Nov 30, 2014

Beautiful Joe

by Marshall Saunders

Joe was not beautiful by any means. He was a mixed-breed dog (a "cur") owned by an abusive man who starved his mother, killed his unwanted littermates, and brutally chopped off his ears and tail. The dog was rescued by passerby who heard his screams, and taken into a home full of kind people obsessed with animals. The mother in this family believed her sons would grow up to be kind, considerate people if they had animals to care for, so she gave each of them specific charges. One boy kept goldfish and canaries, another fed and cared for the dogs in the household and so on. The book is not really a story of Joe's life, but a collection of tales about animals as they are related by various human characters in the book. Joe listens to a lot of conversations, and reports on them. The stories all press morals about being kind to animals (including wildlife), about training them properly and shunning abusive methods. Quite a number of people in the book take it upon themselves to succor animals in need wherever they find them, to punish people who abuse animals, and to correct and teach them if they've been neglecting them in ignorance. There are lots of short tales about dogs, horses, cattle, sheep, pigs and other livestock- how they respond to kindness and suffer from poor use. There's a story about a travelling Italian with a group of trained animals that perform (these are treated kindly), another about a man who abandons his livestock to starve (the description of their deplorable conditions reminded me of Animal Cops episodes). There are related incidents of how cruelly wild animals are trapped or killed, and quite a few passages about how animals that are raised for food should be treated well and humanely killed. It's also pointed out how keeping animals in poor condition can pass diseases on to people- for example, a slovenly milkman causes other people to become ill from the contaminated milk he sells. It is pretty sentimental overall, and the book tells its age- women are not yet able to vote in this story, anyone who doesn't attend church is considered "awfully wicked", Pasteur is alive and well in France- people travel to him to be cured of disease. There's also a focus on birds- how many thousands die to provide decoration for ladies' hats, and how the countryside suffers from overpopulation of insect pests as a result. On the whole, the city is shunned as an evil, dirty place and the countryside and farm life extolled throughout. A large portion of the book describes one young lady's visit to a relative's farm for the summer. I thought it rather laughable when a man tells some younger people that he doesn't worry about his sheep falling prey to dogs because Beautiful Joe would protect them- when in fact it seemed that Joe was always in the house at his mistress' side, or travelling with her- he never let her out of his sight. Not guarding the sheep. But that's a small point. It was an interesting read. Surprising how much- and how little- has changed. Animals raised for food still suffer for profit, though in a different fashion...

A few other things I recall now, looking at notes I made while reading- the stories warn against overfeeding and indulging animals just as much as neglecting them. At one point the family has a pet parrot and I was both surprised at its use of language (far more sophisticated than I think even a parrot would know to use) and that its diet included coffee grounds! I liked once scene where a girl breaks up a dogfight by throwing ground pepper in the dogs' faces (great use for pepper spray!) I appreciated the point the author made that dogs must be well-trained, but the way she described a puppy's training seemeed a bit ludicrous to me; did not sound like a method that would really work.

It is clear from the introduction to this book that it was written in response to the overwhelming popularity of Black Beauty, in the hopes of raising awareness to the suffering of other animal species and extending goodwill to all. And the author was a woman, but used a pseudonym because she feared not being taken seriously. I read this one as an ebook, from Project Gutenberg (what a wealth that site is!)

Rating: 3/5       1893, 256 pages

Nov 27, 2014


by Odo Hirsch

I am not so good on historical writing, but I think this story is supposed to occur in a time and place like the European Renaissance. The main character is a fourteen-year old boy named Yoss who leaves his isolated village to see the world. He ends up in a sprawling city full of corruption at every turn. The boy is not unintelligent, but has led so sheltered a life that he doesn't realize that the first men he meets are thieves. Taking advantage of his ignorance, they involve him in a crime for which the penalty is hanging. He escapes their company and falls in with some beggars instead, who give him a different picture of what life in the city is like. Then two thieves get caught and Yoss is of course included in the accusations. Fortunately he is saved from prison by the very merchant he had helped to rob- not realizing that the man keeps him in conditions equal to slavery. He is a hard worker, cheerful and trusting, and the merchant's employees can't help but like him. So when the merchant's wife wants to meet Yoss (for reasons of her own) the overseer has a hard time refusing. Yoss ends up not only in the secluded upstairs region of the household, but also begins keeping company with a hired artist working on a ceiling mural. The painter figures Yoss might as well help if he's going to hang around all day, so he begins learning rudiments of that trade. Meanwhile the thieves are trying to find a way to escape prison, one of them wants revenge, and when the merchant finds out that Yoss has been frequenting the upstairs and his overseer practically lying about it, he wants to throw to boy out (where he could face hanging). It's all a pretty pickle, and when the boy thinks about it himself, he can't figure how it all came about, why he should be the centre of everyone's concerns when he wanted none of the doings himself. He only wants to get home to his village again.

The first time I tried this book I couldn't get into it, but this time around I found the story engaging and all the characters interesting on different levels. I will probably want read it again someday.

Rating: 3/5         341 pages, 2001

Nov 25, 2014

Happy Jack

by Thornton W. Burgess

A story of a squirrel. It opens with the gray squirrel Happy Jack and the red Chatterer, quarreling over who claims the nuts of a hickory tree. While they are scolding and chasing each other around, a chipmunk advantageously gathers all the nuts they knock out of the tree! Then the chipmunk tricks one of the squirrels into raiding the other's stash of nuts, and the fracas continues. Eventually the chipmunk has a change of heart and invites the squirrels (plus a few other animals who happen by) to a little feast, where all is forgiven. Now Happy Jack has food for winter, but must search for a new home when the weasel threatens. At the same time the chickadee shows him where the farmer's boy is staying home in bed, gravely ill- his mother is putting nuts on the bedroom windowsill which tempts the birds to visit. The chickadee encourages Happy Jack to approach the window and even more daring, to feed from the boy's hand and eventually enter the room. It's really very well-presented, how fearful these forays must be from the squirrel's point of view. It turns out that Happy Jack's trust in the farmer boy saves him when the weasel comes hunting again, and the boy also tries to give him a new home. All is well in the end, the squirrels having learned not to be so greedy, and Happy Jack finding new trust and friendship. I did like one little touch that shows the farmer boy doesn't necessarily favor only the cute animals- he traps and removes the weasel, but releases it further off in the forest.

These stories never loose their appeal for me. I enjoy how they show the natural behavior of animals- the competition between the squirrel species, the predation by the weasel, their efforts to save food for winter and find shelter, all wrapped into a charming story about trust, friendship, hard work and generosity.

Rating: 3/5       140 pages, 1918

Nov 22, 2014

The Woman at Otowi Crossing

By Frank Waters

In a remote area of New Mexico, Helen runs a tea shop at a now-defunct railroad station. She is feeling rather adrift with the shutting down of the railroad, when her life starts to change. A daughter she had abandoned practically at birth comes to visit, hoping to build a relationship with her mother and ecstatic at the prospect of visiting pueblo ruins (she's a budding anthropologist). Helen experiences a change in consciousness, an opening to the oneness of things, a closeness to the slow methodical way of life embodied by the Navajo around her. It grows into a kind of spirituality that causes a rift between her and her long-time lover Turner, an aspiring news reporter. Then a secret government project moves in, taking over a local boys' school and blocking off large areas of the desert. In spite of the sworn secrecy and distance he's supposed to keep from the locals, one young scientist on the project, Gaylord, becomes involved with the anthropologist girl.  The tea room becomes frequented by men from the secret project "up the Hill", the reporter tries to find out what's going on up there, and gradually all their lives become intertwined.

I learned fairly soon that the big secret was the making and testing of atomic bombs. The beauty of the southwest setting and the quiet local people is a stark contrast to the dry scientific nature of the terrible project. The horrific potential looming, the shock of people when they found out what was going on, the ridiculous festiveness they brought to the test sites when it was revealed to the press. The characters are a study in contrasts too- the anthropologist a spoiled, passionate headstrong girl, her mother so calm and knowing, understood by few. I really didn't get a clear picture of what the legend was that grew around her; even though it was stated numerous times that the locals came to respect then revere her, including her in their sacred ceremonies. I liked how real these characters seemed- complex people each with their own reasons, each of them had something that appealed to me or I could in some way relate to.

Yet I had to force myself thorough to the end, even though I really wanted to like the book. It has a very slow start. The writing can feel rather jumbled; the descriptions of the scientific work was completely unclear to me and the narrative is interspersed with odd present-day snippets showing different individuals reminiscing about the events of the story, as if interviewed by the author. I didn't get it. I didn't quite get the spirituality that unfolded with Helen, although I liked the glimpses into Navajo culture and faith. But once again, that was not very well-explained and it was only a bit familiar to me because I've read a few other books featuring pueblo groups in the southwest.

It reminded me in some ways of Fire on the Mountain.

Rating: 2/5        314 pages, 1966

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Nov 19, 2014

Witch Child

by Celia Rees

Mary's grandmother, the woman who raised her and taught her healing skills, has been denounced as a witch and put to death. In fear for her own life, Mary flees England to cross the ocean with a group of Puritans who are also seeking to escape persecution. The journey is long and difficult; they finally arrive to discover their companions who had gone ahead are no longer in the original settlement, but have moved deep into the forest. Mary goes along with trepidation- she has no friends in this new land, but doesn't really fit in with the Puritans either. She is constantly afraid of coming under suspicion. Her behavior doesn't fall under their strict code of living, and when she wanders into the forest to collect herbs, cautiously befriending a native american boy, the colony begins to suspect her. It's obvious they want a scapegoat to blame for their troubles, but it disgusted me how the other young women in the colony tried to manipulate the villagers' fear against her for their own gain. I found this story riveting and succinctly told; was a bit curious about the sequel but the opening passage from it included at the rear of the book dissuaded me of that- it appears to go in a different direction I'm not much interested in. I do really like the cover image of this book- it's such a simple yet compelling image.

Rating: 3/5      261 pages, 2000

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Nov 18, 2014

The Bird Book

edited by Richard Shaw

Simple little book, very appealing. It's a collection of short stories, poems and fables about birds, illustrated with drawings and paintings in varied styles. The authors include William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Kenneth Grahame, Alfred Tennyson, Robert Louis Stevenson, Aesop and many others. Robins are featured prominently- I suppose because they're popular and familiar. My favorite was the old English folktale about the magpie showing the other birds how to build nests- she went through a complicated series of steps but the others did not wait to see the whole process, each leaving when they saw something they liked or recognized, and thus they all made different kind of nests.

There are several other collections of poetry and art about foxes, owls, cats and frogs compiled by the same author. I'd like to see those books too, I think I'd enjoy them.

Rating: 3/5    48 pages, 1974

Nov 17, 2014

The Thinking Dog's Man

by Ted Patrick

Another book of dog stories I picked up at a used sale. This one is a bit more focused- it contains the author's personal take on various subjects surrounding dogs: their loyalty, devotion to man, perceptive senses, training and so forth. In most cases he points out how common perceptions (of his time) are flawed and what a dog is really doing has a matter-of-fact explanation- such as that dogs are not psychic but know when you're coming home because they actually hear your vehicle when its still two miles from the house, or how easily they can find their way home when lost or moved (without their consent) because they can remember landmarks, scents, and have a directional sense. He also discusses dog breeding and shows, what makes a champion (how easily a good handler can turn any well-bred dog into a champion by strategic entries), how certain breeds have been degraded by their popularity, how to properly choose a dog etc etc. It's written in an amiable, somewhat amusing style that makes for easy reading, but nothing in here really stands out compared to other dog books I've read. In fact probably the most interesting sections are the forward written by John Steinbeck (on why he doesn't want to write an introduction, and tossing in a few brief stories of his own as if he can't help himself) and the last few chapters which tell of the author's own dogs- all of them Airedales.

Rating: 3/5      150 pages, 1964

Nov 16, 2014

Cats and Dogs

Woofs and Purrs, Spits and Grrrs
edited by Claire Necker

A bit similar to the last book, this one is a collection of sayings, stories, fables and other material comparing cats to dogs, or at least including them together. There are poems, entries from old bestiaries, proverbs, old charms and cures that used cat and dog hair together (to drive couples apart, most of them). Most of it is just various thoughts and observations on the nature of cats versus dogs, why certain people like one or the other, and how they most often fight but can also be good companions in the household. The cat's nature was most often compared to women, and the dog touted as a man's companion. It was curious to see the two sides of every opinion- cats both praised for their independence and vilified for being indifferent and self-centered; dogs lauded for their loyalty and faithfulness, but by others scorned for their servility. It's interesting reading to a point- the rather archaic attitudes become tiresome, the material is repetitive, but there are a few delightful stories and curious tales about cats and dogs co-existing, highlighting their differences. I thought I was familiar with some folktales regarding cats and dogs for instance, but all the ones about "why cats and dogs fight" included here were new to me!

Rating: 2/5        306 pages, 1969

Nov 14, 2014

The Tiger in the House

A Cultural History of the Cat
by Carl Van Vechten

A wonderful compilation of all things relating to cats. In particular their history- how they have been treated by mankind throughout the ages in different cultures. The author is obviously very fond of cats and points out all their endearing traits throughout the book. Then mentions all the references he can think of from literature, art, poetry and even music that include cats. It is quite a jumble of observations and quotes, but very intriguing to read through. The chapter about ailurophobes, which describes how certain people loathed cats so much it was like a disease- they would physically suffer if one was in the room even unseen- made me wonder if this was simply a case of severe allergic reactions. The portion titled "Cats and the Occult" was rather horrific in describing all the ways cats have been tortured to death, thrown off towers, sacrificed for various reasons, their body parts ground up and skins used as cures, and one which I had never hear of and now wish I never had- the cat organ. Gah. Who ever thought such a thing was amusing? Then there are mentions of cats that lived in theaters and inspired (or hindered) the performers, cats that inspired musical compositions (some written to mimic the sound a cat makes walking across piano keys!) cats featured in poetry, and cats beloved by famed authors. There are a number of plates showing artwork and photographs of cats, but so many paintings were referenced in the book I wished to see more. And my only disappointment is that so very many quotes regarding cats were shared in French, with no translation provided. I could look up a few sayings and short poems, but entire passages nearly filling a page defeat me.

Rating: 3/5       425 pages, 1921

Nov 9, 2014

The Dark Horse

by Marcus Sedgwick

In a small, struggling coastal settlement during ancient times, life is difficult and getting harder every year. Crops are failing, the fish no longer abundant, winters cold and long. The people are barely surviving. Then they discover a small ragged girl in a wolf cave, and bring her home. She has an uncanny ability to communicate with animals which they mistrust and fear, even as it could save them from starvation. But there is more to her obscure past. While scavenging for food on the shoreline, the wolf girl and her adopted brother find a mysterious, beautiful wooden box among the flotsam. They take it home, but the girl is plagued with a deep fear of it. Then a stranger comes among them, asking for the box. At the same time, rumors are arising of a warring tribe descending from the north, and the tribe is in turmoil as their leadership falters. All these events are in some way connected to the wolf girl, and as they try to first deal with then flee their oncoming fate, she might be their entire undoing. This is a fast-paced story. Well told, with sparse yet vivid language. It definitely kept my attention. Even to the very end, I was never quite anticipating where the story would turn next.

Rating: 3/5       224 pages, 2003

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Nov 4, 2014

Our Precarious Habitat

by Melvin A. Benarde

Sometimes I pick up old books on subjects that have advanced so much there's a risk of misinformation. I feel like there's a threshold here: if the book is old enough, I'm liable to just be amused at the different viewpoint it presents; if it's closer in time and sounds sensible, I can't always pick apart what's irrelevant information according to newer findings. Such is the case with this volume. A book that attempts to inform the public about our interrelationship with the environment- how things we do on a large scale alter the environment and how that in turn adversely affects humanity. It covers topics such as air and water pollution, pesticide use, food contamination, diseases that cross from animals to humans, waste disposal, occupational hazards, population growth and so on. I read the chapter about food poisoning and it did give me a clear picture of what causes the risks and how food should be handled safely, although the stories of food recalls were mild cases compared to what I've seen in the news in recent years!

But an earlier section in the book baffled me and raised doubts to the veracity of its content. The page begins thus: By 1975 construction is expected to begin on a sea-level canal across the Isthmus of Panama, linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It goes on to caution that further environmental studies should be done, that the spread of species from one ocean into the other could be detrimental in ways we can't yet imagine. True, but wasn't the Panama Canal finished in 1914? Is this a serious typo or what? I felt pretty dubious about the rest of the book after this. When I got to a later chapter extolling the use of DDT for the great good it could do in reducing mosquito populations and thus malaria epidemics- I had to stop. Silent Spring was published in 1962. I'm pretty sure DDT was banned in the early 70's, why would this book be praising such a deadly pesticide. Its horrific effects were already known at the time. Both these reading incidents made me wonder if the original version of the book (I had a revised edition in hand) was actually written a decade earlier, but I could find no earlier publication date, and searches online did not turn up an earlier first edition either. So I quit it. Needless to say, this book is not staying on my shelf.

It appears to have been used as a university text in the past; I sincerely hope that's no longer the case. Or at least that whoever uses it can point out its errors. I wish they could be explained to me!

Abandoned        448 pages, 1970

Nov 3, 2014

The Snake

by John Godey

It's a pretty simple story: a dangerously large and poisonous snake gets accidentally released in New York's Central Park by a drunken sailor just ashore from the tropics. Of course it bites some people, and the first few cases baffle doctors. Once they realize a deadly snake is on the loose, pandemonium breaks out. Everyone is rushing to the scene- the police force, news reporters, anxious citizens. Most want to just find the snake and get rid of it, but there's also a herpetologist who would prefer to catch it and a strange religious faction that views the snake as an incarnation of evil they alone are destined to deal with. I was a bit intrigued with the descriptions from the snake's point of view- how it moved, what motivated it, why it went where it did- but that is only a small part of the novel. Most of it is about the uproar in the city, an outbreak of snake-related pranks and crimes, the refusal of most residents to stay out of the park, a ridiculous scene when six hundred people release their dogs at the same time- hoping they will locate and drive out the snake. It doesn't happen. The final scene is a chaotic fire and riot caused by the religious group, and the snake meets a brutal end at the hands of furious and idiotic people. I don't feel bad about giving it away because I doubt any of you will read this book- it's an amusing thing you can practically read in one sitting, cringing at the older stereotypes all the while. It has a tidy ending with an obvious lead for a sequel- if this was a scary movie (which I pictured the entire time) I'm sure one would be made.

Rating: 2/5       183 pages, 1978

Nov 2, 2014


the Art of Birds
by Janine Burke

This is a quiet little book, and not exactly what I expected. From the little information able to glean from the front and rear covers, I assumed the book would be about the skill birds put into building their nests (I was hoping for something rather like Secrets of the Nest). While it does cover that topic, the book also ranges into art and poetry. The author shares her love of birds, her fascination with their nest-building skills and beauty, their secrecy and devotion. She describes both her own experiences discovering and observing bird life, and those of other people, including the famed Attenborough. While I have long admired Attenborough, I never fantasized about meeting him on a safari trek like she did! Being an Australian native, Burke discusses many Autstralian birds and habitats, which was interesting to me, but other than that I did not learn much new about the birds. Then there's the human connection- how birds have inspired certain poets and how the poets felt an affinity to avian creatures.The poets and authors she mentioned were mostly familiar to me- Virginia Woolf, William Wordsworth, Hans Christian Anderson, Karen Blixen, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Mary Shelley- their connection to birds less so, their personal tragedies previously unknown (to me) and sad to read of. She also delves into the question of art- are bird nests purely utilitarian, or do they themselves have an appreciation of the beauty they create? this is particularly apt when you consider the bower bird.

All in all, the book is a pleasant jumble of thoughts, one that I enjoyed reading but do not really expect to revisit- after closing the covers last night, nothing much stands out to me now.

Rating: 3/5      182 pages, 2012

Nov 1, 2014

State of Wonder

by Ann Patchett

This was a strange and intriguing story, which took quite a few turns I didn't expect. It's about a research doctor who is suddenly sent by her company deep into the Amazon jungle to locate some missing colleagues. Dr. Marina Singh usually does lab research, but communication has lapsed for a long time with one of their prestigious research doctors  who is in the jungle working to develop a fertility drug. They had already sent another employee down there to find the uncommunicable Dr. Swenson, but he is reportedly dead of a fever. Marina Singh was his best friend. Promising his grieving wife to find out what happened, and to get a status update for her company on Dr. Swenson's work, she finds herself en route to the Amazon herself. After endless waiting to make contact she finally arrives at the research station in the remote jungle where the team almost immediately engages her in the work. And things are not exactly what they seem here. Everything is strange and difficult at first- torrential rain, threatening insects, improvising with limited supplies, bizarre native customs, huge snakes, there's even a neighboring cannibal tribe. The story is about anthropology and the intricacies of an unexplored ecosystem, about the ruthlessness of a big drug company, about unexpected discoveries that have far-reaching implications, and about searching out answers to long-held questions. I found the ending particularly captivating, especially regarding what happened to Easter, a deaf-mute boy from another tribe who had been unofficially adopted by Dr. Swenson. It's a book I keep thinking about, days after finishing.

Rating: 3/5      353 pages, 2011

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