Dec 31, 2014

2014 book numbers

Not that I obsess about stats- I don't even think about it most of the year, and this time didn't keep a tally sheet- so it's a bit tedious to count up the numbers. But it's still nice to see how things ebb and flow, how my reading habits change over the years. I'm following same pattern as 2013 and 2012 (in terms of what I count/look at) here. Please note- numbers don't always match up to the total because some books are in more than one category, and that's just how it is.

Total books read- 105

Fiction- 36
Non-fiction- 69

non-fiction breakdown
Art- 8
Gardening- 5
J Non-fiction- 6
Memoirs- 15
Nature- 5
Animals- 55
Other- 10

fiction breakdown
YA- 7
Historical Fiction- 15
Fantasy- 3
J Fiction- 8
Picture books- 28 
Animals in Fic- 23
Baby books- 6

other formats
Short stories- 2
Graphic novels- 1
Ebooks- 6

Owned- 59
Library- 69
Review copies- 3
Borrowed from a friend- 2

other numbers
Abandoned books- 13
Re-reads- 1

This year I didn't include picture books in the general tally (that feels more honest). And I read far more of them to my kid than the mere 28 I blogged about. So of course the numbers aren't perfect, but you get a general idea.

Places I visited in books this year: various South American and African countries (notably the Amazon jungle, Zululand and Somalia), rural Italy, Northumberland, several remote mountain peaks including Everest, Afghanistan, Holland, Poland and the South Pacific.

Great books? It seems none of the fiction really stood out for me this year (I'm still leaning heavy into non-fiction reading). The best all-around fish book (lots of those!) was The Simple Guide to Freshwater Fishkeeping, the most stunning art/photography book was The Life and Love of Cats and my favorite picture books were Extra Yarn, The Curious Garden and The Squirrel Wife (I'd add all those to my kids' collection if I find them).

Yeah, not so exciting I know. How was your reading year?

Dec 30, 2014

The Cat

by Edeet Ravel

This story is not really about a cat. It is about navigating grief. A lonely mother, isolated from friends and family, is devastated by the loss of her only -and very much cherished- son when he is accidentally hit by a car. On the roadside in front of her house, no less. She locks herself up, refusing visitors, turning off her phone and closing email, in effort to deaden the pain. She wants to end her own life, but realizes (with horror at first) that she cannot abandon the cat her son loved- she must stay to take care of it. The story follows her thoughts and memories through numbness, pain, anger, resentment, guilt and finally to an outlook of possible hope and recovery. It took a little while for me to realize she was not only avoiding people because of her pain and anger- her whole life had been spent feeling mostly alone, shamed by the birthmark on her face. Through the pages you learn about a painful childhood, an only friend lost long ago, a few college lovers whom she felt betrayed by, a complicated mix of family she mostly avoids. But finally she reconnects to a few people and realizes they still do care for her, after all the years apart. For a relatively short book, it's very intense.

Rating: 3/5       221 pages, 2012

more opinions:
Book Chase
The Indextrious Reader
Bibliophile by the Sea
the 3 Rs Blog

Dec 29, 2014

October Light

by John Gardner

Okay, so has anyone out there read this book and can tell me more about it? Because I'm really wondering if it has any merit to continue on, or should I just throw it down as I feel wont to do. I looked at some reviews online to get a better feel of this book- seems people either love it as being a great work, or find it awful and tedious (as I did). This is as far as I got: it's a turn-of-the-century novel about two elderly siblings in a farmhouse and the man hates his sister and locks her in a bedroom where she reads a crappy novel that's also interspersed in this novel. And they plot against each other. And the old man is bitter and scornful of everything around him. I was intrigued by one aspect: how the elderly people felt proud of their skills and knowledge and looked down on newfangled inventions that made life easier. One scene in particular was vivid: the old man smirking at another on the roadside whose car (new invention) had stalled from the cold, while he sat up high on a sleigh pulled by two strong horses- warm living flesh that would always function, not rendered inert by cold like the machine. The description of him baffled me, though. I picked this book up because I remember liking Grendel (same author) in high school, but this one I don't seem to be able to read. The long-winded descriptions loose my attention and the characters confound me- I don't understand them, and I don't like them so I don't care to try more.

Abandoned     440 pages, 1976

Dec 24, 2014

Animal Talk

by Karen Gravelle and Anne Squire

This book is all about how animals communicate, with each other and with us. It's written for young readers (I would say age group eight to twelve) but is very informative and I even learned a few things (that ducklings coordinate their hatching time by responding to the mother's calls through the shell, and that rattlesnakes can't hear the sound they produce with their own tails!) While none of the topics are discussed in a lot of depth, they are all clearly presented. Each section is headed with a short descriptive passage of an animal interacting with others, and then the following chapter explains how this is possible. Not only the different methods animals use to communicate- sound, scent, touch, body posture and so on- but also why their communication abilities differ (animals that live underground or are nocturnal don't use many visual signals, for example). Animals featured in the book include honeybees, rattlesnakes, prairie dogs, housecats, chimpanzees, songbirds, elephants, seals, deer, frogs, sheep and even certain fish (which pulse electric signals to each other)! The final chapters discuss why dogs are so good at communicating with people (we share many similar types of signals) and how humans have taught signals and rudimentary language to dolphins, chimpanzees and gorillas. I was familiar with the apes briefly presented here- Lucy, Washoe and Koko. Even though this book is written for kids, it was a satisfying quick read for me.

Rating: 3/5        114 pages, 1988

Dec 23, 2014

Talking to Animals

by Barbara Woodhouse

An old book I picked up at a secondhand shop once. The author is an adamant animal-lover, and she tells of her life with various animals, how she raised and trained many, her methods and affinity with them. She can be stern but mostly comes across in this book as training animals with encouragement and praise. The book opens with her childhood around horses and dogs, and she tells of attending an agricultural college when few women were allowed to. She then went to visit friends at a cattle range in Argentina and ended up staying on and working for them, stepping in wherever needed- as much as they would allow! Women weren't supposed to break horses, so it took some cleverness on her part to be allowed the chance, and once the men saw she could train a horse in a few days with gentle methods, she got the job to break and train horses continually. Returning to England she faced hard times during war years, had to sell her horses but started keeping dairy cows to sell milk in the neighborhood- so there's a lot about her work with cows- not only how she kept them and got extra yield, but also how she let her children ride the cows and eventually was called up anytime someone wanted a cow to use in a film! because hers were known for being docile and that she could "do anything with them." When the war ended her household moved, and she began buying and selling cattle, but eventually got back into training horses again, and then tried to get her favorite dog- a great dane- acting in films as well. She found it difficult and tiresome to deal with film companies, but became known as a dog trainer and took up running dog obedience classes as well. This was not a woman to ever take no for an answer- often she got around regulations for her dairy cattle, she made and produced her own film on dog training and self-published a book about her great dane. There are a lot more stories in here, all wrapped around the animals, her love for them, and her claims that upon initially earning an animal's trust, she could teach it to do anything she wanted.

I found particularly interesting the description of her time spent in South America, the different customs there and methods they used to manage livestock and train their horses. She also tells of becoming diabetic while she lived there, and nearly died of the condition until she took a local remedy from a tree which she claims completely cured her.

Also a curious passage which made me wonder about the origins of the nursery ryhme/song "Rock a Bye Baby". She tells of a native custom where if a baby died, the people did not want to put the body underground but instead would tie the small coffin up in a tree. And a storm blew it down. And they collected the remains and tied it up again. She doesn't say how long they would leave the coffin in the tree- indefinitely?

Rating: 3/5        208 pages, 1974

Dec 20, 2014

The Devious Book for Cats

a parody
by Joe Garden, Janet Ginsburg, Chris Pauls, Anita Serwacki, Scott Sherman

Funny book about why cats do what they do, written as if it's one cat giving instructions to another. From how to wake your human, napping styles, methods to employ in a cat fight, planning secret missions (against humans in the household of course) to the horrors of the crazy cat lady, waging war against the vacuum cleaner and more. Dogs are absolutely dismissed. There's also, interestingly, notes on how to handle the indignity of being declawed (an enterprising cat can still disembowel an armchair to launch a sneak attack). And notes on what kinds of dead prey make the best gifts to a human provider. Also some kitty viewpoints on famous cats in history, wild feline relatives, cats from comic strips and online personas. If this book had been published some years later, I'm sure it would have featured Maru, Grumpy Cat or (one of my favorites) Simon's Cat. As is, I learned about the origins of the lucky Japanese Maneki Neko cat figurines. It's an amusing book, and pretty true to the character of cats, but not one I'll actually keep on my shelf. Because I've seen it done better, in a book called The Silent Meow- which this one only made me want to go read all over again.

Rating: 3/5       213 pages, 2008

Dec 16, 2014

The Big New Yorker Book of Cats

forward by Anthony Lane

I don't read the New Yorker, and now I know why. It's obviously not for me. You'd think an animal lover who admires cats would enjoy this book, but no. It was really uneven. Certainly an eclectic collection of stories. There are stories about family pet cats, exotic wildcat crosses, and even a lady who hordes tigers (reminded me of some episodes from a tv program Fatal Attractions I used to watch). There are articles about cat fanciers and breeders, cat rescuers, cats who live in shops, cats that perform in tv commercials. One very dull piece was all about the work a man does in a cat welfare organization, dictated from his desk. Many others I either disliked or could not comprehend well enough to finish reading- the writing was just too sophisticated for my taste, I suppose. I simply was not interested in what the people in them were doing, or thinking, or talking about. And too often the cat was simply an article in the background, not a focus of the story at all. So out of all fifty-seven short stories and articles, only a dozen will I mention here:

"The Cats" by John Updike- when a man's elderly mother dies, he must figure out what to do with the forty stray cats she's been feeding in her backyard. (The end solution is to either let them starve, or ask a neighbor to shoot them all).

"Town of Cats" by Haruki Murakami- a boy and his father have difficulty understand and relating to each other, until the boy shares with his father a story from a book he read on the train- about a secret town inhabited solely by cats. This is one that kept me thinking- I'd like to revisit it to understand better.

"Lady of the Cats" by Wolcott Gibbs and E. F. Kinkead- article about a woman in the city who makes it her personal duty to catch stray cats. To the extent of overwhelming animal shelters and taking people to court over mistreatment of animals.

"A Dull, Ordinary, Normal Life in Manhattan" by Bernard Taper- amusing little story about a family that spends all day trying to find their missing cat, which they can hear crying. Finally the husband follows the cat through an open window into a neighbor's apartment, just as they arrive home from vacation.

"Tiger in the Snow" by Peter Matthiessen- I have a full-length book of the same title by this author. I've tried to read it once and found the writing style rather dry (which disappointed me, as I've often come across the author's name- he writes many books about wildlife fieldwork, a subject I usually enjoy). This excerpt was still dry reading, but at least I made it through. About a study done on tigers in Siberia.

"The Last Meow" by Burkhard Bilger- true story about a beloved pet cat that receives a kidney transplant. Part of it is the story of this one cat's treatment, the rest looks at how the veterinary scene is changing- how increasingly sophisticated medical procedures are available for pets and the owners that are willing to pay for them. Very interesting.

"The Lady and the Tigers" by Susan Orlean- about a woman in New Jersey who kept over a dozen tigers on her property in arguably deplorable conditions.

"Living Room Leopards" by Ariel Levy- article on the growing number of breeders crossing domestic cats with wild species in attempt to get something really exotic-looking. It discusses the Bengal, Savannah and in particular the toyger- how breeders are trying to make it look more like a tiger- not just the rounded ears and distinct stripes but down to the skeletal proportions that make it pace and move like a big cat.

"Edward the Conqueror" by Roald Dahl- it surprised me to see who wrote this story! Curious tale of a woman who becomes convinced that a cat which shows up in their yard is in fact, a reincarnation of Franz Liszt. This because of how the cat reacts when she plays certain piano pieces. Her husband thinks she's going crazy.

"Tooth and Claw" by T. Coraghessan Boyle- rather disturbing story about a guy who looses a bet in a bar, and winds up possessing an African serval. A girl from the bar goes home with him, convinces him to lock the wildcat in his bedroom and insists on helping care for it, but abandons him when things get increasingly dangerous and difficult to manage.

"Where I Live" by Amy Ozols- amusing narration by someone inviting another into their home, giving a little tour as it were of the small studio apartment and making increasing excuses and explanations as it becomes alarmingly apparent how many cats live there!

"Cat 'N' Mouse" by Steven Millhauser- this one reads like a script of old Tom and Jerry cartoons- complete with anvils falling, heads getting cut off, sticks of dynamite exploding in the hand (or paw, actually). But interspersed with the slapstick action are segments which narrate what the cat and mouse are thinking, respectively- one driven to catch the other, one certain to die if he ever fails- each wondering if they could ever put their differences aside and be friends- frustrated and bored beyond belief by the constant conflict they are in.

There is also a piece by Vicki Hearne, which was the final chapter of this book- and I had just as much difficulty reading it the second time around. The best part of the entire volume was the poetry, cover artwork and cartoons interspersed throughout. I really did like most of those! But not enough that I'd probably ever want to own this book.

Rating: 2/5        329 pages, 2013

Dec 12, 2014

Where the Blind Horse Sings

by Kathy Stevens

This book is about an animal sanctuary which focuses on rescuing mistreated and abandoned farm animals. Via her work, Stevens educates the public about how poorly livestock is treated when used for food production by big industries, the depth of emotional feeling these animals can have, that they deserve better from our hands. Her book is all about the animals- where they have come from and how they recover (or sometimes don't). She doesn't focus a lot on the horrors they have escaped, but on their healing process and the personalities that unfold as these terrified, ill and pain-wracked animals find kindness for the first time in their lives. Out of the hundreds of animals that have come to her sanctuary, she shares the stories of a mere handful: some very assertive pigs, a duck that has never seen water, an ex-fighting rooster- said to be vicious, but it wanted to sleep on her bed, and was passionate about car rides! This rooster became the only animal Stevens took out on public visits, because most animals found travel away from their new safe home too stressful. She tells of her beloved dog who is always in the midst of things helping out, and a belligerent sheep who becomes a self-appointed guardian to the other animals. There are many more. My favorite story is also one that threads constantly through the book- about a blind horse who arrived at the sanctuary frightened to take a single step forward- he had spent weeks prior standing motionless to avoid barbed wire in a small pen. With immense patience, Stevens instilled trust and confidence in this horse- she taught him simple verbal directions and eventually was able to not only take the horse on trail rides, but to ride him across flat fields - at a run. The joy this horse felt at being able to really move again was unmistakable. This is a very accessible book full of compassion for the animals. While the author doesn't go into a lot of detail about what the various animals have suffered in their past, she provides an extensive list of titles for those who want to know. I've read a few of those books, have others on my list.

I borrowed this one from the library. First heard of it on Opinions of a Wolf

Rating: 3/5         204 pages, 2007

Dec 9, 2014

more TBR

bloggers duly noted below are guilty of adding to my future reading pleasure!
Lives in Ruins by Marilyn Johnson- Sophisticated Dorkiness
The Hills is Lonely by Lillian Beckworth- Read Warbler
Tracks by Robyn Davidson- Caroline Bookbinder
The Guest Cat by Takashi Hirade- Farm Lane Books Blog
The Republic of Imagination by Azar Nafisi- At Home with Books
Spoiled Brats by Simon Rich- Bermudaonion's Weblog
Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer- So Many Books
The Writer's Garden by Jackie Bennett- So Many Books
Getting Life by Michael Morton- Shannon's Book Bag
Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz- So Many Books
Bad Elephant Far Stream by Samuel Hawley from Opinions of a Wolf

Through the Eyes of the Condor

An Aerial Vision of Latin America
by Robert B. Haas

I picked this book up from the library at the same time of Through the Eyes of the Gods. It's a similar tome featuring aerial photography- in this case crossing the rivers, deltas, mountains, jungles, cities and deserts of South America. I was a bit disappointed- for some reason I did not find the imagery as compelling as the prior book, although in this case the writing wherein Haas describes his work and vision (the technical aspects, travel difficulties, thrill of discovery, art of working with the camera from diverse angles created by banking aircraft) was more interesting. The forward was lovely, very poetic writing. My favorite photograph is one showing an expanse of giant lily pads- the kind that can support a person! If you look very closely you can tell that this isn't a pond like a Monet painting- on one lily pad a caiman rests, looking small as a salamander from the distance. I also really liked a particular photo showing salt pits just off a coastline- making a curious abstract pattern against blue waters- and one of crops, the tight circular heads of cabbage in straight geometric rows, bold green on reddish soil. Other images sent me to look for more information- lithium fields, the Huayllay "rock forest". Things I'd never seen before.

Rating: 3/5    232 pages, 2007

Dec 8, 2014

The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter

by Holly Robinson

A lively read- it's amusing and interesting, reminded me of many things and taught me others. It's another memoir, about growing up in a family with a very curious secret: her father raised gerbils. By the thousands. Some were sold to pet shops, but most were to supply medical and scientific research. The author's father was in the military, and for the longest time kept his gerbil hobby a secret, because it wouldn't look proper. Later when he had his own gerbil farm instead of a basement or garage setup, he just let neighbors in the rural community assume they bred rats. His efforts to produce animals with certain traits needed in research led to her father becoming famous among certain circles, but it wasn't until Holly grew up and took her own children to a gerbil show that she discovered another side: gerbil fanciers. Actually though, most of the story isn't about gerbils. It's about growing up: dealing with siblings, parents, moving, going through a horse craze, first boyfriends and so on. The chapters about her sister who had cystic fibrosis reminded me acutely of a book I read decades ago called Alex: the Life of a Child. I like the way this book is written- it has a very engaging style that reminded me of Betty MacDonald.

Rating: 3/5        288 pages, 2009

Dec 6, 2014

Comet's Tale

How the Dog I Rescued Saved My Life
by Steven D. Wolf with Lynette Padwa

Memoir of a man and his dog. Steve, more often called Wolf, had recently separated from his family to live in a warmer climate during winter months, due to a debilitating back condition. He encountered a group that rescued abandoned racing greyhounds, and was captivated by a particular dog, Comet. Even though he had trouble taking care of himself, Wolf adopted Comet and helped her learn about daily life: raised pretty much as livestock, she had never been inside a house, never encountered stairs, tile floors, dog treats, children, crowds of shoppers and the like. As Wolf learned to understand Comet, she gradually lost her nervousness, gained confidence, and became devoted to him. When his health and mobility seriously deteriorated, he decided to train Comet as an assistance dog. Trainers he consulted had never heard of a greyhound being an assistance animal, none of them would take her on. So Wolf taught her himself, through trial-and-error, how to help him perform daily tasks that had become difficult or impossible- from opening doors and picking up dropped objects to navigating stairs and shopping malls. It's amazing to see how Comet stepped into her new role and learned what was expected of her. But it's not just a story of this man and his dog. It's also about living with disability, the strain it puts on his family relationships, what it's like to deal with decades of chronic pain (I thought about The Camera My Mother Gave Me more than once while reading this book). Not without its serious and funny moments, this is overall an inspiring and touching story.

Rating: 3/5        257 pages, 2012

more opinions:
Diary of an Eccentric

Dec 5, 2014

I'm signing up

for the Dare again. Read the details here. I'm glad it's being held one more time! I always enjoy participating. I've slowly been working towards a goal of getting through enough TBR shelves in my home that unread material will fit in one bookcase. I'd like to shuffle a hundred not-to-be-kept books out the door (total unread pile is still near two hundred). So this will help me get closer to the goal.

I don't know why I always mistakenly think that vacation means more reading time, it usually doesn't. My own kids were gone for more than a week over thanksgiving, but my time was spent at my boyfriend's house with folks visiting, cooking and cleaning, good conversations, raking leaves off the yard, throwing leaves onto children (my boyfriend's son and niece), raking them up again, working on some creative projects for christmas gifts, working on the computer and so on. I had checked out a pile of tempting books from the library in anticipation of extra reading time, but then realized the Dare was upcoming. I kept the three I was in the middle of, two more that are actually on my TBR list, and returned the rest.

So let's see how many more volumes I can pile onto that out-the-door heap, or fall in love with and reshelve with my keepers.

Dec 2, 2014

Through the Eyes of the Gods

by Robert B. Haas
An Aerial View of Africa

Photography from the air. Stunning spreads of imagery captured from a small low-flying aircraft. Revealing patterns of the landscape, wrinkles in rolling hills and sand dunes, spreading fingers from volcanic islands, weaving threads of ancient animal trails and pathways. The sinuous lines of riverbeds, the undulating shapes of coral reefs, the movement of herds. Human activity is pictured here too- scattering of huts, pockmarks of dying pits at a riverside, lines of fruit trays or conical heaps of salt dotting an area, snaky curves of fish traps- but mostly it is an image of the soul of the land, of its soil and flora, of the animal life moving in and out of view. I particularly noted the description of how a hunt is viewed so different from the air than from the ground- instead of a close focus on individuals you get a picture of the herd movement responding to the pressure of the predator. The author's musings on the land and its wildlife make for thoughtful, poetic reading. My favorite passage was about how deeply mesmerizing it can be to sit and watch the ocean waves or a flickering fire. There are also some writings on the conundrum of dealing with officials in Africa (moving through airports, trying to extend his stay, avoiding exploitation from pilots and so on) and the technical challenges involved in aerial photography.

I've had my eye on this volume for a long time. It has been high up on a display shelf behind the information counter at my public library for ages. Every time I walked by, I glanced at it and wondered what it contained. Now I know. It's the kind of book you really want to linger over.

Rating: 4/5          208 pages, 2005