Jan 25, 2016

My Weeds

A Gardener's Botany
by Sara B. Stein

This wonderful book is a botanical exploration of the weeds one writer dealt with in her garden. It turned out (once again) to be much more than I expected, full of meticulous detail and scientific information on all aspects of understanding plants- weeds in particular, but many other species as well. Their relationship with insects, with soil organisms and fungi, the process of photosynthesis, their widely varying modes of reproduction, how they have managed to disperse so far and much, much more. Ordinary looking plants -dandelion, hedge rose, even pond scum (duckweed), have so much more going on than I had realized. And to make it all a great read, the author is an excellent writer as well. In one chapter she traces the geological history of her neighbor's pond back 450 million years. In another, she describes how the landscape of her town has change dramatically in just the past fifty years- reverting from cleared farmland back into wood lots. She discusses pesticide use and seed engineering, the strength and deadliness of many chemicals plants produce themselves (to use against their insect enemies). There's even some criticism of Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, which I was surprised to read at first but it made sense the further I went on. Stein brings the wonders of the plant world alive, all from the starting point of trying to identify the weeds in her yard, striving to understand their mechanisms in order to combat them more effectively. I particularly liked the final chapter, where the author explained her new goal to create a garden that would perpetuate itself after her, plants that would fill the landscape without much room for weeds at all, partnered in the right places to enable ready succession from neglected garden patch to wildflower-strewn meadow to brush and eventually, mature woodland once again.

Rating: 4/5      229 pages, 1988

Jan 10, 2016

Letters from Father Christmas

by J.R.R. Tolkien

Charming, amusing, and a bit sad if you read between the lines. Tolkien wrote some very creative letters from Father Christmas to his children, every year at christmastime, for twenty-three years. The letters are sometimes brief with just greetings and hopes the children will like their gifts, and sometimes much more elaborate, with stories about life at the North Pole and all the mishaps caused by a polar bear, who is very much a central character. Later other characters come in, too- including goblins that break into storage cellars and steal things, penguins that visit from the South Pole, snow-men and cave-bears, and secretary who takes over writing some letters. Tolkien varied the handwriting (including amusing inserts done by the polar bear, interjecting his own comments and little digs at the storyteller) according to which character wrote the letter, included a specific alphabet for polar bears and another for elves, and lots of lovely drawings.
The style of it all reminded me very much of Mr. Bliss (another children's tale Tolkien wrote) but there are also some more sombre undertones to this. Often the letters described some mishap that happened at the North Pole, which explained why the children would receive fewer presents, or not exactly what they had asked for. Statements bracketing the stories of a war between goblins and elves (foreshadowing some elements of Middle Earth definitely) remind one what the atmosphere was like in the thirties. It's a book Tolkien fans will probably find intriguing. I kept thinking as I read it how wonderful it must have been for his kids to receive these messages each year, so carefully crafted by their father.

Rating: 3/5      112 pages, 2004

more opinions:
Nose in a Book
All Booked Up
2606 Books and counting

Jan 5, 2016

The Bafut Beagles

by Gerald Durrell

In this delightful book Durrell describes a trip he made to the Cameroons -probably in the late forties- to collect wild animals to take back to England (for a zoo or his own collection I am not sure). He plunges straight into the story without much introduction or explanation, but happily I have read enough of his other books that I recognized the context immediately. Having gained the support of the local headsman, the Fon, via copious drinking bouts and gathered a group of eager hunters and mongrel dogs (the "beagles" of title) he avidly gathers up as many animal "specimens" as possible. This is done by paying nice sums to local people for what they bring him, as well as going out on his own hunting forays. Several times he ran into difficulties convincing the people that an animal he knew of actually existed, as they had never seen one, or that an animal could be safely approached and caught, as they thought some innocent creatures deadly. (Yet they often handled very poisonous snakes with a seemingly careless attitude!) I really enjoyed the story, the straightforward humor and the descriptions of the wildlife. Some species I had never heard of, or didn't recognize right away because the name Durrell used for them was unfamiliar. It took me a minute to realize that the galago is a bushbaby, and I think the colorful skink the natives feared so much must have been a fire skink (going on his description of its appearance alone). I find the agama lizard just as beautiful, although it didn't get much mention (too common) and definitely the most curious creature of all is the hairy frog (also known as the horror frog)! Also described are several kinds of monkeys, flying mice, bush pigs, the golden cat, rock hyrax, numerous excitable squirrels, cane rats, snakes and many others.

At first I found reading the book a bit awkward and uncomfortable, as he communicated with the natives in pidgin English and there are entire conversations written this way (reminiscent of certain parts of Peter Pan). It felt insulting, but there were a few times where moved by sudden excitement or indignation the author would burst out a sentence or two of grammatically correct English, which baffled his native hunting companions. So I guess the people actually spoke that way, and partly through the book I was able to accept this and just read it. The depictions of local customs and characters (especially the Fon himself) were really well-drawn and add a lot to the book. In one particularly funny incident Durrell witnessed a young man and a girl arguing hotly in the street, pursued by an old woman who was beating the man (while he completely ignored her and continued scolding the girl). Durrell watched the charade with interest and being unable to understand what they said, invented in his head a rather elaborate story involving infidelity and witchcraft. Then he asked a passerby what was going on and found out it was simply an irate husband who came home to find no dinner waiting for him, and his mother-in-law got into into the resulting fray! Durrell was disappointed to find out it was just a domestic quarrel, but laughed at himself for thinking otherwise.

Rating: 4/5     254 pages, 1954

more opinions:
Suz's Space
Everything Distills Into Reading

Jan 4, 2016

eight zebras

My four-year-old wanted to do "the big zebra puzzle" with me. It's 500-plus pieces, but we worked it all in one day. It wasn't all broken up properly last time- about half the pieces were stuck to a few others so it went quicker than I'd expect. I kind of feel like this is cheating but she thought it was a great bonus!
It's an older puzzle and I thought I'd find it boring because of the typical straight grid cut. But the pieces all have wavy edges on the vertical sides, and they varied enough to make it interesting.
This one's a keeper.

Jan 2, 2016

2015 book stats

Total books read- 98

Fiction- 41
YA- 2
Historical- 2
Fantasy- 5
J Fic- 15
Picture Books- 7
Animals- 12

Non-fiction- 57
Memoirs- 8
J Non-fic- 2
Nature- 2
Animals- 51

other formats-
ebooks- 0
Short Stories- 5
Graphic Novels- 4

Owned- 57
Library- 39
Review copies- 2

abandoned books- 8

No surprises here: I read more nonfiction and even more animal books, wrote about a few picture books that interested me. Somehow the count is off, but that's probably because I didn't keep a running tally this year and figuring out all the numbers by going through lists of posts is a bit confounding- but it doesn't matter too much. You get the general picture. I read more of my own books this year, and crossed a few off my TBR lists as well.

Favorite books of the year? I really must say it was H is for Hawk. Other books that really stand out in my memory were animal related as well: Fish Behavior was a perfect match for my growing interest in the home aquarium inhabitants. Wesley the Owl was amusing, intriguing and personal, on a bird I know so little about. A book that really wowed me with fascinating new information was The Soul of an Octopus. Paul Gallico's The Abandoned was just lovely, a story of friendship and what it must be like to really be a cat. On a completely different note, I must also mention Women Who Run with the Wolves. It's one I recommend highly. So dense with rich material on strength of self, all drawn from mythological figures and fables featuring women.