Sep 30, 2015

Adventures in Birding

Confessions of a Lister
by Jean Piatt

The author describes in this book how he got into the hobby of bird-watching. At first just a casual interest, he soon joined the ranks of those intent upon fulfilling a life list of all the different species they've seen. The grand goal is 600, once someone has listed 600 birds they become members of an exclusive club. He picked up the birding passion with his wife; together they explored all nearby locales in search of birds and then began taking trips to further parts of the country specifically to look for birds. Somewhat disorganized and unplanned at first, he soon learned to tap into local knowledge and find the people who could point out where certain birds were to be found. Sometimes they were nesting in one particular thicket on one side of a road only, for years on end! The first portion of the book is about their travels around, meeting with people, associating with other birders, the oft-embarassing moments of mis-identification in the field. Other chapters describe the basic taxonomy of birds, the organization of birding clubs, the rules surrounding official lists and the confusion that ensues when species are re-named or re-assigned thus invalidating some names birders have already counted, and so on. The accompanying illustrations by Matthew Kalmenoff are very nice.

But I'm not the right reader for this book, it seems. I found it only mildly interesting and before long, just tedious. The author likes to use eloquent phrases and quote literature in relation to his feathered interests, but it often came across as stiff or pretentious, to me. This book is not well-known; I only found three reviews online yet they all praise it highly. They all seem to be birders themselves, though. I was curious to learn more about this hobby- I learned that it's probably something I'll never do!

Abandoned        265 pages, 1973

Sep 29, 2015


the Pup After Merle
by Ted Kerasote

A year or two after the famous Merle passed on, his owner got a new puppy and named him Pukka. This is Pukka's story. How he came into the author's life, got to know neighbors, learned doggy skills and basic obedience, went adventuring with his new owner on hikes and even river trips. It's told from the dog's perspective, which in this case is charming and I think would make the book appealing for younger readers too. It's mostly presented in photographs, and they are very nice. The scenery is gorgeous, the photos taken in the Seattle, WA area of course make me feel nostalgic. And the puppy is darn cute. He doesn't do anything extraordinary, but such a nice dog and the storyline shows how a puppy can become well-adjusted, learn new situations and some basic rules, and in this case, have freedom to roam while near home but accept leash laws when out and about on public streets (they live in a rural area of Wyoming). This book has a different feel from Merle's Door, very casual and an easy read- I finished it in one sitting.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5       200 pages, 2010

Sep 28, 2015


Four days ago I forgot to mention the oddest thing I came across while reading Wild Heritage. Typos always jump out at me- spelling and grammar errors, letters switched around, mistaken homonyms and so on. But this was something I've never seen before. Does this passage make any sense when you read it as printed? (page 112 in my edition)
Nope. You have to read the two lines highlighted yellow first, followed by the two highlighted in blue.
Somehow when the book was printed, these four lines got switched around. It really puzzled me when I first read the page, could not figure out what was wrong at first! Have you ever found a strange typo or printing error in a book? (I have another book on my shelf that has the first twenty pages included twice).

Sep 27, 2015

The Fishes

Life Nature Library
edited by F.D. Ommanney

This book is all about fish. Their evolution, biology, habitat, food sources, reproductive strategies, parenting methods, schooling behavior, migration routes, etc. Even just the basics about how they sense the world around them and navigate was interesting. The diversity of fish life in the world is really astounding, and the book just touches on some of the many different species, but I think does a good job at highlighting the wide variety of forms fishes have adapted, and different means by which they make their living in the water. Yes it's an old, outdated book but the pictures are pretty good for their age, and I learned a lot of facts. For example, about the heart structure. All these years of reading about animal life, why did it always escape my attention that fish have a two-chambered heart, most reptiles and amphibians a three-chambered heart, and that of mammals and birds, four chambers. This makes sense, but I never thought about it before. The last few chapters describe some then-new scientific studies that tracked where fish go in the ocean, using a variety of tagging devices in the hopes that fishermen, sportsmen and others would return them when found. Even though the return rate was less than 5 percent, they put so many tags on fishes it still generated useful information. There's also a chapter that discusses how the fishing industry was beginning to a see decline in stock numbers, and strategies to remedy that (interesting look at how it was managed in different countries, which I'm sure is all very different now).

Rating: 3/5       192 pages, 1963

Sep 26, 2015

frederick the literate

Just finished this one today- my kids squabbled over who got to put in the last few pieces. It's a 1000-piece Hasbro, the artwork Frederick the Literate is by Charles Wysocki. I admit I like this one because of the subject matter, and that's the only reason it's a keeper. The surface is too glossy, so you have to keep tilting your head against light bouncing off the pieces. The pieces are very uniform in shape, and they don't fit completely snug, so you can't pick up a section and move it, it all falls apart. When I had a group of pieces fit together and found out they go elsewhere on the puzzle, I'd have to move that section one piece at a time, unless there was a clear path to slide it all. The picture is a little dark, but there are still enough hues and textures to make it interesting.

(click on an image to see larger and view them in succession with the arrow key)
The fun part about this image are all the book titles, guessing (some are really obvious) what real books they derived from:

Rat Holes of the World
Cat-o-Nine Tales
The Caterbury Tales
A Tale of Two Kitties
Poems by Robin Wing
The Little Brown Mouse
The Killer Sparrow of Ipswich
The Feline Comedy by Kitty Mewpur
Caterwaul's Catalog of Hairballs
Holy Cats by Lord Myron
The Three Mouseketeers
Field Guide to the Garbage Can: a Catechism
The Sardine in All its Splendor
How to Catnap with a Smile by Z. Snooze
How to Smell a Rat by Nasal Nosegay
a series of Renowned Mouse Traps
Delicious Field Mice I Have Known by Thomas Cheshire

This last one makes me grin because I'm pretty sure the title is a play on this book. You can read more about the original painting here (but know that if you scroll down and read his bio, the photo of the artist as child is kind of freaky).

Sep 24, 2015

Wild Heritage

by Sally Carrighar

In the sixties, field studies of animal behavior was a very new science. Sally Carrighar wrote this book to dispel many myths about animal behavior- particularly the Victorian notions that animals acted out of brutality or nobility etc., and the reactive ideas from the Industrial Age that attributed animal actions to mere mechanical response via insinct. The truth seems to lie somewhere in the middle- yes, animals are driven by instinct but they also have intelligence, basic emotions and individual preferences; thus Carrighar shows how similar animals' motives can be to our own. She divides her book into four main sections, exploring what were then-new observations on wildlife behavior in regards to parenting and raising the young, courtship and mating, the use of aggression and play or creativity. It's an intriguing collection of accounts, but somewhat dull because of its age. The book is solidly placed in its timeframe- when Carrighar wrote, Adolph Murie, George Schaller and Jane Goodall were currently young scientists conducting new field studies, with many of their significant discoveries yet to be made. Other great names which are only history to me, were contemporaries to her and spoken of as such: Nikolaas Tinbergen, Konrad Lorenz, Lois Crisler, Ernest Thompson Seton. For me the book was mostly a summary of things I've already known or accounts I've already read; the originals are much better sources. So the book is interesting in its historical aspect but very dated: a lot of its information is old hat now, and things she puzzled or wondered at have long since been explained. However I was surprised to find once again the incident of the boy in the badger's den once again related- although much briefer here. I wonder if she took her account straight from Seton's book.

Rating: 3/5        276 pages, 1965

Sep 22, 2015

My Teacher is a Monster!

by Peter Brown

Bobby is sure his teacher is a monster. She stomps and growls and yells at kids. Especially when he throws paper airplanes in class. Bobby often goes to the park to play and forget about his teacher. But one day he is shocked to find his teacher in the park! There's an awkward conversation. Then Bobby rescues the teacher's hat when it blows away. He finds out she likes ducks, he shows her his favorite hill, she gives him paper to make an airplane to fly. The teacher relaxes a bit too, dropping some of the formal language she uses in class by the end of their time at the park. Back in school, the teacher still stomps and yells at times, but Bobby also earns her praise now and knows she can be friendly.

The great thing about this book is that for the first ten pages the teacher looks like a monster. Then as she and Bobby reach an understanding, her image slowly begins to change- the skin is lighter, the features softer, and by the last page she looks like a normal person.

I borrowed this book from the public library.

Rating: 3/5     34 pages, 2014

more opinions:
Jen Robinson's Book Page
The Book Chook

Sep 21, 2015

Great Cat Tales

edited by Lesley O'Mara

A short story collection featuring cats. I was expecting to find more familiar fare here, but only knew two of the stories- Rudyard Kipling's famous "The Cat That Walked by Himself" and a chapter from one of James Herriot's books about a lady with a houseful of cats. I wouldn't say the selections were great- most of them good, several quite forgettable, a handful I really liked. A number of stories are about people jealous of cats- the wife jealous of the husband favoring the cat, the husband jealous of the wife loving the cat, the lover trying to do away with a cat that hates him, and so on. Common thread. There's even a story of a cat that's jealous of another cat that shares its household, and how its manners change when the second cat disappears... Also lots of stories about winsome, noisy and very opinionated siamese cats. I wonder if siamese cats were still a rare, exotic breed in the eighties? or did the editor who selected the stories just happen to like them.The authors include Mark Twain, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Doris Lessing, Emile Zola, Lloyd Alexander, P.G. Wodehouse and many others I didn't recognize. My favorites were-

"How a Cat Played Robinson Crusoe" by Charles G.D. Roberts- about a cat who accidentally gets left behind at a summerhouse on an island, and must find ways to survive the fall, winter and spring alone.

"A Fine Place for the Cat" by Margaret Bonham- a rather slovenly lady decides to purchase a siamese cat when her older cat passes away. She wants something different, to impress her neighbors. The new cat arrives from the train and it is so strange to her she at first thinks it a hideous monkey-like creature. But the cat immediately attracts the admiration of the fish-man (who peddles his wares door-to-door) and thus something develops between them. A nice story.

"The Story of Webster" by P.G. Wodehouse- a young man, bohemian artist type, gets saddled with his rich uncle's cat, and he feels that the cat's stares reprimand him so much, he starts to change his ways. To the astonishment and alarm of his artist chums and his girlfriend.

"Midshipman, The Cat" by John Coleman Adams- some boys are attacking a small cat on a waterfront, and a novice sailor rescue the cat, who promptly adopts the crew and boat as his new home. He proves to be a remarkable, bold and resourceful cat. The story of his antics aboard ship and what happened after the summer's cruise was over, made me smile.

Rating: 3/5       254 pages, 1989

Sep 17, 2015

Wild Animals at Home

by Ernest Thompson Seton

This book should really be titled Wild Animals of Yellowstone Park, because that's exactly what it is. One by one, Seton tells about the different mammals that live in Yellowstone. At the back he gives a list of all the known mammals in Yellowstone, and it turns out he only left a few out of his descriptions: raccoon, shrew, flying squirrel, wolverine, vole, weasel- because he did not personally encounter them. Unfortunately, his descriptions of the wildlife leave something to be desired. He wrote them at a time when not much was actually known about the animals' habits, so for many it's just a brief page telling where the animal is found, what it eats, that's about it. Now and then he has a story to share- Steon is much more in his element (or at least more fun to read) when he's telling a story. He has a lot to say about skunks because he used to keep them as pets, and a lot to say about bears because they hung out around hotels and garbage dumps in the park. He frequently mentions sneaking up close on animals to capture photographs of them, then proudly shows said photos in the pages- but they are very dated, unfocused, grainy and overall just amusingly poor in quality. His drawings and sketches weren't quite up to par what I recall from other books either- a lot of them are very humorous and cartoony in style, but I like his detailed, realistic artwork better.

Well, so the text about animals is mostly brief descriptions with some secondhand observations, popular lore of the time and now and then a personal story Seton has to tell. Two segments were very familiar to me- the bears hanging out around the dump and the silly dog teased by coyotes- both are related in far more detail in Lives of the Hunted. There is one chapter in the book however, which is the entire reason I am keeping it on my shelf. It's about badgers. And while speaking of badgers, Seton tells of a boy in a prairie town near Winnipeg who has a natural affinity with animals, gets lost in a storm, takes shelter in a badger den and is befriended by the badger, who had just lost her mate and young to a trapper. The boy lives with the badger for two weeks before he is found and brought back home. I instantly recognized this story: it's Incident at Hawk's Hill! The names are all different, Seton says it was at Bird's Hill, but I'm sure when Eckert novelized the story he changed names for privacy. All the more this makes me think the badger story really was based on truth.

Rating: 3/5         226 pages, 1913

Sep 15, 2015

Hurry Home, Candy

by Meindert DeJong

I thought perhaps I had read this book as a kid, and it did become more and more familiar the further I went. It's a story of a little stray dog, at first loved by two little kids, but frequently mistreated beaten by their mother (a strict housewife) and then lost during a storm. Wandering between houses until frightened by bigger dogs it ends up half-starving in the countryside. Due to rough treatment when it was very young, the dog is timid and in particular, terrified of brooms (used as punishment) so it avoids people. Happens to find safety from a pack of dogs under a farm woman's wagon, so the dog is travelling with her when an accident occurs, and everyone thinks he is her dog. While the woman is in the hospital he's taken to the dog pound, where although the surroundings and noise are terrifying, for the first time the little dog starts to respond to kindness from the pound man. But there are always brooms around, and the dog's phobia causes him to flee and hide again. He finally gets adopted by a retired ship captain, who looses him (once again, because of a broom). Then an incident with bank robbers get published in the newspapers, and the dog happened to be there, and the original children who had him as a little puppy see the pictures. They also see that the captain is offering a reward for his return. The kids don't care about their lost puppy anymore, they want new bicycles so go looking for the puppy in hopes of the reward money. Eventually it's another woman in the neighborhood who saw the dog scavenging around her back porch earlier in the story, who coaches the children on how to catch the frightened dog (but they are inept at following her directions), and helps the captain lure him home again. The dog gets there of his own accord, the captain finally recognizes his broom phobia, banishes brooms from his house, and now the little dog has a place to belong, without fear.

Yeah, it sounds rather convoluted and the parts at the end where all the different people who had seen or helped the dog came together to get him found and back to his new home, was a bit too convenient. But it is a really tender story showing things from the dog's perspective, how easily a fear can get instilled in a young animal and affect its life for a long time, while people don't realize the reasons behind its behavior.

I think this author often tended to write books about down-trodden or misunderstood animals; the other one I've read by him is about a stray dog that starts hanging out around a chicken coop- I really like that one. And others have titles such as: Billy and the Unhappy Bull, The Little Stray Dog and The Cat That Walked a Week (to find its way home?) This one, Hurry Home, Candy, was a Newbery Honor book.

Rating: 3/5        244 pages, 1953

Sep 14, 2015

You Will Be My Friend!

by Peter Brown

Lucy the bear wants to make a new friend. So she visits all the forest animals, eager and friendly. But a bit lacking in social skills. She's too boisterous and talkative for most of them, I can exactly picture what kind of outgoing, slightly annoying four-year-old child this bear personifies. The pictures of Lucy trying to squeeze into a rabbit's hole, belly-flopping into a frog puddle and trying to give a skunk a bath are cute and funny. She's well-meaning and nothing but persistent- but the other animals all look annoyed or at best, startled by her tactics. Getting frustrated, Lucy starts demanding that the other animals play with her, but of course that doesn't work either. Finally, when she least expects it, a flamingo comes along who likes to play Lucy's games. Phew, a happy ending!

Really cute book, and I'm sure lots of kids know what it's like to be in Lucy's shoes (or have been on the receiving end). It's by the same author who did The Curious Garden.

This book was borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5      36 pages, 2011

Sep 13, 2015

The Dog Who Came to Stay

by Hal Borland

This quiet book is a story of life in the countryside, life with a good farm dog. Well, I don't know if I could entirely call it a quiet book, as there are plenty of dogfights, fierce encounters with bobcats and porcupines, confrontations with rude trespassing hunters and poachers. But overall, it has a calm, quiet voice. It's full of nature writing- just as much a story of the changing seasons, the wildlife and forest around the farm as it is about the dog. How he came to their farm, a wandering stray who gradually settled into their lives. The story tells of the dog's personality, his intelligence and flaws, his run-ins and friendships with other dogs in the neighborhood, his skills at hunting and his yearly battle against woodchucks (when the dog saw that his people didn't want woodchucks in the garden, he took it upon himself to go after any woodchucks in the area). It's obviously a book written from a different era; the dog is disciplined with slaps and a rolled-up newspaper (but his new owners are concerned that he shows fear of brooms and mops- they surmise he must have once been beaten with those objects, which they consider abuse). The dog is welcomed in the house but forbidden certain rooms and sleeps outside in a refurbished woodshed- oddly enough people complain about this on other reviews sites but if you pay attention in the book, the author tells how when the weather was particularly bad or the dog recuperating from injuries, they invited him to sleep in the house and the dog made it apparent he preferred to sleep in the hay in his shed. (Where he was locked in to keep him from roaming at night and being a nuisance to neighbors or wildlife). One aspect of the book I most liked was reading about how readily the man could communicate with his dog, understanding its intentions and wants from body language, facial expression, the tone of its bark or whimper, general demeanor. I think any dog owner can appreciate the depth of connection a person and dog can develop.

You might be glad to know that although the dog is old and showing his age near the end of the book, it does not end with his death but shows him gracefully entering his 'golden years' in the home he has chosen.

In many ways this book reminded me of Where the Red Fern Grows, but a more in-depth story written for adults.

Rating: 3/5     192 pages, 1961

Sep 11, 2015

something that is not books

I am having fun getting back into an old favorite passtime: jigsaw puzzles. My four-year-old is pretty good with puzzles and becoming bored with the twenty or fifty-piece ones she can do alone and even our small collection of 100-piece puzzles she still needs help with. She wants to do "the BIG puzzles" with me. I have a small collection, some of them I've had since I was a kid myself.

I'm culling some out now and hoping to eventually acquire new ones. I want to keep puzzles I'll enjoy doing again and again (similar to how I keep books I want to re-read) and I've come to realize I am particular about my puzzles, what kind of challenge I like, and what makes them enjoyable or frustrating. I like a certain piece size and number- less than 500 and it's not challenging enough, more than 1500 and it starts to feel tedious. I don't like puzzles with uniform cuts (all pieces having two 'bumps' and two 'holes' and they go in straight rows like a grid) but ones that have unique, funny shapes that you can eyeball and try to match from the jumble on the table.

I'm also particular about the kind of picture- I want something that is striking or pretty to look at when it's done and something that has a variety of visual textures and colors which makes it fun to put together. So even though I love M.C. Escher's work, I found the puzzle of his House of Stairs incredible frustrating to assemble and I don't think I'll ever work that one again! I also don't like them so tiny and minute in detail it's like a find-the-hidden-object game. The one exception so far is a 1500 piece jigsaw I have of the painting Proverbidioms by T. E. Breitenbach. My great-aunt had a print of this on her wall and I remember as a kid always staring at it, trying to figure out what sayings all the images represented. I was delighted to find it as a puzzle. My ten-year-old enjoyed helping me put this one together a few years ago, and we tried again to identify all the sayings (and failed). It took us a long time, too.

So. I'm thinking of maybe joining a puzzle swap site, if I don't just donated my unwanted puzzles. I have a number of puzzles on my shelf that are now in the "iffy" category- not sure if I want to keep them or not. I decided to work them each again, to make a decision. It's also a fun activity my youngest enjoys doing together. I've done them all before, so to make it a bit more challenging I deterred from my normal strategy, which usually is: make the boarder, then sift out pieces that have the greatest constrast, or the most interest (faces in particular) and work out from there going from specifics to general. Thus the background usually gets done last. This time I decided to do it backwards. I still made the boarder first, but then deliberately worked the background, going general to specific. It was still fun, and made putting this puzzle together take about a week (done in many short sittings) rather than just a few days.

I also had fun taking photos of the assembly stages (click on the first image to see larger and use arrows to skip through them):
There's a little family story behind this puzzle. I used to get puzzles at garage sales and thrift shops (never again- too often they have missing pieces). This one had five missing pieces and my older daughter (four or five at the time) was sooo disappointed. She loved the cute kittens. So I made substitute pieces out of cardboard covered with a layer of white paper, colored with colored pencils and sealed with clear packing tape, burnished with the back of a spoon. I will probably never do that again- these are rather large pieces and it was still very hard to cut the tiny shapes right. But they do fit in the puzzle, even after re-working it a few times over the years. Can you spot them?

I've hung this puzzle up on my four-year-old's wall, just like I once did with her older sister. She was delighted. We'll be starting another BIG puzzle soon. I might keep sharing pics- it's fun to do and I thought you might be interested in occasionally seeing something other than books here.

Sep 10, 2015

Magic by the Lake

by Edward Eager

The kids from Half Magic go to a lake for summer vacation. And of course the lake is magic, they find out all about it from a talking turtle. Thus follows a vacation full of adventures. The kids are a little wiser than last time- they know magic doesn't often turn out how you expect, and that there are rules to follow, but they still make errors in judgement and try to bend the rules or control what type of adventures they will have. All kinds of mishap and hilarity ensues. They meet a mermaid, have a run-in with pirates, visit the South Pole, seek buried treasure, get captured by cannibals, hide from Ali Baba's thieves in a cave, and in one curiously different episode, two of the girls unwittingly wish they were sixteen and go off on a midnight boat ride with boys (who of course don't realize they're flirting with some little girls!)

The children are very well-read and sharp on history- they keep thinking of famous stories they want to be a part of, or moments in history they want to visit. I like this, but wonder how much of it modern kids would pick up on? The reference to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, for example, I only recognized because I read the book just seven years ago- I didn't know it at all when I first read Magic by the Lake as a kid, and surely missed many others.

It's a fun story and the characterization is done really well- these kids act like real children- squabbling and being snooty to each other and wanting excitement and dreading chores and so on. But for some reason I didn't enjoy this book quite as much as the first one. Maybe because some of the attitudes are so dated, the scenes with cannibals and "natives" can be painful to read, for example. On another note, there was one sentence that made me blink, completely taken aback. It mentioned a lovely summerhouse by the lake where one could enjoy watching the sunset and listening to the water and the mosquitoes. I cannot imagine a single person who would find sitting with mosquitoes pleasant!

Rating: 3/5       190 pages, 1957

Sep 8, 2015


by Gail E. Christianson

This book tells the history of the phenomenon global warming. How it began to occur, and how we first started to notice it, and a little bit about what we might do about it. Historically it starts at a point just prior to the industrial revolution, detailing all the changes in how mankind has used and created energy, tinkering we've done with fuels and chemicals and other things. And all the bad it has done to the environment. And how much it's been misunderstood or ignored, and the politicking behind making people think it's a non-issue and so on. The history stuff was really interesting, because it connected a lot of ideas and reasons that I'd never realized were related. Also fairly dull to read. I did want to finish it, to see the final points, but it was hard to get there. Of course since the book is over a decade old it's not up-to-date. Some things are, I believe, worse than the author had surmised they would become. Other things he pointed at quickly declining or going extinct, are still here or on the road to recovery. I appreciated that it was pointed out where the science was inconclusive, and where some people thought a warming climate would actually be beneficial. It strikes me as rather crazy that in the 1800's some scientists were already measuring changes in the atmosphere, but they failed to realize it could have such a negative impact.

So much stuff in this book, no way I can relate even a small part of it. Lots of sobering things, and it touches on many other interesting topics including evolution, the rapid growth of the industrial revolution, all the incidents that triggered new inventions therein, pollution, wildlife migrations and scientific feuding to name a few.

Rating: 2/5       305 pages, 1999

Sep 3, 2015

the 56th TBR post

No Better Friend by Robert Weintraub- Bermudaonion's Weblog
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson- A Striped Armchair
Once Upon a Flock by Lauren Scheuer
Phoebe and Her Unicorn by Dana Simpson from Things Mean a Lot
A Brave Vessel by Hobson Woodward- James Reads Books
Zoobiquity by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers
Folks This Ain't Normal by Joel Salatin
From Elephants to Mice by James Mahoney
The Indoor Naturalist by Gale Lawrence- A Striped Armchair
Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis- The Indextrious Reader
Swarm by Lauren Carter - Jules' Book Reviews
Steering Toward Normal by Rebecca Petruck - Caroline Bookbinder