her mom and sister behind, but excited to see the town. It's full of shops, dust and strangers. Just as they are leaving to return home, she spots a clump of bright yellow flowers growing in a corner- dandelions. She wants to dig them up and take home to her mother. Of course we see dandelions as a pesky weed, but the tough plant was a spot of brightness to them. And it made me smile to see what they did with the flowers: planted them on the sod roof of the house! So they could see it from afar, a bright patch of gold above the prairie grass. The illustrations are oil paintings by Greg Shed, with lifted out areas that show the texture of canvas underneath. I remember learning this painting method in art school and I really admire how it's done here.

Rating: 4/5      52 pages, 1995

more opinions:
Katie's Corner
Children's Books
Collaboration Cuties

50 Below Zero

by Robert Munsch

A little boy wakes up in the middle of the night, hears a strange sound and finds his father sleeping in the kitchen- on top of the fridge! He yells at his dad to wake up, then goes back to bed. Wakes up a little later to find his father asleep in the garage, on top of the car- yells at him, goes back to bed. Repeat scenario in more and more strange places. Finally after finding his dad asleep outside in the snow, he pulls his dad inside, ties him by the toe to a door handle with a long rope, and goes back to bed rest assured that his dad won't get into a mess again. But it's mom who wakes up next time...

My kid thinks this story is really silly (which it is) but I find myself wondering if the author meant to depict sleepwalking? Reading a few other reviews online I realize that this is a shortened version, I bet the full story makes more sense. My three-year-old picked this one off the shelf at the public library.

Rating: 3/5       22 pages, 1986

more opinions:
02b heavenly minded
Back to Books
Where Would I be Without Books?

Jul 30, 2014

Butterfly House

by Eve Bunting

A young girl rescues a caterpillar from a jay that would eat it. Her grandfather teaches her how to raise the caterpillar, feeding it leaves and giving it twigs to climb on. She makes it a home in a box, decorated with colorful drawings of leaves and flowers. She watches the caterpillar grow until it makes a chrysalis. When the butterfly emerges, the girl is sad because her grandfather insists she must now let it go. Then the story leaps ahead and we see the girl as an old woman herself, with a garden full of flowers. The butterflies come in great numbers to her garden every summer, filling the air with color. Her neighbors wonder what is her secret: they grow the same flowers and don't have as many butterfly visitors. But she knows and smiles to herself: the butterfly she saved long ago and cared for so tenderly, has returned with its generations of descendants to show their love back to her.

Another lovely nature book illustrated by Greg Shed. The prose is very lyrical, arranged on the each page like a poem. Not only does it show children the life cycle of the painted lady butterfly, but also how to be compassionate to small creatures, and the importance of letting wild things live free. In the back a brief afterward by the author gives instructions on how to raise a caterpillar. It's very specific about giving the caterpillar a suitable living habitat and food, keeping it clean, leaving it alone at the proper time, and releasing the butterfly.

Rating: 3/5    36 pages, 1999

more opinions:
Livin' Lovin' and Learnin'
LadyD Books

Jul 29, 2014

Sneakers, the Seaside Cat

by Margaret Wise Brown

This is a nice, simple story about a cat who goes with his family to visit the seashore and explores the beach environment. Everything is new for Sneakers- the cold ocean water he dips his paw into, large seagulls who aren't afraid of cats, tiny shrimp jumping on the sand, sounds roaring distantly in a seashell. His most exciting encounter is a crab that pinches his toes. And then he watches the mysterious fog roll in. The last page has an odd little rhyme the cat sings to himself on the way home in the backseat of the car which felt out of place to the rest of the story- I almost don't want to read that part aloud when I share the book with my kid.

I like the illustrations by Anne Mortimer- they are very charming, with some lovely detail- the individual hairs on the cat's coat, barnacles on the rocks, feathers on the gull's wings. Very nice. The author of this book wrote the famous Goodnight Moon. I would never have noticed if it wasn't mentioned on the cover!

Rating: 3/5      28 pages, 1995

more opinions:
Reading for My Kids

Jul 28, 2014

Days of the Blackbird

by Tomie de Paola

I will tell you about this book starting with the end: the author's explanation. De Paola relates how he once dined in a restaurant in northern Italy on a very cold day at the end of January. The proprietor told him that in the area of Italy he was from, the last three days of January, coldest of all the year, were known as the Days of the Blackbird because "it gets so cold that the white doves hide in the chimney tops to stay warm. And when they come out, they are black from the soot." Inspired by the imagery, de Paola wrote this fable-like tale about a young girl and her father, Duca Gennaro.

They both enjoy the songs of birds in their courtyard garden all summer, and wait through winter for the birds to return in spring. One year Gennaro falls ill, and his daughter worries that he will not survive the winter without the hope the birdsong gives him. She begs the birds to stay, giving them food and shelter. But as the days get colder and colder, more birds leave for the south. Only one remains, her favorite white dove. In the dead of winter the bird sits in a chimney top to keep warm at night, only coming out to eat and sing at the window. On the third day the bird has turned black from the soot and is renamed La Merla. When spring finally comes, Gennaro has recovered and La Merla gladly welcomes back the other birds. In this story the bird remains black for ever after.

It's a beautiful tale, enriched with depictions of a bygone era in Italy (or so I imagine, the time period of the story is not exactly specified) with dress styles, the architecture of the homes, cultural holidays and more. The narrative is a bit sophisticated for my three-year-old, so I paraphrase a little when reading to her, she still likes the story with its pretty birds and the devotion of a girl to her father.

There's another version of the blackbird fable shared on one of the blogs linked to below.

Rating: 4/5     32 pages, 1997

more opinions:
loving every leaf
Our Little Library
Biery's Book Blog

Jul 27, 2014

Have You Seen My Cat?

by Eric Carle

In his classic cut-paper collage style, Eric Carle introduces different cat species from around the world. The delivery method is simple and fun as well as instructive. A boy goes looking for his missing cat, and people of different cultures (identifiable by costume and background elements) point out various felines to him, from a fluffy persian cat to a wild bobcat, fierce tiger, black panther, african lion, speedy cheetah and so on. Each time the boy asserts: this is not my cat! In the end (looking exasperated) he asks a couple on a park bench and finds his own cat at last- with a nice surprise. We've borrowed this book from the library several times, my kid likes it so much.

Rating: 3/5      28 pages, 1987

Jul 24, 2014

Four Boots One Journey

by Jeff Alt

This book is about a husband and wife team who hiked the John Muir Trail. They set off on their 220-mile journey shortly after the author's wife lost her brother to suicide. They made their hike a campaign for mental health awareness- wanting to inform people that depression is readily treatable, and how beneficial exercise in the great outdoors can be. Mostly the book is about their walk on the trail- the long miles, great views, a few encounters with wildlife, difficulties overcome, how their relationship changed and grew during the hike, the variety of people they encountered and so on. It's a good story and for a great cause, but not the most compelling reading. I wished for a little more depth and insight, that's all. I finished reading it last night, but can't think of anything very memorable to tell about it. Read it if you enjoy hiking and outdoor adventures, otherwise it probably won't be interesting.

Also the presentation left something to be desired- I noticed quite a few typos and the map at the beginning of the book is laughable. It's so nondescript I am puzzled why it was even included. The photographs are poor quality too. I saw most of them in full color as they were included in the promotional package; nice enough in that format. But they did not covert to black-and-white printing well. I received an advanced reader copy of this book from the publisher. It has also been published under the title A Hike for Mike.

Rating: 2/5      225 pages, 2005

Jul 22, 2014

Princess Hyacinth

by Florence Parry Heide

Princess Hyacinth is different. She floats. She has to wear heavy weighted princess clothes, or be tied down to the furniture! Her life is tedious, because she can't play outside like other children- her parents are worried she will just float away. She can't go swimming, and a walk in the garden is a drag with all those heavy clothesOne day the Princess sees a man holding balloons on the palace grounds, and has an idea. She takes off her heavy stuff, ties her ankle to a string and floats up with the balloons. Unfortunately she breaks away from the balloon man and floats higher and higher. She is fortuitously rescued by her friend, a boy with a kite. And thus finds a solution to her problem, which not only allows her to float outside but strengthens her friendship as well. Of course the Princess still has to eat meals tied down to a chair, but her floating problem is much more tolerable from now on!

Delightful story with expressive and decorative illustrations by Lane Smith. I loved the Princess, her spunky attitude and her ingenious solution. And the message it gives kids: you can't always get rid of your problems, but you can find a way to manage them and still enjoy life. (And for some reason this book reminds me of the Secret Lives of Princessess).

My only complaint is a minor one: after reading several pages, my tongue really starts to trip over the name Princess Hyacinth. For some reason it's difficult to say out loud too many times in a row.

Rating: 4/5     44 pages, 2009

more opinions:
Possum Bookshelf
Gathering Books
Lil Bug Book Review
Read Me a Story

Jul 21, 2014

The Life and Love of Cats

by Lewis Blackwell

This is a gorgeous book. A must-have for any cat lover. It is full of stunning photographs- larger than life-size- celebrating feline grace and mystery. The striking images are interspersed with quotes on cats, and a number of essays by the author on different aspects of cats and their relationship with humans. Very thoughtful and insightful. Blackwell muses on why we find cats so appealing and irresistible (quoting the number of google results for cat compared to dog to assert their greater popularity), even scrutinizing the many websites where people share photos of cats (and attribute human thoughts to their behaviors). He examines how cats and people have come together historically- sometimes merely tolerated but more often inspiring such passion as to be revered or heavily persecuted. Looks into some pervasive myths regarding cats' abilities and how they probably arose, the reasons why cats have not evolved such diverse shapes like dog breeds (why was the munchkin cat not mentioned?); the mixing of domestic cats and wildcats, the affect cats have on our moods, and much more. I was surprised to read about how cats' body parts have been used in folkloric medicine in historical times. I was dismayed to read about the Paris cat massacre of 1730. I came away with a short list of more titles on cats, and inspiration to search the internet to learn more about domestic/wild crosses. But most of all I kept returning to the book just to look at the pictures. I had never seen such a closeup of a cat's tongue before, showing the barbels that make it raspy. The many images of cats in front of or outside of windows, looking through, infused with contemplation, are lovely. Overall it was just delightful.
These are some of my favorite images from the book:
This cat's eyes are my absolute favorite color:
This cat looks like one that used to hang around an apartment I lived in for a brief time in southern California. It was very friendly and purred like mad whenever I held it. I asked around; none of the neighbors admitted to owning the cat. My roommate urged me to take the cat home on the plane with me! but I couldn't think how that was possible (I was moving back to my parents' house soon):
So elegant:
So strange and curious:
Beautiful. I borrowed this book from the public library.

Rating: 5/5      216 pages, 2012

more opinions:
The Secret Writer
Texas a Cat in Austin

Jul 20, 2014

The Elephant Whisperer

by Lawrence Anthony

The author of this remarkable story ran a wildlife reserve in Zululand. He unexpectedly became the owner of a family of "rouge" elephants when their lives were threatened: they were such troublemakers that they were going to be killed. When first introduced to the Thula Thula reserve, the elephants did continually break out at first, trying to return to their former home (where if found they would be immediately shot). Anthony got the elephants to stay not only by building stronger electric fences, but by convincing the wild elephants (determined to trample any humans they saw) that he was not a danger to them, and to keep them calm until they accepted the new place as their home. They grew to trust him enough that he was eventually able to approach the adults closely, and they even began to seek out his company. The story relates his continual struggle to keep the animals (and people who worked or lived on the reserve) safe- dealing with poachers, neighboring tribal strife, floods and storms that broke fences, his own dogs confronting dangerous wildlife, poisonous snakes, preparing the reserve to receive guests (and then dealing with a new set of problems they brought) for the much-needed income, and so on. There are funny moments as well as sad ones- more than once evoking an involuntary verbal outburst from me as I read the pages. There were also many incredible moments, as Anthony learned how to communicate with these giant, wild animals in an effort to gain their trust and promote healing from the atrocities they had suffered at the hands of man (much of their family killed before they came to the reserve). It is definitely a book I want to read again.

When looking for more reviews about this book online, instead I found numerous articles relating how after his death in 2012, the author's home was visited by two herds of elephants. The elephants had not been to his house in three years, but travelled miles through the bush to pay a visit upon his death. They stayed for two days, then trekked back into the bush. No one knows how they were aware of his passing.

Anthony also wrote a book about rhinos, and one about his efforts helping to rescue wildlife from the Baghdad Zoo in 2003. Want to read both of those now.

Rating: 4/5       368 pages, 2009

Jul 19, 2014


by Gloria Whelan

Yatandou lives in a Mali villiage in Africa. Only eight years old, she must help her family prepare food by pounding millet grain into flour - a task that takes hours each day. She loves her pet goat, but doesn't have much time to play with him because she must work. She hears of a machine that might come to the village- a machine that can grind the millet for them. The women are saving their money to buy it. Yatandou, realizing how this can help her village and make their lives easier, sells her goat in the market to help pay for the grinding machine. It is a wonderful thing when the machine finally arrives. Not only does it relieve the women of some of their workload, but it grinds grain so much faster that they can now sell some surplus. A woman comes to the village to teach the women and girls how to write, so they can keep track of how much millet they grind with the machine, and who pays for it. Yatandou wonders at the novelty of writing: How strange it is to see that our words have a face. Her father complains that the women will become idle and cause trouble now that the machine is doing some of their work, but Yatandou's mother pacifies him with special bat stew. (I was sad to read of the bats getting eaten, especially when it made me think of this history). At the close of the story, the girl Yatandou carefully writes her name on her pounding stick, so she can one day show it to her own child and explain how the machine has changed her village, that her own future daughters and granddaughters will never have to use it.

I picked this book out at the library because I wanted to see more by illustrator Peter Sylvada. It took me a while to appreciate the pictures this time- their indistinctness makes me squint. But they really do convey a sense of shimmering heat and dusty haze, an atmosphere beaten by the blazing golden sun. I ended up reading Yatandou a few times, even though it was a bit too sophisticated a story to share with my three-year-old. It really grew on me. Not only does it show how hard life is for kids in other parts of the world, but one girl's sacrifice to help improve conditions in her village. Throughout the story are details of the culture, the landscape and the weather, mention of traditions and stories told to children, that bring the place alive. I was impressed at how precious and thoughtful Yantandou seemed- an eight-year-old child giving something up for a better life, and also thinking of the importance to teach her future children how things had changed because of that.

Rating: 3/5        32 pages, 2007

more opinions:
Muddy Puddle Musings
Your Friendly Librarian

Jul 18, 2014

Spirit Horses

by Tony Stromberg

A large art book full of gorgeous photographs. They all depict horses, most appear to be wild horses. Depicting the animals' beauty, strength, family bonds and most of all, the glory of their speed. In fact I was a bit surprised how many pictures in the book had a blurred effect. There were some so blurry I couldn't tell what the picture showed me- flowing horse hair? But the ones with close detail focus are really exquisite to look at. Many are black and white or with limited color; my favorites are the images in sepia tones. Especially the few (like the cover image) that show a blonde horse, the pale hair seeming to float as they move across the page. You really feel the strength and beauty of the animals in these pictures. There's an introduction where the artist explains why he chose to photograph horses and what he hopes his art will communicate to others. Our need to feel a connection to nature and what the horses can teach us. There are quotes about horses and nature throughout the pages. My favorite quotes from the book:
Different forms of life in different aspects of existence make up the teeming denizens of this earth of ours... and all beings primarily seek peace, comfort and security. Life is as dear to a mute creature as it is to a man. Just as one wants happiness and fears pain, just as one wants to live and not to die, so do other creatures. - the Dalai Lama
Until he extends his circle of compassion to include all living things man himself will not find peace. - Albert Schweitzer
This is a book you will want to look through again and again. Just sit and look at it. I borrowed it from the library. Some of the photographs here.

Rating: 4/5      160 pages, 2005

more opinions:
My Horse Daily

Jul 16, 2014

Sky Dancer

by Jack Bushnell

Jenny is thrilled when she sees a hawk on her father's farm. It perches in the same tree on the edge of a snow-covered field, and every day she goes out to see it. But then she hears men in town talking, her neighbors who have lost chickens to a hawk. Even though it's against the law, they feel justified in hunting the hawk down, to protect their livestock. Jenny starts to worry: will the hawk attack her father's chickens? will one of her neighbors shoot it? She feels an affinity with the wild bird, thinks that it comes to the farm just to visit her. Celebrating nature and the closeness of a fierce wild thing, this book also takes a serious look at the reality of what happens when a predator visits a farm. Spoiler: this particular hawk doesn't die, but a different one is shot. The illustrations by Jan Ormerod are lovely watercolor paintings, overlaying expressive line ink drawings.

Rating: 4/5       32 pages, 1996

more opinions:

Jul 15, 2014

Welcome, Brown Bird

by Mary Lyn Ray

I got this book at the library because I wanted to find more picture books with illustrations I love looking at. So I searched for some of the illustrators I've really admired in past books. This one has lovely oil paintings by Peter Sylvada, whose work I first saw in Gleam and Glow. (I thought I had written about that one, but can't find it anywhere on my blog! Must remedy that...)

The book is about a bird, a brown nondescript bird with a lovely flutelike song. On a farm a boy waits for late spring, when he always hears the song of the thrush. When his father wants to clear some land for a corn field, the boy begs him to leave the trees standing, because that is where the thrush lives. His father agrees. In fall the bird flies away and the boy waits all winter to hear it again. Meanwhile, in another part of the world a different boy waits for summer to end, waits for the rainy season when he will hear the thrush's song. His father also wants to clear trees off the land, and this boy too begs to leave them alone- for that is where the bird lives, the bird with a voice like a clay flute. This father too, agrees, and the boy listens all winter until the thrush disappears in springtime. Neither boy knows where the thrush goes when it leaves them, but they are tied together.

In the afterward the author gives some information about migratory birds, particularly the thrush, and how they are threatened by habitat loss. It's an important message beautifully communicated. I love looking at the pictures- the rich texture, the broad paintbrush strokes that suggest just enough form to let your mind fill in the rest.

Rating: 4/5      32 pages, 2004

more opinions:
Nurture PDX

Jul 13, 2014

The Curious Garden

by Peter Brown

One day a little boy is exploring his dreary, gray city when he finds access to an abandoned elevated railway. There are a few weeds and wildflowers growing up there. The boy starts to water and prune them, and the plants begin to thrive and spread. Eventually they grow across the entire railway. When winter comes the boy can't visit his garden anymore, but he does research- reading gardening books! In spring he starts tending to the plants again. They spread further into the city, and other people become inspired to garden as well. Before long there are rooftop and hellstrip gardens all over the place; topiary animals, treehouses and twining ivy climbing up walls. The illustrations are really lovely. The endpapers show before and after: at the front of the book you see a spread of the gray cityscape, at the back it's all green rooftops. If you look close in that final picture, you can find the little spot on the elevated where it all began. The afterward says this story is based on an abandoned elevated in Manhattan that became a garden space. Awesome. It all reminds me very much of Extra Yarn- the spread of color and liveliness through a dreary town. There's a good message here, too, about learning and leading by example. This boy didn't know anything about gardening when he found the plants, but he tried things and eventually succeeded. And others followed suit. Like Seedfolks, too.
I found this book at the public library.

Rating: 4/5        36 pages, 2009

more opinions:
Jen Robinson's Book Page
Help Readers Love Reading

Jul 12, 2014

The Cats of Tanglewood Forest

by Charles de Lint

Lillian loves exploring the forested hills behind her Aunt's farm. But one day she gets bitten by a poisonous snake deep in the woods, and is about to die. The cats who gather there save her with a bit of magic that transforms her into a cat. I thought the story would take off with Lillian-the-kitten discovering how to live like a cat and having all kinds of feline adventures. Not so! She only wants to become a girl again. With the help of a fox (driven by curiosity about her unique circumstance) she finds a possum witch who can transform her back into a girl, but at a steep price. Undaunted, Lillian goes ahead. But when she realizes the consequences of her choice, she has to make things right again. This takes her on a quest to find some ominous-sounding bear people who might be able to help, and in the end she gets assistance from a tree spirit and the Father of Cats himself (a black panther) as well. I really enjoyed a lot of aspects of this story. It has a definite fairy-tale flair, with the girl having to go out on a journey to resolve her problem, work in servitude, solve riddles, befriend animals and the like. My curiosity kept me reading but I also really enjoyed her character- Lillian is a very determined and spunky girl (she reminded me of Ronia). I also liked the strong message the story had of facing consequences and living up to promises. And of course the animal characters were great. This is the first de Lint story I've really enjoyed, I'm glad I finally found one to my liking. Maybe The Squirrel Wife got me into the mood to read younger, magical fiction again.

A lot of the setting and even the magical elements, made me think this story was set in the Appalachain hills, or backwoods of Florida. Of course it's purely made up- but the presence of the panther, something in the way people talked, the myth of the spiders- it all made me curious how much de Lint had invented himself, and how much he had drawn on existing mythologies.

Apparently this book is expanded from a shorter version the author wrote earlier, called A Circle of Cats. The illustrations by Charles Vess are lovely- so full of green!
Rating: 3/5        285 pages, 2013

More opinions:
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On
The Book Wars
The Book Monsters
Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales

Jul 11, 2014

The Bookseller of Kabul

by ├ůsne Seierstad

I thought I would love this book, but it was different than I expected. From the introduction, I thought it would be the story of how the journalist fit into an Afghan family's life, her observations of their family dynamics and conflicts with them (at one point she says "I have rarely quarreled as much as I did there. Nor have I had the urge to hit anyone as much as I did there.") But the journalist has no presence in the story at all. She describes everything in the third person, a flowing narrative style. I really wonder what was left out- she states that nothing was written here that the family did not want her to share. And some of the things shared made me cringe; in the end I did not like the bookseller himself at all, even though the premise is what made me pick up the book. I could not abide some of his actions and decisions.

It is all about a bookseller in Kabul and his family. How he loves knowledge and books, saves them through the turbulent, oppressive times living under control of the Communists and then later the Taliban era. He watched his books being torn apart, burned or confiscated, was imprisoned for selling illegal materials, rescued and hid books in attics all over the city. It was awful to read about how public libraries were pillaged and destroyed, yet this man hoarded the books he was able to find and planned one day to return some ten thousand books to the library, when it was rebuilt and safe to do so. He also supported education, travelling into Pakistan to print textbooks himself.  But this is where I started to dislike things. Not surprisingly, he had no regard for copyrights and would simply take a textbook to a printer, have it copied and reproduced by the hundreds so he could resell to university students. (Reading about the printing process was fascinating). He also made a lot of income off of postcards- selecting photographs and taking them to printers for similar reproduction, then selling them in his shop and to smaller vendors in his town. But later in the book a poor man who cannot feed his starving family, steals bundles of postcards, presumably to sell to the vendors himself at a cheaper price. Our man was brutal in retaliation, incensed that someone would ruin his livelihood. I was appalled at how he treated the poor man and his family.

But yet I couldn't help admiring his love for books, his tireless work in creating a business that not only supported his own family but various male relatives, able to send younger boys to school. Much of the book is not about Sultan himself and the bookshop, but about life in Afghanistan as the people struggle to recover (or just survive) after years of war and strict religious rule. It was another one of those really eye-opening books for me. Each section tells about a different member of Sultan's family, what their life is like, their viewpoint on things. It was night and day for some of them. His son bitterly resents being forced to work in a bookstall. His younger wife is cossetted and pampered, barely lifts a finger to do anything, while his youngest sister works like a slave in the home, doing all the labor of cleaning and cooking. It was a stark picture of how the lives of women are controlled- unable to leave the house without an escort, not really able to choose who they marry, difficult to get an education- some of the women in the story tried to, with dismal results. The bickering, family drama and gossip among relatives and neighbors threatened to tear them all apart.

One thing I did not expect to find was a picture emerging of how men find life in Afghanistan restrictive, as well. At least among this family. Autocratic rule of fathers over sons, mothers arranging their marriages, boys finding no opportunities, getting stuck in a life path they do not want, feeling restricted by religious dictates. Not nearly as controlled as the womens' lives, but still there were a lot of unhappy men feeling constricted and frustrated by their circumstances in this story.

I was surprised at two things mentioned, which I had never heard of. One was of boys crushing a dried scorpion, mixing the resulting powder with tobacco and smoking it to get high. The other was of men betting on fighting quails. I've heard of people pitting roosters, betta fish and even rhincerous beetles against each other, but quail? those diminutive little birds? Apparently they will peck each other to death! Google informs me both of these are relatively common in Afghanistan.

This is one of those very few books that I am not sure if I will keep or not. The picture of all the different layers of life in this one family in Kabul is very interesting reading, but I am not sure I would say it is particularly enjoyable. Valuable, yes. Fun to read, not really. The book stuff- not nearly enough of that. And yet, I learned so much. I am undecided. So I will shelve it for now, and see how it goes if I ever read it again.

Rating: 3/5     288 pages, 2002

more opinions:
Savidge Reads
Book Dragon
The Octogon
Rhapsody in Books
Medieval Bookworm

Jul 8, 2014

more TBR

Most of the new-to-me titles this time have come from other books I've read, or films I've seen, or from browsing around online.
The Book of Weeds by Ken Thompson
The Bees by Laline Paull- Kyusi Reader and Opinions of a Wolf
My Accidental Jihad by Krista Bremer- Caroline Bookbinder
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Evergreen by Rebecca Rasmussen- The Lost Entwife
Desert Flower by Waris Dirie- watched the film
Do We Need Pandas? by Ken Thompson
The Rent Collector by Cameron Wright from It's All About Books and Bookfool
No Nettles Required by Ken Thompson
In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson- Love, Laughter, Touch of Insanity
Jabberwocky by Daniel Coleman- It's All About Books
An Ear to the Ground by Ken Thompson
Bevis, the Story of a Boy by Richard Jeffries
Wood-Magic: A Fable by Richard Jeffries
The Path Through the Trees by Christopher Milne
The Hollow on the Hill by Christopher Milne
The Martyrdom of Man by William Winwood Reade

Jul 6, 2014


by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

This is a stunning memoir. Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes her early childhood in Somali. Displaced from her home at an early age because of her father's activism, she grew up in various countries: Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Kenya. With each move she describes the differences in culture, the prejudices she ran into, the struggles thrown into school with a new, unfamiliar language. I was surprised at how the children were raised, at the level of domestic violence and instability in her home, at the brutal description of female circumcision- although I had a general idea of that (recently watched the film Desert Flower- wasn't expecting that to be about genital mutilation, but it was, very upsetting- now the book is on my reading list).There was a lot in this book that shook me up. I learned so much about other cultures different from mine. A lot of the early portion of the book is about her upbringing, her family's dynamics, her curiosity about sexuality (she read a lot of Western books), her observations of women being oppressed, her exploration into different aspects of Islam and the beginning of her questioning.

She left Kenya to avoid an arranged marriage, moved to Holland and managed to get asylum as a refugee. With a fabricated story and a changed name. She admitted many times to having lied to get into the country, and talks about the problems that caused her later on. As a new immigrant she worked hard to learn about Dutch culture, to learn the language, to study and find jobs- starting with factory work and eventually as a translator. Even when discouraged by others, she insisted on taking classes and exams until she got into a renowned University and pursued a political science degree. She really wanted to know why Holland was so clean, peaceful and well-run when her home country was in turmoil and full of violence. (Just as I was surprised to read how children were raised in Somalia, she was astonished to see how differently they were treated in Holland). She was fascinated by how government functions, became a research assistant for a political party and then was voted into the Parliament herself, after only having lived in the country for a decade. I was impressed.

Working as a translator with Somalis who found themselves in all kinds of unpleasant and dire circumstances, she had learned how prevalent violence towards women was among the immigrant community. When she became involved in politics she was very outspoken against Islamic practices and for the rights of women. Also about how children were educated, how the Islamic community isolated itself and more. Her remarks were often inflammatory and very controversial, and her direct criticism of the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad caused an uproar. A filmmaker collaborated with her on a short film to make a statement about the mistreatment of Muslim women, using quotes from the Quran.  It caused the death of the filmmaker and she had to go into hiding. There was a scandal about her status as a Dutch citizen and she left the country to live in the United States.

It is an awesome book. I was worried the politics and litany of names would make for difficult reading but in fact I found it pretty compelling all the way through. I was fascinated to read about another culture, another way of thinking, and particularly to see her intellectual awakening as she began to question her own religion and upbringing, eventually arriving at atheism. I greatly admire her ethics and drive to help others, even if her delivery method and statements often seemed deliberately offensive. She obviously admired and loved Holland, but when I read a few of her statements about Dutch culture and history to my boyfriend he flinched and said she was being inflammatory again. I got the impression that she sometimes generalized a lot, a mild example being when she described the other girls in her university classes, lumping them into three groups based on dress and behavior. But who among us does not generalize to some degree, comparing what we encounter to what we already know?

Rating: 4/5     353 pages, 2007

more opinions:
Imperfect Happinness
Peace x Peace
Reading Club
Under the Neem Tree

Jul 3, 2014

The Enchanted Places

by Christopher Milne

If you grew up loving Winnie the Pooh like I did (not the Disney character but the real Pooh books) then you're bound to find this book delightful and intriguing. It's written by Christopher Milne, the boy who inspired the stories by A.A. Milne. Except, as he points out, they didn't really all happen to him. Some were purely invented by the writer, others were stories from his father's childhood. It interested me to see which poems and stories he took particular pains to explain were not the way things happened. If you haven't read the originals some references will be obscure, but for me they were quite familiar as those literary works are among the few that don't pall with time; I can read and enjoy them just as much today as twenty-five years ago.

But it's not only about the Pooh stories and how they did or didn't exist in Christopher's actual playtime. A lot of the book describes what his life was like growing up, being free to play and explore in the woodlands, ruled by and devoted to his Nanny, growing into a close and respectful relationship with his father as he was older. I am glad that this went both ways; his father trusted Christopher the boy implicitly, which gave me alarm when I started to read about his acquisition of -and experimentation with- a pistol at the age of nine- thankfully that ended well and not in some tragedy. He also mentions some regrets when he got older at the attention fame brought him as a young child, including how other boys in boarding school teased him. I admit I got quite bored with the descriptions of all the rooms in the house and how things were laid out or who arranged different household matters- his mother, his father or someone else altogether. Maybe those things are interesting because the lifestyle was so different back then, but I wanted to read more about the people and their doings, about the outdoor adventures and of course, the background of the stories.

It saddens me that Christopher apparently did not think much of himself as a writer; I like his voice on the page. In fact, the tone reminded me of his father's (hopefully he wouldn't mind the comparison). So I am glad to discover there are two other books of memoirs following this one: The Path Through the Trees and The Hollow on the Hill. I would love to read them, but they're out of print, so it will be serendipitous if I do find them. Luckily I came across this one at a secondhand sale and picked it up, not yet knowing what I held.

Rating: 4/5        169 pages, 1974

more opinions:
Things Mean a Lot
The Captive Reader
Stuck in a Book
Complete & Unabridged

Jul 2, 2014


by Herbert S. Terrace

In the 1970's, scientist Herbert Terrace attempted to teach a chimpanzee called Nim to communicate via sign language. It's been years since I read the book, and I can't find a library copy to refresh my memory, but this is what I can recall.

Nim the chimp was at first raised in a human household, to see if he could assimilate language like a child. But if I recall correctly, his later years were spent mostly at a research facility, being taught and tested. He learned to use over 100 words in sign language. It's fascinating to read about Nim, the methods and details of the research project, the chimpanzee's behavior. Overall the burning question addressed in the book was: did the chimp know what he was saying? or was he just cleverly mimicking the hand gestures, following subconscious human cues? In this regard Terrace seems to be really critical of the project, scrutinizing his own scientific methods and finding fault with Nim's performance. Nim wasn't the only chimpanzee being taught language at the time; if I remember rightly quite a bit of the book included the author's criticism of other language experiments among his colleagues. But then again, I read several books about similar efforts around the same time frame, so I could be getting them confused in my memory.

You can read more about Nim here. There are a few more books written about Nim from other viewpoints, including one which details the end of his life and discusses abuse which occurred at the facility. I wasn't aware of this aspect of Nim's story before, just discovered it while poking around online today, and it made me very sad to think of.

I cannot find a single other review of this book online. If anyone out there has read it and can correct my memory, or give more insight, please comment!

Rating: 3/5      322 pages, 1987

Jul 1, 2014

The Squirrel Wife

by Philippa Pearce

Once there were two brothers who herded pigs for a living. The elder was unkind to his younger brother Jack and made him do all the work. One day after a storm Jack heard sounds in the nearby forest and investigated. He found a green man - one of the magical, feared forest people- trapped under a fallen tree and rescued him. In return for his kind deed, Jack was given a gold ring and told to put it over the forearm of an infant squirrel in the forest during springtime, then come away. Jack did as he was told and later in the autumn, he found a woman in the forest who had brown hair, wild eyes and a golden bracelet on her arm. She was the squirrel he had chosen, grown now into his promised wife.

So Jack left his brother's house (with half the pigs) and moved to the other side of the forest, where he lived happily for a while with his squirrel wife. She showed him the secrets of the forest, from which they both benefitted (I enjoyed this bit of nature lore). But then Jack's older brother, jealous and angry (at loosing the pigs, and probably his brother's forced labor as well) found them and incited local villagers against Jack and his forest wife. They feared her strangeness, and willing to believe the lies told, imprisoned Jack. His wife, with the help of her green people, turns back into a squirrel to rescue Jack, but then he must make a choice. Will he have his wife, or the squirrel on his shoulder? For the green people say "fairy gifts cannot be given twice". I really like how the story ended. I keep thinking about it.

The illustrations by Wayne Anderson have a gentle, antique quality to them and remind me something of Tomie dePaola. My favorite page is the one that shows Jack exploring the forest in springtime, discovering many different nests and creatures living in trees before he finds a squirrel's nest, delightfully growing with leafy tendrils.
Rating: 4/5        32 pages, 1971