Nov 29, 2015


the Story of an Alaskan Wolf
by John Hyde

I had not heard of this story until I found the book by chance on a library shelf. It might have been a better read if I had, because although the writing is thoughtful and descriptive, it also has an oddly disjointed quality, jumping into the subject matter without much introduction and wandering between current observations, the biology and natural history of wolves in general, the author's musings on their role in nature and their relationship with man. A good reason to think on all these things: in Juneau, Alaska a young black wolf appeared and for six years in a row resided near the lakeshore during winter months, where he would approach people who were out walking their dogs. The wolf wanted to socialize with the dogs. There are many images and videos online of him doing so. I though it would be really interesting to read about the individual interactions, as the dogs often misread the wolf's intentions, acting aggressive or timid, and Romeo would trick them into playing tag with him. But the book is more a photo essay than anything else, and the author mostly only reports interactions he viewed, just as often mentioning finding the wolf's tracks or hearing it howl, knowing it was in the vicinity but not in sight. His photographs of the wolf and the landscape are simply gorgeous. The brilliance and detail of closeups are stunning, but I really liked the wide shots that showed the wolf a small figure in a vast landscape of ice, snow and glacial formations.

I do want to know more about this wolf; I found there's another book about him- A Wolf Called Romeo by Nick Jans which I will look for someday. His story reminds me a lot of the whale Luna, who also approached people seemingly for companionship and became something of a problem when people were warned not to engage with it, but of course no one could control what the whale did. And the wolf also met a sad fate, as its habit of approaching people finally brought it within easy reach of someone who had no compunctions. Wildlife officials did attempt to teach the wolf to keep its distance from people using noise and harmless missles, but this only caused him to avoid those particular individuals and unfortunately did not save him from harm.

Rating: 3/5       134 pages, 2010

Nov 28, 2015

H is for Hawk

by Helen Macdonald

I have spent two weeks to read this book, and then a day and a half trying to think what to say about it. It's one I took at a very slow pace, because the book nearly demanded it and I found myself deliberately reading in long pauses, stopping after just a page or two to set it aside, wanting to let the words sink in, the descriptions linger as vivid images in my mind.

It's that good a book. It's about the author's period of grief when her father suddenly died, which she assuaged by taking up a new hawk to train. Macdonald tells how she'd been obsessed with falconry since childhood, reading the books and watching the skies and eventually training her own hawks to fly. But she'd always avoided goshawks, a species with a strong reputation for being difficult and moody. Alone in a small house she slowly eases into the hawk's trust, teaching it to associate her with food, and the relationship that slowly unfolds between them is nothing short of amazing. It's not a friendship or dependency, but more of a working partnership; the hawk learns she will feed it, take it places to fly, flush game for it.... The passages that describe the author's walks through the countryside tracking her hawk, watching it gain hunting skills, are the solid type of nature writing I love. Putting you solidly into a place, a perspective, you've never seen before, the feel of the elements, the response and senses of the animals. Macdonald herself feels more aligned with the hawk's outlook than any human one for a long time until she starts to work her way out of grief. Her story is so very personal, and so close to nature one and the same.

It's also an examination of the art of falconry, told from a very personal experience. Lots of terminology and skills and bygone writers on the subject explained. All quite fascinating. A large thread in the book reveals her unfolding thoughts on T.H. White's book The Goshawk (which I've not read). In it White related how he battled wills with his own hawk, and all his erroneous methods, driven by his own problems which it seems he often took out on the bird. It's disturbing to read about, makes me wonder if I really ever want to read it myself. It makes a really interesting foil to Macdonald's own story, throwing a mirror and a light on her own methods and interpretations on how to read the hawk's body language, how to respond to it, how to treat it properly. Of course, she did have bad days, make her own mistakes, get discouraged at times. And took risks letting the hawk fly when it really wasn't in proper condition later on, just compelled to see what it would do, to let it ride its instinctive nature to the full. There are understandably lots of scenes with bloody death- rabbits, pheasants and other animals clutched by the hawk, and the author herself has to lay hand on the dying animals, has to feed her hawk dead chicks, quail and other fresh meat when confined in the house. That can be difficult to read about, but she makes it all sound so natural, if you're keeping a hawk.

So much more I could say: but you should just go read it! I will, again. This is definitely a book I want to own someday. I just can't describe how good the writing style is, the voice that lays bare so much about nature and the land and this predatory bird, this fiercely alive goshawk at her side.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 5/5         300 pages, 2014

more opinions:
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Vulpes Libris
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Desperate Reader
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Nov 24, 2015

TBR management- and The Dare!!

I saw this meme on So Many Books and thought to do it too, then got distracted (lots of work right now) until James' posting about the TBR Dare reminded me. So here we go.

How do you keep track of your TBR pile?
It used to be a handwritten thing that I jotted titles down on, and then often forgot about. The handwritten part got shuffled onto this list -as much of it as I could find. Then at some point I started making regular postings whenever I added a slew of titles to the TBR. It's not organized in the same way- the TBR page list I just delete titles when I finally read them, but with the postings I go back and link the title in the post to the current review of that book. I try to keep things sorted which books are in in my library's system and I can methodically look for with a good hope of actually reading them. Books that aren't at the library I just hope to come across someday when hunting at used sales or secondhand shops...

And then there's Library Thing. I do have a tag in my catalog for unread books. I use it to get a count every now and then. Or to quickly look up a title and see if it's a book I already own.

Is your TBR mostly print or e-book?
Well I thought it was mostly print. But I just looked and realized I have 67 unread books on my e-reader that I got from Project Gutenberg. One day I discovered this has a lot of older, out-of-print titles that interest me and I got all excited about it. I should look for more! But I only tend to read on the device when I'm travelling, so I have no idea when I'll get around to these...

How do you determine which books from your TBR to read next?
It varies. Sometimes I deliberately look for a book on my shelf related to a subject interesting me at the moment, or that another book or reader has reminded me of. Sometimes when I'm at the library with my kids I'll pop over to my favorite section (dewey decimals 570-590!) and look to see if I recognize anything on the shelf from my TBR list. And sometimes I just stand in front of the bookcase at home and pick something at random. Speaking of which, here they are:
Yes, I do still have piles on the floor. But I'm hoping that eventually I'll clear enough unwanted books out that everything will fit on the actual shelves again.

A book that has been on my TBR the longest?
List or physical? There are probably titles on that TBR page in the navbar that I jotted down on notepaper up to ten years ago, but I don't know which ones they are. According to my Library Thing catalog, there are only three unread books that have been on my shelf since 2007: The Wonder of Birds, Walden (which I've tried and failed to get through twice so far) and Famous American Illustrators- a reference book I acquired for a class in art school and hung on to.  I might have missed a few though; every now and then I read a book and when I go to update the LThing listing it simply isn't in there.

A book you recently added to your TBR?
Well, for the list it would be Leaf by Daishu Ma or Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman, which I've just tagged in my feed reader but haven't yet put in a TBR post. Also The End of the Game by Peter Beard, I just got this one from Paperback Swap in the mail today and I'm really excited about it!

A book on your TBR strictly because of its beautiful cover?
Hm. Lots of books are on my shelf because they were very cheap secondhand, and just caught my eye. I guess a good example is Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett. I don't know anything about this book, but the cover image certainly is striking. It has a sleeve over the cover that wraps all the way around
the front image without the sleeve wrapping is this:
I think it's about a painter, and a woman who sat for a portrait. Definitely intriguing!

A book on your TBR that you never plan on reading?
This would only be reference books, and they're not on my list, just shelved. I have a Healthwise Handbook which I dip into now and then for a quick answer. I have plenty of cookbooks I might never use (not even in my LThing catalog). I have a book on making your own custom picture frames from back in the days when I was painting, but I never used that one either.

An unpublished book on your TBR that you’re excited for?
Can't tell you. I don't usually keep track of what's up-and-coming. I do add such titles to my list when they catch my attention from others' blog posts, but I don't remember which ones they are.

A book on your TBR that everyone recommends to you?
I have Frost Dancers by Garry Kilworth on my e-reader because a fellow blogger not only recommended it when she found out I'd read the author's book about foxes, but she sent me the file! That was great. I can't really think of a title that's been recommended to me by lots of folks.

A book on your TBR that everyone has read but you?
I can't think of one right now. The books I like to read aren't of a very popular genre (nature writing and animals) so ...

A book on your TBR that you’re dying to read?
The End of the Game which I just got. It has awesome photographs and I just found out from the flyleaf that the author was Karen Blixen's neighbor and published some of Kamante's pictures in this book too!

How many books are on your TBR shelf?
Current best count is 153. Well, if I add on the e-books it's really 220. That's less than it has been in years. Mostly thanks to The TBR Dare! Which I am going to participate in one last time (if it really is the last).
Go on over to James' site and read about it.

Nov 19, 2015

cat and mouse

This is one of the more challenging (or let's say frustrating) puzzles I've done. It's been made more difficult on purpose by Bepuzzled. Not only is the picture very repetitive (variety of four or five cat poses only, made different sizes, flipped horizontally and duplicated over and over) and severely limited in color scheme but also: it's not all shown on the box, the puzzle itself has no border pieces, and there's five extra pieces thrown in to confuse you. So it was kind of a jumble taking pictures of as well because I didn't have a border to align the camera with until near the end. This one took me twice as long as other puzzles of similar size (750 pieces). There were plenty of sittings I did in between these shots where I only managed to fit two or three pieces in place before giving up for the day!
When it's done, not really a picture I enjoy looking at, either. Too- gimicky- not quite the right word, but maybe you know what I mean. So I don't think this one's a keeper...

Nov 15, 2015

The Time Garden

by Edward Eager

I couldn't get Knight's Castle, my library simply doesn't have a copy (how is that? I assume once they had the entire series and one got lost/damanged). This book is its sequel, involving the same four children (two sets of cousins). So I missed some of the references to the earlier story, and the character building, but overall I think it should stand alone. Here four kids get sent to live with an elderly relative in an old house on a cliff above the sea, while their parents are away. It turns out the thyme plants in the garden are magic, and a talking toad tells them how the herb can make them travel through time (of course). So they go on a series of adventures, landing in the middle of the Revolutionary War, later assisting escaping slaves just prior to the Civil War, visiting with Queen Elizabeth and meeting their own parents as kids (on the cannibal island from Magic by the Lake). But I just skimmed that chapter, because somehow this one just wasn't working for me. I couldn't keep my attention on the story. The characters didn't seem as vivid nor the incidents as funny as I recall in other books. It could just be my state of mind doesn't match a light read right now... That's it for Edward Eager, then. One was great, two pretty good, the other just okay.

Abandoned        193 pages, 1958

Nov 14, 2015


An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish
by James Prosek

I didn't know there was a fish in the world whose life still remains such an unknown. Unlike most fish, freshwater eels spawn in the wide open ocean, and the tiny larvae travel to rivers where they swim up against current (as small glass eels) then spend forty years or more living there. As mature adults they swim back to the ocean. No-one knows how they find their way back; it's supposed they spawn in the Sargasso sea. Sometimes eels get trapped in lakes or behind dams with no way out, and there are tales of them living close to a century, searching every year for a way back to the sea. To date nobody has ever found the actual spawning site. But fishing pressure urges some scientists to search: they think they could learn something that would help breed eels in fish farms to produce for market. Others say it should never be found (what good would it do the eels, if we caught them in the act?) It shows the completely different ways eels are viewed: as a food item to be exploited, as something slimy and icky no-one cares about. Or, as the author found when he traveled to Micronesia and New Zealand, an ancient and powerful creature to be feared and respected. In those island cultures eels are woven into tales of power and mystery, and many people cared for and fed eels that lived in streams near their houses, for decades. This part of the book felt more like a travelogue, a story of stories told and people visited and as such not quite as interesting to me. Mostly I got an impression of how difficult it was for the author to gain the trust of the locals and ferret out their legends and information about eels. He also tells of visiting several eel fishermen, in particular a man who every year builds a rock weir on a river to catch eels during the run to the sea. Overall the book felt a bit disjointed, I wanted to be more interested in it but kept having to turn myself back to it. I wished for a lot more material, in depth. And I felt like it could have been had: the afterward mentioned a lot more visits and conversations that didn't get mentioned in the text as far as I could tell.

Rating: 3/5       287 pages, 2010

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Nov 10, 2015

Fish Behavior

in the Aquarium and in the Wild
by Stephan Reebs

Fish aren't stupid. It's difficult for us to understand how they really perceive their world, and from that guess what their thinking process might be. But experiments have been made exploring their sensory and cognitive abilities. This information, as the author points out, is usually presented in scientific literature and not often read by the general public. Here the author has taken the trouble to summarize numerous of these experiments (using many different species, both fresh- and saltwater) and presents the findings together, along with his take on their implications. This book demonstrates how much fish can discern, judge risks and rewards and make decisions, even compromises. It starts by detailing what fish can sense of their surroundings and how they do it- using sound, smell, chemical signals (pheromones) and things beyond our normal ken as humans: electricity, magnetism and pressure via the lateral line. Fish can tell time, not just using daylight hours or sun position but an internal clock. They can anticipate a regular feeding time, or in the case of parental cichlids, start gathering up young fry for safekeeping before nightfall (even recognizing the difference between true approaching nightfall and someone turning off the lights at random during the day). Some species can sense the earth's magnetism and use it to navigate. They can judge another fish's size compared to their own and assess the risk of taking on a newcomer in a fight, verses a prior rival with whom they've already settled differences. They can learn things from other fish- where to find food or safety, how to recognize predators. Using the alarm substance of their kin combined with the scent of a predator, hatchery-raised salmon can be taught what dangers to avoid before they are released into the wild. And so on. Most of the experiments described were conducted in enclosed environments and can even be replicated in a home aquarium, but a lot were also done in open rivers, streams, lakes, and even the ocean. It's all really interesting to read about.

Two of my favorite parts of the book: one described the discovery of a fish in San Francisco that is so noisy during the mating season (males calling to attract females) that houseboat residents complained of the buzzing sound. Most were convinced it was mechanical in origin, they couldn't imagine a fish producing such noise. And this passage about a fish that has demonstrated spatial memory is so intriguing I quote it in full:

Spatial memory comes in handy for the small frillfin goby. At low tide, these fish seem to be prisoners of their home tide pool, but when they are chased by mad scientists, they can jump out of their pool and "land" with amazing accuracy in adjacent pools rather than on rocks. Sometimes they jump from pool to pool until they reach open water, a trip that may require up to six different jumps, not all of them in the same direction. This works only when the fish have had a chance to explore the whole area at high tide, when all pools are covered by water and swimming between them is possible. When introduced into an unfamiliar pool at low tide, gobies either refuse to jump or landed wrongly on the rocks. But after only one night of exploring the new pool at high tide, the jumping behavior became accurate again. The most likely hypothesis to explain this fantastic ability is that the shape of each pool is memorized and serves as the main cue for proper orientation toward the next landing place. Memory of such information is long lived: gobies tested in the same pools 40 days later still jumped in the right direction. These experiments came from Laster Aronson of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Reading about all these studies on fish reveals a lot about their behavior and preferences. What do fish care about when it comes to choosing a mate or a spawning site? At what point will they choose between food and safety? How do they decide who to hang out with (shoals usually contain fish all of the same size, but sometimes they are comprised of different species). I think anyone who keeps an aquarium should read this book, it sure gave me a lot to think about!

Found browsing at the public library.

Rating: 4/5       252 pages, 2001

Nov 7, 2015

The Wolf Almanac

by Robert H. Busch

This book about wolves is a pretty good overview. It reviews wolf evolution, classification, distribution, biology, behavior and predation, covering all in general. On the human side there's discussion of how wolves have figured in folklore and mythology, common misconceptions and false information still believed by many people today. The situation of wolves as game animals hunted for trophies, fur-bearers trapped for their pelts, and persecution by man due to fear and livestock losses is also discussed, alongside the place of wolves in zoos and sanctuaries and the conundrum of wolf-dog hybrids kept (and usually subsequently abandoned) as pets. Wolf conservation efforts, their status as an endangered species and efforts to re-introduce them to the wild round out the book. It's got a lot of statistics- maps and lists on numbers of wolves existing in various parts of the world, reported bounties paid, livestock losses, numbers sighted in different states during various years and so on. If you want to read a bunch of facts, it's great. Solid broad picture of what wolf is, how it makes a living and how mankind has treated it. The pictures are nice. But not what I would really call a fun or engaging read. The kind of book you would really depend on to write a school report (if kids read books for that nowadays).

I found this copy at a library discard sale.

Rating: 2/5      226 pages, 1995

Nov 4, 2015

The Rabbi's Cat

by Joann Sfar

This graphic novel (for adults) depicts a Jewish household in Algeria, through the eyes of their talking cat. The cat has his own opinions about human behavior and their often odd (in his eyes) habits, which all comes out after he eats a parrot and gains the ability to speak. (Later in the book he looses this ability, but can still communicate with other animals and continues his commentary on the side). So the cat adores his mistress, the rabbi's daughter, but the rabbi doesn't want her influenced by a talking cat who is sarcastic and witty and doesn't flinch at lying when it suits his own ends. The cat insists that he can be a good Jewish cat, if he is taught religious law. The rabbi refuses to teach him. But apparently the cat can already read and has plenty of sources to quote. The cat delightedly pitches himself into arguments with the rabbi, his relatives, colleagues and others- all turning words and logic in upon themselves. Not always to get what he wants, but just to confound everyone it seems. Later in the book the rabbi's daughter gets married and leaves the household, and the cat is upset at being shut out of her new life- which household does he belong to now? In the final chapter the rabbi and his daughter travel to Paris to meet her new husband's family. It turns out this family is not religiously observant, which puts the rabbi into all kinds of turmoil, and after shunning his in-laws' household he searches for a nephew he hasn't seen in years. Miraculously he finds this younger relative, only to discover his nephew also has strayed from Jewish tradition, on a different tangent. It's eye-opening and shameful to the rabbi, who promptly goes off and breaks a bunch of taboos in one fell swoop, to see what will happen. Nothing does. Hm.

I thought I would really like this book, but turns out it was just mildly interesting and the ending did not feel very conclusive. Perhaps the second volume rounds out the story, but I don't feel terribly inclined to pick it up. Also, as a small aside, the cat's thoughts are presented in script, which can be hard to read after a while. I suppose the positive of that is it slows the reader down!

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5      142 pages, 2005

more opinions:
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Nov 2, 2015

Adventures with Ari

by Kathryn Miles

Another book about a dog, this one was pretty darn good. Very thoughtful, interesting and funny at times. Also some sad moments. The author relates her first year with a newly adopted puppy, an endearingly cute jindo/husky mix full of spunk and plenty of wild crazy energy. The story is not just about puppy antics, adjustments in the household, training issues and how their resident cat struggled to accept the newcomer. It's about how the author made an effort to pay attention to how her dog saw the world, to follow where the dog led her on walks in the forest and let the canine senses guide them in exploring the natural world. Sometimes this just led them to mud puddles, or to remains of dead animals on the roadside, but there were also many encounters with squirrels, a beaver, a glimpse of a bald eagle and so on. Lots of internal musings on canine characteristics and abilities, nature vs nurture, the relationship of dogs and humans, our impact on the natural world and even economic developments in their small, rural town. Even some side topics that interested me were dipped into, like feral children. I'm familiar with most of the books on dogs and other animals that Miles mentioned; it was good to see someone else's thoughts on them. And the few she discussed or quoted that I haven't read, are going onto my list.

Rating: 4/5      280 pages, 2009

more opinions:
Vulpes Libris