Apr 27, 2015

Love, Let Me Not Hunger

by Paul Gallico

This book surprised me. It's about a small circus that falls onto hard times. Entertainment shifting towards the new invention of television, the circus owner decides to take his tour to Spain, where nobody in the small villages has tv yet and his performers will still be appreciated. But when they get there, after a promising start, disaster strikes. The locals are equally devastated by natural disaster, and can't offer any help. When the owner and most of the circus hands return to England to seek redress and assistance, just a few people are left behind to care for the animals. Pretty soon their money runs out, they are all starving, and turn to rather desperate measures to keep the valuable livestock - and themselves- alive.

I was surprised on several fronts. Surprised at the turns the story took- nothing was as I expected, yet I could imagine all this really happening. Surprised at how well it was told, how tender and brutally realistic at the same time. Most of all, surprised at how much this book was about sexuality. Not in a sordid way (although one amazon reviewer thought so- I couldn't find opinions elsewhere online of this book- it seems pretty obscure). But, I thought, in an honest depiction. There's a young girl Rose, grown up in poverty, who comes along with the circus as companion to one of the clowns- she keeps house for him in his little caravan, and becomes enamoured of the animals in the menagerie. There's the strict moral code among the circus people- they reject her as an outsider, and assume that because of her background she's just selling herself (which is untrue). For her part, Rose accepted the old clown simply as a matter of course and a measure of comfort, but she finds herself attracted to the young horseback performer Toby. He is drawn to her even more, having never been with a girl before, but at the same time despising her because of gossip and agonizing over things he doesn't know. When (as is obviously inevitable) these two finally get together, Toby is disappointed that his first experience doesn't live up to wild expectations. More stuff happens, there's estrangement and rejection and forgiveness, and in the end Toby finds what he had been looking for- the difference between needing and using someone, and truly loving them. I think that was the most tender, delicate moment in the whole book.

It was Rose and Toby's story that touched me most, but everyone else in the novel also has their needs and desires- in different forms. Some abandon the circus to try and survive elsewhere, some make promises and fail to keep them, some turn to violence and petty revenge. Some care most for the animals, others for their own skills and opportunities, others for their family's approval and so on. They all do what they can to get what they want, but those who go out of their way to assist the others and keep their integrity really shine through the dross. One of the strangest passages in the book occurs when the old man who is caretaker for the menagerie approaches a vastly wealthy woman in the hope of some charity. The enclosed world that was her walled estate such a very different place, with its own rules and codes. There is a shocking scene near the end that suggests this woman too, had her own needs, but she forced others to meet them, able to do so with her vast power and the fear she instilled in people. I didn't know what to make of this at first. It was disturbing to say the least. What a bald contrast this selfish manipulation, to the free tenderness shared between Toby and Rose. And yet in the end I just found it hideously sad.

I've just mentioned what stood out most to me when I turned the final pages, but the novel is full of other details and characters. There's a woman-hating elephant. A beautiful, wild tiger. The complexity and frustration of dealing with laws and regulations in a foreign land, where none of them speak the language. The ins and outs of the performers, animals and property changing hands as the status of the circus changes. The difficult decisions the manager faced. The social hierarchy within the circus. How they played the crowd, work behind the scenes, attitudes towards the animals, the public, their fellow circus workers. Close on the heels of Bad Elephant, Far Stream, this was another look at circus life that says a lot about love and need, the generosity and mean-spiritedness of human nature, all hand-in-hand.

Have any of you read this book? What did you think.

Rating: 3/5       323 pages, 1962

Apr 26, 2015

more TBR!

thanks to all my fellow book-loving bloggers!
Blackbringer by Laini Taylor- Read Warbler
The Cruise of the Cachalot by Frank T. Bullen- mentioned in Alone
Between You and Me by Mary Norris - Caroline Bookbinder
The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller- Book Chase
The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro- Ardent Reader
That's Not English by Erin Moore- Caroline Bookbinder
Hold Still by Sally Mann- Bermudaonion's Weblog
How to Live Forever by Colin Thompson- Melody's Reading Corner
Hammer Head by Nina McLaughlin- Sophisticated Dorkiness
The Tarball Chronicles by David Gessner- The Lost Entwife
Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky- So Many Books
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro- Maggie Reads
When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning- So Many Books
My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel- Farm Lane Books Blog
On the Move by Oliver Sacks- Caroline Bookbinder
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby- Things Mean a Lot
Letters from Yellowstone by Diane Smith- Caroline Bookbinder
The Death of Jim Lonely by James Welch- The Lost Entwife
Buffalo for the Broken Heart by Dan O'Brien- The Lost Entwife
And the Birds Rained Down by Jocelyne Saucier- Jules' Book Reviews
Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson- mentioned in Gipsy Moth Circles the World
Alone Through the Roaring Forties by Vito Dumas- ditto
Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum- ditto
The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang- Stuff as Dreams are Made On
The Virago Book of Women Travellers edited by Mary Morris and Larry O'Connor- Read Warbler
all of the below written by authors quoted on the back of Gifts of An Eagle:
Flight to Freedom by Kent Durden
A Fine and Peaceful Kingdom by Kent Durden
A Squirrel of One's Own by Douglas Fairbairn
Wild Brother by Ronald Rood
How Do You Spank a Porcupine? by Ronald Rood
The Blue Whale by George L. Small

Apr 24, 2015

some random bookish thoughts

I don't do this kind of post often, but have been thinking lately a few things about books, where else better to share them.

~ Do you ever come across a book that suddenly makes you realize how very different times are now from a century or more ago. How acutely opposite the way people thought, their worldview, their concerns and outlook on things?

A few of these have really jumped out at me lately. When I read The Alley Cat (published 1981), there was a character distinctly disdained by the others for his bookish habits. They all seemed puzzled by his immersion in the written word, dismissed and pitied him for it, and tried to avoid his company, because his conversation was so dull and incomprehensible! In Beautiful Joe (published 1893) also, there was a son who loved to read. The mother saw this as a bad habit and advised how to compassionately encourage a reader to set the books aside and become engaged with the world. She was very earnest about this. I'm glad reading as a whole is no longer seen as a lazy habit that will ruin your mind. I have run into people who can't imagine why I spend time reading- it seems pointless to them- but overall I think most parents and teachers encourage their kids to read, correct? (Or do I just see it that way because I am a reader).

On a different note, in The Sea and the Jungle (published 1912) there's a little passage about a man who looses his job because he went into debt. Not to the company, just in his own circumstance. His wife was ill, the doctor bills unmanageable so he "went to the moneylenders" and this was seen as such a foolish, irresponsible act that his boss (a "rigid moralist") fired him because a man who got into debt, not being able to control his own life, was no good for the business of another man. How times have changed. While I don't like having debt and am trying to pay mine off, I can't imagine someone nowadays getting fired for simply acquiring it!

I ran into quite a different example when I tried to read Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour (published 1853). I couldn't get past the first chapter, as I could not at all visualize what was being described. It was mostly about clothing styles. Characters were introduced with meticulous descriptions of their clothes, obviously meant to communicate something about their station in life and habits, but I had no idea what all these clothing articles were, much less what they said about the person. It makes me think that a lot of books which have remained classics over the decades, have a key feature: not only are they well-written, compelling stories, but they must also be accessible to readers beyond their own time frame. Books like this one full of dense descriptions that are pretty much meaningless to someone like me, have made themselves obscure in part because they're hard to enjoy and understand. At least, that's my thought.

~ On a completely different track, why is it that when I saw this picture, I instantly and vividly thought of The Dragonbone Chair (which I haven't read in over a decade)? Was there a scene in the forest where Simeon saw a white deer, or some other elusive, mysterious animal? I cannot remember. Anyone enlighten me? (I never finished that series either, got about halfway through its sequel Stone of Farewell. Another set of books I mean to go back to someday).

Apr 19, 2015

The Sportsman's Anthology

edited by Robert Kelley

The short stories in this collection are about sports. Sports enjoyed by outdoorsmen- I imagine they reflect was was popular in the forties. There are stories of mountaineering and saltwater fishing, of yacht races, of football and baseball. There's a story of a golf club getting itself established, another about a poor western college boy cobbling together a crew team so he could travel to New York and meet a girl. Another about a bobsled team. I liked two about mountain climbing - Matterhorn and McKinley. Quite a few hunting stories- most with dogs, setters and spaniels. I rather liked the one called "A Red Letter Day" by Edwyn Sandys which really gave a beautiful picture of the skill, eagerness, communication and grace a good bird dog can bring to the field (such was my impression). More than half the stories are about horses: horse racing, fox-hunting, steeplechases, etc. Of men trying to show themselves upper-class enough to go foxhunting but making fools of themselves, or of a man pitching himself into a race with high hopes on how his horse would perform. One featuring a polo pony match is just a blur."Ting-a-ling" by David Gray was a poignant story. Told how a young bride saw a streetcar-horse struggling with an overloaded car, she admired its spirit and bemoaned its fate. Her new husband promptly bought the horse for her. They hoped he would shine as a steeplechase horse, but he turned out to do something much more significant for their family than simply win a race.

My favorite story was "Don- the Story of a Lion Dog" by Zane Grey. This one was set in wild, dry scrub country that was Arizona at the time- the author accompanied a group of men that set out with hounds to catch mountain lions. Although the story centered on a certain aloof dog and how the author tried to win its affections, I was struck by two points. Firstly, the lion-hunter just gathered up a motley bunch of unwanted dogs, and when they got out in the desert let them run loose alongside the horses. He taught them to hunt lion in a simple, brutally effective manner- if the dogs took off after any scent or animal sign that was not from a lion, he yelled at them and shot them (birdshot). When they finally struck a lion's trail, they were encouraged instead. The author adamantly opposed this method, but nobody would listen to him. I was also left wondering why they were tracking and roping up cougars. It surprised me how many, how easily they came upon the big cats. The descriptions of their grace and wildness stunning. It was obvious the hunter wanted to take them alive, but I didn't know their intended fate. I've read somewhere else that they roped lions to use for training other dogs or to sell to zoos, but this story itself was never clear on that.

But I actually only read half the book. I skipped many chapters- either because I know nothing about the sport and couldn't follow well, didn't care for the writing style, or just didn't find the story itself interesting. I found this one in an antique store, in a pile of books on horsemanship.

Rating: 2/5       396 pages, 1944

Apr 16, 2015

Bad Elephant Far Stream

by Samuel Hawley

The life of a circus elephant. Far Stream, given many different names later in life, was captured and taken by force from her forest home in Asia. Separated from her family, shipped across the ocean, she spent thirty years learning routines and performing for peoples' amusement. This sad and disturbing book details what it might be like to lead such a life- from the elephant's viewpoint. The confusing lessons on unnatural dancing and balancing acts- beaten into them by force. The long hours standing in confinement, in chains, in railway cars, in stables. Being teased and poked and stared at by thousands of strangers. Expected to accept everything mutely and submit endlessly. It's no wonder some of them "went bad", and this particular elephant, called Topsy near the end of her shortened life, did just that. Simmering resentment built up during long years of bad treatment and idle torment lashed out just a few times, and she was sentenced to death, deemed too dangerous to keep. Done by triple means- poison, hanging and electrocution with over six thousand volts, orchestrated by Thomas Eddison himself (who probably wanted the publicity), her death was a spectacle in itself.

Distressing as all this is, for me the most poignant parts of the book were reading about her distant memories of the forest, the physical sensations she would dream away into, removing herself from current boredom and misery. Or the one moment she actually escaped and roamed the countryside for a week, finally realizing she couldn't find enough food to keep alive, she missed the company of other circus elephants, even the reassurance of familiar routine and human direction. It was a sad reminder of how used to this travelling life she had become, how dependent on the people who enslaved her. There's so much more to this book- the way circuses were run, the constant changing hands, being rented out for events and such. The danger of male elephants- eventually Far Stream saw most of them disappear from the circus tents, as people realized they were just too much liability. How things changed over the decades- the first few troupes she was with journeyed by horse-pulled wagons, later it was all by rail. She survived quite a few derailments, witnessed or experienced many kinds of accidents as well.

It's all based on actual accounts of circus elephants, most of the incidents in the book are purportedly true although of course the details have been re-imagined. They feel very authentic- the author's notes at end of the book list numerous sources that I bet are rich reading in themselves. Even the way the author chose to portray how the elephants communicated among themselves with contact calls, reassurances or moments of humor, how they felt each others' emotions and shared memories, didn't feel contrived to me (as it did to some extent in The White Bone). It felt like the way things could be. Most of all I felt sad at the complexity, intelligence and patience of these great animals that were often treated so inhumanely, for so long.

I received a copy of this book from the author, via a giveaway at Opinions of a Wolf. Thanks to them.

Rating: 4/5      263 pages, 2013

Apr 9, 2015

Bird Brainteasers

by Patrick Merrell

Curious and interesting facts about birds, lovely quotes and myriad games and puzzles pack this short volume. The illustrations, done in an ink style reminiscent of old woodcuts, is quite lovely, and I really like the inclusion of a page of dodo sketches, from a 1601 journal kept aboard the ship De Gelderland. I enjoyed working through the crosswords, searches and other word puzzles that all feature bird names. This little book is a quick, fun read (probably would make a great gift for any bird-lover).

Some of the more interesting tidbits I read: when the James Bond character was created, author Ian Flemmings was looking for a very ordinary name and glanced at the cover of his favorite bird book- by James Bond, an ornithologist. Cassowaries are the most dangerous bird- in some zoos they are considered the most dangerous animal. It was also interesting to read about all the different presidents who have kept pet birds, and of many musicians throughout history who have incorporated specific birdsongs in their melodies. Mozart kept a starling, Charles Darwin had a pet crow, Picasso was fond of pigeons. Audubon killed hundreds of birds for collections and to study their anatomy for his paintings. There is a bird I never heard of before, the hooded pitohui, which has poisonous feathers and skin!

My favorite quote, by Henry Ward Beecher: If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows.

Rating: 3/5      324 pages, 2008

Apr 8, 2015

People of the Sea

by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear

I can't remember the last time a stranger approached me in public because of a book I was reading! But it happened just a few days ago in the park while my kids were playing- this guy came up to me surprised and delighted to see I was reading a book from his favorite series. He (and his dad) like the books so much they wait anxiously every few years for the next one to be published. The First North American series is written by a husband-wife team, one is an anthropologist, the other a historian and archaeologist. As far as I understand it, each book is set deep in pre-history, based on archaeological findings and ancient native legends from different areas of the continent.

This one is set in the region that became California, some eleven thousand years ago, in a time of glaciers and great change. It pitches into the storyline abruptly with people facing epidemics of illness while the megafauna around them is disappearing, especially the great mammoth herds. The focus is on two characters- a spiritual leader struggling to understand the changes and upheaval his people face, and a young woman fleeing her irate husband when he discovers she's committed adultery. I'm pretty sure their paths intersected, but I didn't get that far. I just couldn't stay interested. I think because the story was told too quickly, it's an easy enough read but it was all about what happened among the people and I wished for a bit more description of the land and the animals... Disappointed I couldn't get into this one after the glowing personal recommendation I received, but the series as a whole has a lot of positive reviews online. Some people mention this one in particular is their least-favorite. I have another on my shelf, I'll give it a try instead.

Abandoned        425 pages, 1993

Apr 6, 2015

Through the Eyes of a Young Naturalist

by William S. Sipple

I thought I would love this book. Maybe it was just hard to appreciate, right on the heels of My Family and Other Animals. It's an autobiographical work, the author describing how he explored the woods as a boy, his fishing trips and trapping exploits, his later bird-watching activities and work in local conservation efforts (Maryland wetlands). Unfortunately, it's not very engaging. The writing is very straightforward, descriptive but in a flat style that was frankly rather boring- we saw this bird, we hiking up this hill, we visited this pond, we wondered whose tracks those were oh and now I know they were this animal etc etc. It's the kind of book you might like if you knew the author personally, but otherwise not really. There are a few awkward aspects to it that make me wonder if it's self-published. Although the physical book itself is of good quality paper and materials, the illustrations are unpolished and look copied straight from photographs- then reading the flyleaf I learned (not too surprised) they were done by a student. The flyleaf doesn't tell you what the book is about in an interesting manner, but instead lists the author's credentials. And through the entire book, words which I'd expect to see in italics, are instead all underlined- book and article titles, species names, birdcalls written phonetically. It made the reading a bit jarring. I ended up skimming a lot, to see if the actual incidents described (instead of just mentioning all the animals he saw and places he went) were worth reading, but they weren't enough to keep me going so I didn't finish the book.

Abandoned     204 pages, 1991

Apr 5, 2015

My Family and Other Animals

by Gerald Durrell

Durrell describes his childhood on the Greek island of Corfu, with his interesting family. Each of his siblings had their passion. One of his older brothers was into literature and art, the other guns and hunting. The author himself was, of course, fascinated by wildlife and as he was often left to his own devices all day long, he spent his time prowling the island observing myriad insects and small animals, catching them when he could. He brought home a wide variety of small creatures- turtles, birds, fish, lizards and so on- continually upsetting his family when they found scorpions in the matchbox or snakes in the bathtub. Finally they realized he wasn't going to abandon his interests, and gave him a room of his own to dedicate to his nature studies and growing collection. He was also blessed to have a series of personal tutors who recognized and shared, each in their own way, his passion for nature. One was as happy to spend afternoons catching insects and wading through marshes as Durrell himself, another later on had his own attic full of bird cages and a balcony converted into aviaries. Aside from the descriptions of animals and his minor adventures with his dogs finding, watching and catching things, there's also plenty of hilarious stories about incidents in his family. Even in the midst of an argument, trying to rescue a dinner party ruined by a pair of magpies or put out a fire in someone's bedroom, they have the funniest exchanges ever. It's a delightful book, one of the best Durrell I've read so far. I often fail to find other reviews on his animal-collecting books, but this one seems more popular and I can see why.

The opening passage alone cracked me up: It was originally intended to be a mildly nostalgic account of the natural history of the island, but I made a grave mistake by introducing my family into the book in the first few pages. Having got themselves on paper, they then proceeded to establish themselves and invite friends to share the chapters. It was only with the greatest difficulty, and by exercising considerable cunning, that I managed to retain a few pages here and there which I could devote exclusively to animals. Well yes, but the animals and descriptions of the countryside definitely stand out to me. His observations of male tortoises wrestling during the mating season and of a large preying mantis battling with a gecko on his bedroom ceiling were the best parts of the book.

Rating: 4/5       319 pages, 1956

more opinions:
Read Warbler
A Work in Progress
Rivers I Have Known
Valentina's Room
Shiny New Books

Apr 1, 2015

another Dare completed

Yesterday was the end of the TBR Double Dog Dare! hosted yearly by C.B. James.

If I count up how many book posts I've done since the Dare started, I read 22 books and abandoned one. There were a lot more I shuffled onto the discard pile, where I sampled twenty pages or so and then just realized I didn't want to continue, and the book didn't merit a post- I didn't get far enough into it to say much about it. My "unread" tag on LibraryThing now has 174 books remaining (down from 190-something three months ago), I don't have exact numbers because several times lately when going to mark a book off the unread list I realized it wasn't on there to begin with. I usually try to put books into the catalog when they come into my house, but I've missed some.

My TBR shelves are now down to eight and a half- it feels a lot more tidy and manageable. I no longer have stacks of unread books on the floor (except for one of cookbooks) or across the tops of shelves. Feels like I'm getting somewhere!

I only brought a few new books in during the Dare- one about an elephant that I won from Wolfshowl, and a lovely illustrated version of Pinocchio I just found at an antique store yesterday. I had one little lapse early on in the Dare, when I came home after a long day with a bag full of books a friend had given me for the kids. Including a cute little series about a hamster, and I sat down and read the first one on the spot. Then realized I broke the Dare! I've since held off reading the rest of the Freddy books... So I didn't really stick to it 100%. But I feel like I accomplished a lot on the TBR pile, and that's something.