Aug 30, 2015

Half Magic

by Edward Eager

Four bored children find an ancient worn coin and discover that it grants wishes- but the tricky part is that only half the wish comes true. Sometimes this is in a sensible way- if they wish to go a mile, they only go half the distance, but other times it is confounding with hilarious results. What does half a talking cat sound like? How do you only half remember your family (someone in a fit of anger wishes she belonged to a different family). The kids get into all kinds of interesting adventures- some intentional and some not. They travel back in time to joust with Sir Launcelot, stop some thieves in a jewelry store, get stranded in a desert and much more. Though they try to take turns and come up with fun things to do together, it becomes much more than just a way to fill a boring summer with excitement, and they have to put things right in the end.

I got this book at a used sale thinking my older daughter would enjoy it, but sat down and read it in one morning by myself. And it's great. Laugh-out-loud funny in parts, good characterization, a solid lesson about getting what you wish for. There's even some subtle family dynamics and pointers on behaving decently to other people, with the siblings squabbling, helping younger ones (or not) and the oldest daughter upset at her mother's interest in a possible suitor (only she of all the children remembers their deceased father). Even though it was published in the early fifties and is set a few decades earlier (motor vehicles are a new invention, messages are sent by telegram and when the children go to the movies, it's silent pictures so they get cross with the youngest for begging to have the words on the screen read out loud!) it's written in a way that still feels completely accessible.

I am pretty sure I once read this book from my elementary school library- I distinctly remember the cover. But I had forgotten almost everything except the basic premise, and I'm sure most of the references went over my head back then- the author pays homage to E. Nesbit, Lewis Carroll, Hans Christian Anderson, T.H. White, Little Women and many other authors and literary works. It helps that the kids in the story love to read, and another main character owns a bookshop!

Rating: 4/5      192 pages, 1954

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Aug 29, 2015

Mormon Diaries

by Sophia L. Stone

Having grown up in the LDS church and parted ways in my adult years, I could relate to a lot in this short, soul-searching memoir. My experiences and path were different than hers (I didn't have the same feminist leaning, for example) yet a lot of things were the same. She describes very well what it is like for many women in the church, the often not-so-subtle pressures to conform, the doctrines held dear to one's heart. Her growth as a person unfolds, from a young girl unsure of herself and eager to follow instruction to a bold woman searching for a way to find truth and follow her own conscience. Questioning the church and her upbringing of course was very upsetting to her family and I particularly admire how she managed to make her feelings clear to her young children while at the same time nurturing their trust and growing faith. I also admired that she did not let her disillusionment with one particular religion seriously affect her belief in God, but found spirituality beyond one set of rules and guidelines.

I like this author's voice. Succinct and clearly descriptive as well. She writes very honestly, I can only imagine how painful and cathartic it must have been to put these words to paper. At the same time I wished for a bit more depth, for more of her own words and perhaps fewer quotes from church authorities and scriptures (although these were very useful in clarifying the religious stance and illustrate well the depth and importance of spirituality in her life). A good read, one that was hard to put down. It's a story of unfolding awareness, emotional and spiritual growth, and in spite of the pain and struggles, ends with a sense of joyful optimism.

This book was given to me by a friend.

Rating: 3/5      194 pages, 2012

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Aug 26, 2015

still book blogging

for eight years now. My blogiversary was last wednesday, and I didn't even notice (I was actually gone on a trip). And like before, there's not much to note, things are pretty much the same. The book stacks are piling up, the to-be-read list is getting longer, and I still stand before my bookshelves some days and just breathe a big sigh, admire all their patient spines and remember why I want to read them again and again. I don't think this love will ever die.
Thanks to all of you for joining me on this never-ending journey between the pages, and fostering my bookish habits! Those lists are every-longer because of you (I rarely browse shelves at random anymore).

Aug 25, 2015

A Child of the Northeast

by Kampoon Boontawee
translated by Susan Fulop Kepner

This book is about life in a small, poor village in nothern Thailand. The young boy Koon is its central character. His rural village is very poor and they have been facing years of drought. Nearby water sources have dried up and people have begun moving away from the village- they can no longer catch fish or grow rice. Koon's father teaches him how to find other things to eat- they hunt lizards and frogs, catch cicadas, crickets and gather ants' eggs. They also eat many kinds of small birds, owls, snakes, mongoose and other wildlife. Koon is a good-natured boy and usually obedient to his parents; he is always interested in learning how to prepare certain kinds of food and make necessary things- a new roof for their house, baskets, fishnets, etc. His close friend is more of a troublemaker and a braggart, providing strong contrast to Koon's character. When the drought gets particularly bad, Koon and his family travel to a river where they can catch and preserve fish, bringing back bounty to trade for rice and other goods. Through the story various dynamics in the village unfold- conflict between men who want to lead in different ways, disagreements between neighbors, the hasty marriage of a young couple and issues they work through during their first year together as man and wife. The constant poking fun and teasing, saving face and nursing pride, vying for attention- this mostly seems to be Koon's young friend but some of the grown men feel acutely the need to be seen important as well. I most admired Koon's mother, who worked hard without complaint and acted gracious to everyone, giving to those in need and rarely finding fault. His father was a constant source of wisdom and strength, knowing when to push on through difficulties and when to step back and let things go (as when a flood tore away their fishing nets). It is a quiet kind of story, one that doesn't seem to have much going on but is an intriguing portrayal of a different way of life.

Rating: 3/5        483 pages, 1994

Aug 16, 2015

Catch Me A Colobus

by Gerald Durrell

Here Durrell has his own zoo established, but is working on a tight budget so he outlines how it was set it up as a Trust to get people interested in wildlife conservation to help support the zoo. The book describes their work at the zoo with various wild animals- how they were cared for, dealing with illness and injury, their excitement and feeling of success when some of their animals bred for the first time in captivity: the rare white-eared pheasant, the tapir, Geralda baboon, a chimpanzee, a lioness that had problems giving birth, serval cats and civets. Most of the book though, is about his trips to foreign countries to collect new animals for the zoo. On one trip they had extra complications caused by taking along a film crew, hoping to educate the public about their work via a television program. The most memorable trip was one to Sierra Leone where they acquired leopards, various birds and other animals but the focus was on two types of colobus monkey- beautiful creatures with long silky fur quite unknown (at that time) to the rest of the world. Durrell tells in detail of their efforts to find these animals, to catch enough of them to keep a breeding colony, and the difficulty they had getting the animals adjusted to eating the kinds of food they could be provided with back at the zoo. I admired the fact that when one of the groups of colobus failed to adjust and refused all food to the point of becoming lethargic, he simply let them go again. He also tells of another trip to Mexico where they collected thick-billed parrots but in particular were searching for the teporingo or volcano rabbit- and it proved very difficult to get ahold of. Like all his other books, Gerald entertained me with amusing incidents and lively descriptions of the interesting animals. The last chapter tells of numerous wildlife species he feared would soon go extinct, with a plea for wildlife conservation and financial support to the zoo's trust.

Rating: 3/5     221 pages, 1972

Aug 13, 2015

Edith and Mr. Bear

A Lonely Doll story
by Dare Wright

Picture book story of a little doll who lives with Mr. Bear and Little Bear. Mr. Bear comes home from a trip and brings presents- the younger ones clamor for gifts and then argue about whose is better. But the most wonderful thing is a glass-sided clock Mr. Bear bought for himself. Edith is fascinated by the workings of the clock; Mr. Bear puts it up high out of reach. One day when no-one is around Edith climbs up to see the clock closer, and accidentally breaks it. She hides the evidence, and then lies when Mr. Bear asks who did it. She feels bad about lying, but can't admit it and feeling worse and worse, starts being horrid to her friends and can't even enjoy her own birthday party. She decides to run away, but after wandering through the streets half a day cold and lonely of course she goes home again. Mr. Bear has been frantically looking for her. She is welcomed back and finally confesses what she did, all is better now. Well, at least, she made amends. But the story continues a little and you see that Edith isn't perfect- she still does naughty things, quarrels with Little Bear and likes to brag. But she never again lies to Mr. Bear.
The photographs by Dare Wright (a woman) illustrating this story are just lovely. They're made with a real doll and teddy bears (also a live kitten in a few scenes) posing in different situations with tiny props. Although black and white they're very nice and the vintage look is charming.
There's only one picture that looks awkward to me, where Edith has just come home and is standing ashamed in the doorway. Mr. Bear is holding the door open but it looks like he is going to hit her over the head with his pipe!
Reminds me of a children's book in my daughter's collection called Carmen (black and white photos illustrating a story of a lonely girl in a city apartment). I'd like to find the others in this Lonely Doll series. I found this one at the public library, they have a few more.

Rating: 4/5         58 pages, 1964

Aug 12, 2015

The Summer of the Falcon

by Jean Craighead George

This is the story of a young girl who trains a falcon with her brothers. June and her family spend their summers in a big house in the country, and her brothers seem to have a regular practice of catching and training various types of hawks. (The forward to the book points out that the story is set in the sixties, when there were no regulations against this). It's a coming-of-age story, showing how June grows up over a period of three summers- from being headstrong, a bit careless and adventuresome, to taking on responsibility in the household and learning some manners as she grows into a young lady (she really resents this transition at first). Most of the book though, is about the work with her bird, a kestrel or sparrow hawk. June is eager to successfully train the bird and prove herself to her brothers, but she tends to make mistakes and neglect the hawk at times- it really tells how much falconry work is about keeping the bird at the right state of hunger or satiety- when hungry it will feel inclined to fly to a lure, when full it can be let loose to sit content and there's no risk of loosing it, for example. I liked the book particularly for the falconry details; the character development is nice too even for such a brief story. Some aspects strongly reflects its timeframe- women were expected to keep house, kids played widely unsupervised (exploring caves and jumping into flooded rivers!) and often got themselves into trouble. There are lighthearted and heavy moments- a party that gets crashed with pranks involving the animals, the children build a clay city and make up a secret language, a family friend dies on a trip- really quite a lot packed into this little book!

Perhaps that's why it felt rushed and some things were never explained, which made me wonder if the author wrote another book about this family? There's not much background on why these kids regularly keep hawks for example, or what June does with her falcon when she's at school during the winter months, I was left puzzled at times. Otherwise, a good read!

Rating: 3/5     153 pages, 1962

Aug 9, 2015

The Tygrine Cat

by Inbali Iserles

Fleeing his homeland upon his mother's death, young Mati hides on board a ship and steps out on a new land. He tries to join a community of feral cats that holds territory in the marketplace, but they are suspicious of outsiders. Mati doesn't understand their customs, has strange abilities and looks different too. (From the descriptions I guessed he was an abyssinian). Mati tries to make friends and learn their ways, but frightening events start to occur and the innocent newcomer is held to blame...

I was disappointed that I didn't care more for this one. It has a lot of adventure and a bit of a mystery too, since Mati can't quite remember where he came from and is unaware of the ancient powers he holds. Turns out he is being chased by an assassin and must face a final battle with an evil creature. It's a fast-paced story with a strong fantasy bent but I guess I just wished for a little more character depth and the feline lore- traditions, superstitions, invented names the cats called things- dogs and humans for example were "hinds" and "oolfs"- wasn't quite rich enough to seem real. I just couldn't get into it. But I bet my ten-year-old will really enjoy this book.

Abandoned         242 pages, 2007

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Aug 8, 2015

The Abandoned

by Paul Gallico

Delightful story about a lonely boy who loves cats and finds himself turned into one. He rushes into the street after a tabby kitten and is hit by a car when the transformation happens. Unceremoniously thrown out of the house, Peter-now-the-cat must find his way in a terrifying new world where everything once familiar is now strange. Luckily he meets a very kind and street-wise female named Jennie who is quite skeptical of his story until she realizes he does not at all behave like a cat, and moreover can read and understand human speech. Jennie takes it upon herself to teach Peter how to survive as a stray and moreover, how to act and think like a cat- all the little skills and rules of conduct for his new life. They have quite a number of adventures, including time spent as ship's cats, and become very fond of each other, even though Peter longs for the comforts of his past life while Jennie cannot bring herself to trust human beings. I won't say more, only that this is a wonderful book I wish I'd encountered as a child but am very glad it stands up to my first reading it as an adult. I don't know which I liked more, the deep story of friendship and trust, or the wonderful details of being feline. The ending feels like a bit of a cop-out, but I dismissed that easily enough. I'd read it again.

As you can see from the cover image, it has also been published with the title Jennie. I found out about this book here.

Rating: 4/5        307 pages, 1950

Aug 7, 2015

The Grandest of Lives

Eye to Eye with Whales
by Douglas H. Chadwick

Writer and wildlife biologist Chadwick (of A Beast the Color of Winter) became interested in whales and started accompanying other scientists on study trips across the oceans to lend a hand and see whales up close. In this book, he shares information on five whale species, the well-known orcas, humpbacks and giant blue whales, the more common and less-studied minke, and the deep-diving northern bottlenose whale. Each chapter tells about the studies being conducted, difficulties due to weather and equipment failure, innovations in the field, the conflicts of traditional whaling interests and fisheries with conservation efforts, and brief encounters with whales after long hard hours spent searching for them. It was the whale behavior stuff I found most interesting, whether it be their feeding methods and mysterious communication calls or movements among themselves and how some approached boats (one female seemed to think the boat could babysit her calf). Not to be all one-sided, Chadwick also observed methods used on a Norwegian whaling vessel (aimed at killing whales - their rightful heritage, it is claimed- in the fastest, least traumatic way possible) and traveled to Japan to find out about the whaling activities there. There are lots of numbers- population fluctuations and such- and other types of data gone into in detail, which detracts from enjoyment for this casual reader. The author communicated well how difficult it is to learn anything about the personal lives and habits of the whales, when we only glimpse them at the surface, and 95% of their time is spent below it. It was a worthwhile read, covering many aspects of whale biology and research.

Rating: 3/5        256 pages, 2006

Aug 3, 2015

A Whale for the Killing

by Farley Mowat

In the late sixties, very little was known about whales and their demise from the whaling industry and overfishing seemed imminent. So when a fin whale (second-largest next to the blue whale) became trapped by the tide in a small cove on the coast of Newfoundland, Mowat saw it as an opportunity to learn more about the whale at close quarters. He was shocked and angered to find locals using the whale for sport, shooting at it and chasing it with their speedboats. He appealed to local authorities for help and getting little response, went to the media and Canadian government. The small community he lived in split sides as some saw his work advocating for the whale as meddlesome, objected to being denied water passage through areas they'd always used, and resented criticism from the outside world. Others welcomed the attention the whale brought their small village, hoping it would bring them tourists and that improvements like better roads would follow. Efforts to free the whale had to wait for the next highest tide (which would need to coincide with a storm to raise the water enough for the whale to escape via a narrow passage) - it would have been a month at best, but the story of the whale covers only ten days. Mowat struggled to find means to feed the whale, and protect it from people (whether they were just curious, bored or outright cruel mattered little in the end- they did the whale no good).

It gets set up slowly, introducing the reader to the history of whaling in Newfoundland (and around the world) as well as the location. Mowat had only been in this remote fishing community for five years, seeking a quiet place to live far from "modern society" (he rants a lot against industrialization and modern technology, seems to hate the telephone in particular). Unfortunately his actions in favor of the whale brought all kinds of conflict and ill-feeling, I guess he did not continue living there for long after the incident. In parts the book is almost more a study of human nature (how people responded to the whale's presence and each other's involvement in its plight) than it is about the whale itself. There are some detailed descriptions of its sheer size, calm movements, eerie sounds. Also details on its natural feeding methods (which could hardly be met) and how another fin whale (probably its mate) stayed just outside the inlet to the cove constantly until the whale died. It's a frustrating story to read, because so little could be done, and by the time scientists became interested in the whale it was too late for them to arrive and learn anything. But the book did have an impact on early whale conservation efforts.

Rating: 3/5      239 pages, 1972

Aug 2, 2015

TBR from reading and browsing

I had a chance to visit the public library without my kids, so browsed the shelves at leisure. Brought home a few books to read, but couldn't possible carry (or find time for) all the ones that caught my eye, so I wrote down a list of titles to go back for later. Some of these are also from references listed in recent reads:
Beneath the Surface by John Hargrove
Amazing Rare Things by David Attenborough
Smithsonian Natural History Kathryn Hennessy
The Amateur Naturalist by Nick Baker
Secret Lives of Common Birds by Marie Read
Captivating Bluebirds by Stan Tekiala
Life Along the Delaware Bay by Niles, Berger, Dey et al
The Bonobo and the Atheist by F.B.M. de Waal
Giraffe Reflections by Dale Peterson
Wolf: Legend, Enemy, Icon by Rebecca L. Grambo
Whitetail Tracks by Valerius Geist
The Odyssey of KP2 by Terrie M. Williams
The Last Unicorn by William DeBuys
Wild Ones by Jon Mooallem
The Way of the Panda by Henry Nicholls
The Amateur Naturalist by Gerald Durrell
The Great White Bear by Kieran Mulvaney
Among Giants by Charles Nicklin and K.M. Kostyal
The Intimate Ape by Shawn Thompson
Tibet Wild by George B. Schaller
Into Great Silence by Eva Saulitis
Last Chain on Billie by Carol Bradley
The Black Rhinos of Namibia by Rick Bass
An Indomitable Beast by Alan Rabinowitz
A Sting in the Tale by David Goulson
Ten Million Aliens by Simon Barnes

Wild Animals in Captivity by Heini Hediger
Zoo: a History of Zoological Gardens by Eric Baratay
A Different Nature: the Pradoxical World of Zoos by David Hancocks
Sea Otters by Marianne Riedman
Sea Otters by John A. Love
Sea Otters a Natural History and Guide by Roy Nickerson
The World of the Sea Otter by Stephanie Paine

Aug 1, 2015

Death at SeaWorld

Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity
by David Kirby

This book is about the controversy over keeping orcas in captivity. If you've seen the film Blackfish, it's the same topic, although much broader in scope. It's not all about SeaWorld, it does discuss other marine parks and some studies of orcas in the wild.  Kirby goes into a ton of detail, particularly about the background of various people involved and what led them to work with orcas. By the second half of the book I realized its main focus was the 2010 incident when a male orca killed an experienced trainer during a show. There is a lot of detail about what happened afterwards, especially the legal tangle that ensued. Kirby attempts to fairly portray both sides- presenting what the captive marine industry has to say and their defenses, but its pretty apparent that the book leans in the anti- camp. It seems his main source was Naomi Rose, a wildlife scientist who works for the Humane Society- there's a lot about her. Practically a portrait of the life and work of Naomi Rose, in many ways. It became hard to read- because of the horrific scenes described when trainers were injured or killed by captive whales, the suffering of the animals (especially compared to the condition and behavior of their wild kin) and the tedious recitation of facts which, although informative, make for very dull reading. I would have rather read more about the whales themselves, this book is mostly focused on industry practices, events and people. However I learned a lot about what goes on and honestly I'm appalled that marine parks still keep orcas for display and entertainment after what has happened. They seem very unsuitable for life in captivity. Read more here.

I borrowed this book from the public library, found it while browsing the shelves.

Rating: 3/5        469 pages, 2012