Dec 31, 2018

2018 Stats

Total books read- 138

Fiction- 61
Non-fiction- 70

fiction breakdown
Fantasy/Sci-Fi- 26
J Fiction- 26
Picture Books- 1
Animals- 18
Classics- 1
Poetry- 2

non-fiction breakdown
Art- 5
Gardening/Food- 7
J Nonfiction- 4
Memoirs- 23
Nature- 11
Animals- 49
Other- 5

other formats
Short Stories- 4
Graphic Novels- 11
E-Books- 8

Owned- 98
Public Library- 36
Borrowed from friend/relative- 3
Received from publisher/author- 1

re-reads- 4
abandoned books- 9

Notes: the numbers don't add up perfectly. Lots of titles span more than one category, for example, so this is just a rough idea of what my reading year looked like. I read a lot more fantasy/sci-fi this year- most of those were Animorphs books, short and fun. My interest in animals continues to be a major part of my reading, but I also picked up more memoirs this year than before. Fiction and Non-fiction was pretty even, and as in the past few years I read more books out of my own collection than from the library.

Some of the foreign places I visited in the pages: the Congo, Gombe, Haiti, Peru, India, Brazil, Antarctica, Great Britian, Namibia, Yemen, the island of Corfu, and several fantasy worlds.

Now for the best reads of the year. Fascinating book about bird life with gorgeous photographs: The Living Bird published by the Cornell lab of Ornithology.  Another favorite was also avian: The Parrot Who Owns Me by Joanna Burger, Very memorable for its thoughtfulness: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. A vivid novella I won't forget easy: Stickeen by John Muir, with some stunning nature writing and a small courageous dog. A very different kind of read for me was Trashed by Derf Backderf, graphic novel about working as a garbage collector. And I have to mention GoatMan. It was the weirdest book ever.

Great fiction: All the Little Live Things by Wallace Stegner. Must read me some more Stegner! Favorite graphic novel of the year: El Zoo Petrificado by Joris Chamblain. Look for the English version if you can. Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman, about a teen with mental illness, was very good. I also really liked The Mare by Mary Gaitskill, that one was hard to put down.

So many I can't name them all here. My 4/5- Great Book tag has more wonderful reads! 

Dec 30, 2018

Last Chance to See

by Douglas Adams
and Mark Cardwardine

Sci-fi author (famous for Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) travels the world to view some of the most endangered animals on the planet, before they are gone. He goes to Madagascar to see the aye-aye, to Komodo for the iconic giant lizards, to Zaire for the mountain gorillas and northern white rhino (there were twenty living at the time), to New Zealand in hopes of finding a kakapo, to China in search of the Yangtze river dolphin, to Mauritius to see the Rodrigues fruit bat and some endangered birds as well. Some of these he just caught a glimpse of (the aye-aye), other animals he was able to observe up close. I was surprised what a fun read this was, in spite of its grave subject matter- it's kind of a wild travelogue, and the author's humor in describing situations frequently sparked a laugh. To note, in the years since this book was written, the river dolphin is presumed extinct, the northern white rhino is functionally so (down to two individuals), the fruit bat is increasing in numbers, komodo dragons are doing okay (listed as vulnerable), kakapo appears to be gradually recovering (their reproduction rate is incredibly slow), the gorilla and aye-aye are still very much endangered. When I read this book I was impressed at the actions the Chinese took to save the river dolphin, but it wasn't enough. Similar book, although now outdated in terms of the animals' predicament (and not nearly as enjoyable a read) : Wild Echoes.

Rating: 3/5               220 pages, 1990

more opinions:
Things Mean a Lot 
anyone else?

Dec 29, 2018


by Valerie Hobbs

Young border collie leaves his farm when sudden hard times hit the farmer and his wife. Spends the rest of the book looking for a good home, in particular one where he can herd sheep again, knowing that is his life's purpose. Has a short stint in a pet shop, then with a spoiled child who treats him like a toy. He runs off, meets up with some tramps and later an odd character that travels with a bunch of goats pulling a caravan. Gets caught on the street and put in the pound, where a new owner finds him- a cruel circus man who makes him learn tricks by beating him. All the circus animals are miserable; the border collie finally strikes out in a confusing scene involving an elephant, but a female dog he's become enamored of in the circus refuses to leave with him. Wandering again, he finally takes up with a lonely boy in an orphanage.

I might have liked this book. The dog knew a bit too much to be a credible animal character, while being woefully ignorant of other things that affected him closely. I could have overlooked that, though. The strange part was how closely certain stages of this book echoed other stories I know- which really got annoying to be honest. The tramps were very much like Lennie and George in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. The orphanage scenes reminded me strongly of They Cage the Animals at Night. The Goat Man and the circus made me think of other books too- Hurry Home Candy is one. The character of the dog was nice (he went through a whole slew of names as he met different people) but I started rolling my eyes at easily recognized tropes and skimming through the chapters.

I read this one sitting in a thrift store, waiting for my teenager to look at clothes. I nearly finished the book- enough to know I didn't really want to bring it home.

Abandoned                 144 pages, 2009

More opinions: ExUrbanis anyone else?

Dec 27, 2018

The Last Rhinos

My Battle to Save One of the World's Greatest Creatures
by Lawrence Anthony
with Graham Spence

This man saw that something needed to be done in attempt to save the northern white rhinoceros from extinction in the Congo, so he went there, and did something about it. It was not quite the read I expected, but riveting nonetheless. He basically plunged into a war zone in an attempt to find a remaining handful of rhinos and remove them to a safe location. This goal was far more complicated than can be imagined. Logistics, politics, lack of infrastructure, dangerously armed poachers, safety issues- it was bogged down at every step. Felt like I was reading a war story half the time, that's how volatile the area was. Much to the author's surprise, he found himself acutely involved in attempts at peace talks between two brutally warring factions- sidetracked from the efforts to save the rhinos- but he stepped up to the occasion and did his best to convey information and goodwill. When things weren't progressing on the rhino project, he would return home for a breather to his wildlife reserve at Thula Thula. It was very satisfying to read more about the elephants Lawrence had struggled to settle into his reserve (there's actually more on personal encounters with them in this book than rhinos) but disheartening the immense difficulties he faced in trying to work on behalf of the rhinos. Of that subspecies, only two are still alive in the world today. Not much hope. In spite of the serious subject matter, this book did make me laugh several times- it's nice the author kept his humor, and there's plenty of hair-raising adventures in here as well.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5          327 pages, 2012

Dec 26, 2018

The Impossible Knife of Memory

by Laurie Halse Anderson

It's been a while since I read a book by this author, so I had forgotten how much I liked her writing. It's vivid. And funny in parts. And oh, so difficult- what the characters go through. Anderson doesn't shy away from tough subjects. I guess I'm getting old, I blinked at some of the stuff that seemed the norm for highschoolers in this story. Little things, like big screens installed in the cafeteria showing the news, announcements and lists of names: kids who have to report to the office for counseling or discipline. Or the gym class being staffed by volunteers who don't care because funding got pulled (where I live, pretty sure art and music would be cut before physical education!) Larger things, such as teens posting internet photos of their naked body parts to get back at each other- but in the story they shrug it off as something totally normal. More ominous, the main character's best friend starts popping pills- first stolen from her mother's cupboard, later bought outright. And Haley herself has the tension of a growing attraction to a boy, which - eventually- she would really like to consummate, but pregnancy is a big NO. The author is frank and straightforward about what teens go through.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The protagonist, Hayley, is something of a newcomer to the highschool scene. She'd been travelling the country in her dad's big rig until he decided to settle down and quit trucking for a while- in her grandmother's now-empty house. Hayley soon finds friendship with a girl down the street she knew as a kid but barely remembers. She is kind of a typical teen- standoffish and sullen, acerbic in wit, smart but not wanting to fit into the system. Her conversations with peers in and out of the school setting are just brilliant (writing, that is). Hayley lives with a huge burden that she is very slow to reveal to her new friends: her father, a war veteran, suffers from PTSD and it is all Hayley can do to keep him going and avoid the blows.

It took me a while to realize that Hayley herself was struggling with many of the same things her father did- flashbacks to terrifying moments from her childhood, large gaps in her memory. Reluctance to accept help from authorities. Pushing away her friends when they got too close. But the boy in the story- he's so good for her- and not without his own flaws or it would have been too perfect- and in the end helps Hayley face some of her fears and patch things together. He's got his own difficulties as well- an older sibling with addiction that ruins his family- and her other friend has battling parents on the verge of divorce- they all have it so hard. I guess that's what makes this book feel so real. I couldn't put it down.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5              391 pages, 2014

more opinions:
Reading Rants
Waking Brain Cells
Beth Fish Reads
Good Books and Good Wine
Annette's Book Spot

Dec 23, 2018

8th Grade Spooky Stories

by Mrs. Kelley's Class
River Bend Middle School 2017-2018

This slim volume is in the same vein as This I Believe- stories written by students, then printed and bound by an online service. I had much the same reaction as to the previous collection of student essays- but in this case was able to just enjoy the reading experience, glossing over the typos and grammar mistakes. It felt more like an actual book in my hands- the presentation in that regard well done. A bit awkward that the pages seemed to be direct facsimiles of papers the students had turned in- so all the fonts different not only in style and size but also weight- some the ink so faint it was difficult read.

Regardless, I found it entertaining. The stories in here feature ghosts, demons, creepy monsters (one made of something described as black noodles), haunted houses. There's a story about a swarm of spiders, and another with a mutant plant creature that eats people. I don't usually watch horror films, but even I could see where some of the inspiration came from, with familiar elements- orphans and a well reminiscent of The Ring, a ghost of a starving child that crawls out of a television, one with idea very like Mirrors, another with a creepy rocking chair, etc. A story in here that made me stop and think what? at the end was "The Call," even though the material felt typical.

A few were unique to me. One about a creature that crawled out of the Rhine, showing up over decades- and I laughed at the conversation the monster had with a person it caught, about who was the present "leader" of Britain. The ending was confusing though. The other that caught my attention was actually quite disturbing- seemed to be about an inner struggle, very descriptive but kinda hard to figure out. I think it was depicting self loathing or fear, the person in the story apparently killed part of her own persona in the end. Two other stories that I found a bit disturbing had a parent suddenly turn violent- in one case possessed by a demon, in the other the parent was just suddenly evil and became the terrifying, threatening entity the kid was desperate to escape from.

Part of the whole collection that started to amuse me was noticing certain words repeated though many of the stories- I think it must have been a vocabulary list the students were supposed to make use of. Including: derision, nonentity, haggard, audacity, trepidation, pulsating, raucous, supposition and premises. Those words just started to stand out through the pages, particularly since I read all the stories in one sitting.

My daughter made the cover illustration!

Rating: 3/5           48 pages, 2017

Dec 22, 2018

Following Fifi

My Adventures Among Wild Chimpanzees:
Learning Lessons from our Closest Relatives
by John Crocker

The author, an MD, works in a family medical practice. Much earlier as a college student, he had the opportunity to spend eight months in Gombe, as a student field assistant for Jane Goodall's chimpanzee research. This book is in three parts: the first tells of his experiences in the Gombe forest: following the chimps to take notes on their behavior while also learning about a very different culture among the local Tanzanians. In particular he was very intrigued by observing the parenting styles of different chimpanzee mothers, and how their offspring fared. Leaving was very difficult, and so was completing medical school. He often drew on his memories of the time in Tanzania to help himself focus, relax or more closely connect to his surroundings. The second part is mostly about how the time at Gombe influenced the rest of his life. How he applied lessons he learned in patience and being in the moment, to everyday challenges. Particularly how he applied what he'd observed about innate primate behavior, to understanding the needs of patients he treated, and of his own children. Finally, in the last section he writes about returning to Gombe over thirty years later, with his own grown son, to visit the research area again. A few of the chimps he had once followed through the forest were still there: Frodo and Freud all grown up themselves. He made connections again with a local guide who had been his close friend and companion during his original stay, and visited his home village. He reflected on many things that had changed in Gombe over the ensuing years, on how the trip affected his son's view of the world, and their own relationship. He also tells, many times through the book, of what it was like to know the famed Jane Goodall, to sit and have conversations with her, to participate in a small way in her research.

Having read In the Shadow of Man and a few other works by Jane Goodall when I was an impressionable teenager- starting my lifelong love of reading nonfiction about wildlife studies- I was already familiar with the chimpanzee study, and recognized the names of many, and some of the stories about them recounted here- especially Fifi, daughter of Flo. It was something of a treat to revisit all that in a new way through the eyes of Dr. Crocker.

Some things really struck me. The account of when Crocker climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with his friend- unprepared, other than renting boots. He noticed on his return thirty-six years later, a distinct decline in the amount of snow on the summit (this time viewed from the airplane). Another was about a night he decided, as a young man working in Gombe, to sleep one night in a chimp's nest. He thought it would give him a feeling of peace and connection to the animals, but instead it was uncomfortable at best, even frightening. This was just mentioned briefly in the beginning of the book, recounted in more detail later when he relates how he told this story to his young sons, who (touchingly) added their own details with later retellings.

In whole, it's an interesting and inspiring book, with lots of reflection and thoughtful lessons learned. I'm glad I read it.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5               269 pages, 2017

Dec 17, 2018

World Made by Hand

by James Howard Kunstler

Post-apocalyptic fiction that felt pretty realistic (as far as I can guess)- until I got to the last few chapters. It's set in time a decade after an oil crises, severe economic collapse, bombings of LA and DC and a widespread flu virus that erased most of the population. The small upstate NY community in the novel is isolated from the outside world- modern conveniences that ran on electricity or anything made by large corporations is gone, medicine is rudimentary, government services no longer exist, people get by doing manual labor, growing crops, spending all their time making what they need to survive. In some areas people live in near-starvation and squalor, many suffer or just plain go crazy. I found interesting the ideas about what aspects of our current way of life would remain- and what things would disappear or becoming obsolete immediately. The author portrayed people falling back into an agrarian society where men basically ruled and women worked in the home. There were few women portrayed in the book and I rather felt sorry for their condition and lack of choices. Who knows if it would really turn out this way. Also the uprising of religious fervor, which becomes key to the story arc in this book.

There's a wealthy man who sets up a huge plantation-like operation, putting other people- desperate for a stable living situation- into basically serfdom or slavery. There's a group of thugs who commandeer the landfill and mine it for useful materials, trading them to the townspeople at extortion rates. There's a religious group that moves in and takes up residence in the empty school building, living in secretive, cult-like conditions. And our main character is a man who just works day to day to sustain himself, until he realizes the town is slowly crumbling- so he goes on a downriver trip to find some missing men, he galvanizes others to fix their water system (luckily they have a reservoir at higher elevation, so it still functions with gravity), he gets involved in an attempt to bring justice to some misdeeds in town (ranging from murder and theft to the religious group forcibly cutting off other men's beards!) Most of the narrative proceeds at a quiet, musing pace (in spite of the lawlessness and violence)- with reflections on what has been lost to the past, while noting the emptiness of parking lots and strip malls, the rising abundance of fish and insect life. But at the end it takes a weird turn, with inexplicable happenings that are never explained and the hint of magic or spiritual influence was so unlike the rest of the story, it rather put me off. I suppose it was useful to spark some to follow the book into its sequel, but it killed interest for me. Just felt too strange.

Rating: 3/5                 317 pages, 2008

more opinions:
attack of the 50-foot book
who else?

Dec 11, 2018

Changespell Legacy

by Doranna Durgin

Sequel to Dun Lady's Jess and Changespell. Something terrifying is happening in Camolen- magic gets warped in random places, destroying anything it touches. A group of prominent wizards goes to investigate- and the only known survivor of the encounter is a palomino horse. What infrastructure the magic world has starts to crumble; at first people don't know anything has happened, then widespread panic begins. Jess and her companions get heavily involved- Carey and the others decide their only chance to find out what happened is to turn the palomino into a person, and question him. Jess is upset by this idea- and only goes along with it because she can help the horse make the transition- finding suddenly that she relates to him far better than she ever did to Carey. She deliberately spends long periods of time in horse form later in the book- in part embittered by her recent human experiences, her trust shaken, her difficulties in understanding the human world exacerbated by current issues. There was a lot in here about how the magic worked, how different factions tried to control it, and even how new innovations and greed suddenly affected the environment in ways that threatened everyone. I found all the ideas very interesting- but getting through the middle of the book was something of a slog. The characters were still not very well drawn for me; the only ones I got a strong sense of were Jess and the palomino man- but in spite of his (unwilling) role in the heightened events, he didn't get a lot of page time which disappointed me. I found that when some of the longstanding characters struggled with loyalties, frustrations and even debilitating injuries I just did not care that much, did not get a real sense of them as people, and read impatiently for the story to get back to Jess and the palomino. Oh well. The ending was pretty good- and left enough intriguing openings for another sequel- if the author ever writes one I'll look for it.

Rating: 3/5                  429 pages, 2002

Dec 7, 2018

How To Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps

by A. Merc Rustad

I really liked this one too, although it made me feel troubled and sad. But the ending is hopeful. The main character, Tesla, doesn't quite fit in with the norm- can't always figure out how to make human connections work, uses rational thinking and list-making. Tesla has a pretend boyfriend, and has fallen in love with a robot- in fact, Tesla wishes to actually become a robot. The robot in question is outdated and going to be scrapped for parts, but perhaps it is fixable. Tesla decides that as transforming into a robot seems impossible, and fixing up the robot proving very difficult, it might be easier just not to be alive. Thankfully Tesla has friends around, and the fake-boyfriend's new real boyfriend proves to be very understanding as well. Much as this story tugged at my heartstrings, I wished for more (usually the case when I find good short stories). Why isn't it longer? I would have gladly read a whole novel of this.

Also found via Jenny's Reading the End blog, read it on Lightspeed.

Rating: 4/5          Sept 2018

Thirty Three Percent Joe

by Suzanne Palmer

Going a bit outside the norm, here. I read a short story- in two sittings- from ClarkesWorld thanks to Jenny. Futuristic piece about a solider who keeps getting injured and sent back out to battle with repairs- cybernetic replacement parts which are "smart" and not only restore Joe's function, but communicate with each other. Half the story is a log of these smart replacements talking to each other- Joe's new Elbow, Ear, Lower Intestinal Tract, etc- and the other half relates what Joe himself experiences. He doesn't want to be in the war. He is constantly embarrassed by his ineptitude on the battlefield. He finds out that the other soldiers believe once you have over twenty percent replacement parts, you automatically draw more of the enemy's fire- so he figures he's a goner. But his smart parts won't let him die. They're going to keep him going no matter what it takes. And Joe rather accidentally finds he can fill a different role here- becoming a very unexpected hero. Clever ending, I was amused and touched at turns. Loved the biscuits.

Rating: 4/5                   Oct 2018

more opinions:
Rocket Stack Rank (why is it upside-down?)

Dec 2, 2018


Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words
by John W. Pilley with Hilary Hinzmann

Famous border collie Chaser knows the names- proper nouns- assigned to 1,022 toys and a lot of directive verbs and commands as well. Her owner was a college professor who taught behavioral psychology and brought his dogs into the classroom (border collie mixes and a few other dogs he had before Chaser's time) so his students could apply methods they had learned to teach the dogs new behaviors (an annoying one was teaching his dog Grindle to answer telephones- which then got left off the hook for hours before someone noticed!) After he retired, the author deliberately set out to discover how much language he could teach to a border collie- from the start he was intent on shaping Chaser's learning and response to spoken language, especially her ability to recall names of objects. It's pretty amazing. Unfortunately, I couldn't stick with this book. I found the writing style uninteresting, the daily life details and conversations only distracted me, and many of the explanations became repetitive. I started skimming a lot before getting halfway through and decided to just move on. Something about it failed to hold my attention.

Borrowed from the public library.

Abandoned            260 pages, 2013

more opinions:
Across the Page
who else?

Dec 1, 2018

Pukka's Promise

The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs
by Ted Kerasote

After Merle, was Pukka. This was not a dog chosen lightly, or found by chance. Kerasote wanted a dog very much like Merle- he figured out Merle must have been a yellow lab/hound cross, and found people breeding such dogs and selected a puppy. After meticulously examining the genetic history of the parent dogs- because he wanted a dog with maximum lifespan and health. Once he brought the new puppy Pukka home, he taught it the same lessons Merle had learned- how to recognize spoken words, basic commands and good behavior. This dog was also let free to roam once the author felt he could handle himself among older dogs and stay within safe range (closely bonded to his owner). While he had picked a dog as close to Merle as he could get in looks and breed, Pukka had a slightly different temperament and his own personality, of course- so he had to approach a few things in new ways. The story of their relationship and how Pukka grew into his own dog, learning everything from how to navigate social life among neighborhood dogs that were all older and bigger than him, to the distinct difference between flushing birds and creeping up on elk while hunting to supply meat for their freezer- makes for a pretty good read.

It is all interspersed with Kerasote's personal, in-depth research into all the various factors that affect the quality of life for dogs. He really goes all-out with this. He travels the country to interview veterinarians and researchers. He looks into what goes into dog food, how vaccines affect some animals adversely, why spaying and neutering is the norm when other sterilization methods are available (and why they might be better in some cases), environmental toxins dogs are exposed to, why so many of them get cancer, the prevalence of diseases and health conditions among certain breeds, why leashed dogs have different behavior than free-roaming dogs (which are definitely the minority, not everybody lives in a rural, remote area like this guy), etc. He goes to a rendering plant and a pet-food manufacturer to see for himself how commercial food is made. He visits animal shelters to learn how population problems are being addressed, he interviews breeders to see what they think about the narrowing gene pool (and detrimental effects of breeding for looks instead of functionality), and so on. Sometimes it gets pretty dense with the scientific info, other parts of the book are so anecdotal you can't really draw a conclusion. It's a lot of food for thought. He had me looking up plenty of things I'd never heard about, or knew little of, including the silken windhound (a new dog breed) and spotted knapweed.

The main reason I gave this book three stars instead of four, was because I was constantly put off by how the author put words in his dog's mouth. Of course he constantly talked to the dog, but then he wrote what he thought the dog was replying with its gestures and vocalization- in words, with quotation marks. I found this a bit off-putting. I would have much rather just read the description of the dog's actions and surmised for myself what it may have been communicating. It made it a bit hard to take the whole book seriously.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5           452 pages, 2013

Nov 26, 2018

Small Wonder

by Barbara Kingsolver

Collection of thought-provoking and beautifully worded essays. On everything important, it seems. Many are very personal and close to home- she writes about family life, what it means to be honest, raising food for yourself, connections with the land. She writes about her youngest daughter's chickens. She writes a letter to her teenage daughter, and another to her mother- very heartfelt. Other essays range more broadly- the importance of biodiversity, and what currently threatens it (I did not realize before, just how scary GMOs are), the nonsensical pervasiveness of war, patriotism wrought into a fervor against others, how large impassionate corporations are pushing out small business. In particular I liked her essay about writing, love of books, how small independent bookshops helped her career as a young writer, her feelings for the importance of poetry in schools, and the time she first wrote sex scenes into a novel (makes me look at Prodigal Summer differently, I admit). There are also has several essays written in response to 9/11, and to the Columbine school shooting. I struggled a bit with the first of these, but dealt better with the other two, later in the book. Woven seamlessly through these essays are also some lovely bits of nature writing- observations on habitats in Arizona where she lives part of the year, especially the delicate, richly diverse belt of riverside plant and animal life. Close look at a hummingbird building a nest. Retelling of an account where a bear apparently nurtured a young child until it was found. And so much more. Homelessness. The strength of being a woman. The dangers of ignoring what's going on around us. Why she doesn't have a TV in the house. How fiction can teach truths, why mythology is important. Definitely a book that's staying on my shelf, that deserves many re-reads, that inspired me to give another honest try at appreciating her early works The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven (I've attempted both a few times, never got far). Also, she has made me want to read Middlemarch, even though I am not really a fan of Victorian novels.

Rating: 4/5           267 pages, 2002

more opinions:
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On

Nov 20, 2018

The Zoo at the Edge of the World

by Eric Kahn Gale

Mild spoilers!

Middle-grade fiction that gets a bit more dark and action-packed than I usually care for. It's about a boy who lives in a zoo his father, a famous explorer, established on a small South American island. The animals in the zoo were collected by his father from the jungle- Marlin has always believed the purpose was to protect and care for the animals, and show them to people so they could appreciate their beauty. Helping his father and older brother run the zoo, Marlin struggles a lot because he has an extreme stutter- usually completely unable to make himself understood, not helped by the fact that his brother teases him cruelly, his father dismisses him, and the staff scorns him. He finds his one comfort in the animals- in their presence, words somehow flow smoothly and he can talk.

One day his father brings back a black panther from the jungle- everyone is shocked and terrified of the powerful animal. Marlin talks to the jaguar just like he does with any other animal- and to his surprise, Jaguar speaks in reply. The Jaguar possesses mysterious magic, and he gives Marlin the ability to understand all the animals. This was when the story turned delightful, as Marlin uses his new ability to resolve some problems with many of the animals in the zoo, and finds that they appreciate him. His new skill boosts him in his father's eyes, which makes his brother jealous, which makes that situation worse. Then a new, very wealthy and powerful family arrives on the tourist boat- and Marlin starts to discover some ominous plans for the surrounding jungle- and that his father's intentions with the zoo are not exactly what he'd always believed.

There is so much going on in this story. Sibling dynamics, bullying, disability, wildlife behavior, the economics of tourism, exploitation of habitat, family secrets, and so on. It got kind of ridiculous when Marlin's father planned to put on a circus show for the guests- when none of the animals have been trained. It quickly turns into something brutal and Marlin desperately tries to put a stop to it, while a lot of the animals suddenly see him as a traitor. The last part of the book is very fast-paced with a lot of frenetic action. By then I was invested enough in the characters, I had to see how it ended. My favorite of course, was the mysterious, laconic Jaguar. When they call him "Eater of the sky" I at once thought of the fearfully brilliant cat Night-who-eats-stars in Clare Bell's book. Some aspects of this story reminded me of El Zoo Petrificado. I think my one disappointment was with Olivia, daughter of the visiting family who began to befriend Marlin. It seemed like she should have played a greater part in the book, but she ended up being just a side character.

I have this book on my e-reader.

Rating: 3/5         240  pages, 2015

more opinions:
Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales
Sci-Fi and Scary

The Weigher

by Eric Vinicoff and Marcia Martin

A foreign planet, where a race of sentient, big cats is the dominant species (sound familiar?). They are not really social. Each holds a parcel of land which they defend and use as a source of food- hunting prey- but they also gather together in a rough town center to trade goods, advanced enough to have tools, a system of currency, and strict rules of conduct. But they're also still lethal creatures, and disputes which cannot be resolved by the Weigher- a key social figure who uses references to ancient codes and balances of debts between individuals to settle differences- are satisfied via bloody combat on a central field in the town. It's all very ritualized and bound by entrenched tradition.

At first the story is intriguingly different to pick up on- told from the perspective of the town's current Weigher, immersing the reader in the alien world. Then some strange creatures suddenly arrive- seemingly frail and unbalanced but possessing vast stores of knowledge which the intelligent catlike beings crave to acquire. I instantly recognized these as human explorers landing on an alien world. They offer their superior knowledge in exchange for being allowed to collect data- and the Weigher complies- after making sure the humans are following the rules of debt exchange in order to avoid insult and putting themselves in an unwittingly dangerous position. The Weigher gradually sees the humans as more than curiosities and sources of valuable information she can barter- but also as creatures worth protecting and friends. So when one of their new ideas threatens to disturb the balance of their rough society- in a way that surprised me, honestly, it seemed like such a small thing- events quickly cascade into a dangerous situation, and the Weigher is forced to flee into exile with the strange humans.

It was all pretty intreresting. I wished for more, though- especially more about the wild counterparts of the sentient cats still living without language or culture in the forbidding Wild, and their custom of abandoning young, while some were recollected from the Wild and then after being taught to speak and act civilly, integrated into the society. I found I had the novella version of this on my e-reader, I really do want to acquire the full novel and read it again as a more fleshed-out story.

Rating: 3/5            ? pages, 1984

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Nov 19, 2018

Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad

I had a hard time with this classic, even though I found the prose riveting. I'm glad I knew a little about it beforehand, or I might have been thoroughly confused and not made it through. The narrative is by a seaman telling a story to his fellow sailors while waiting for a tide to turn- about a former trip via steamboat upriver into the depths of the Congo. He was hired by a trading company to travel to a remote post to collect a man named Kurtz who has a load of ivory extracted from the interior- as far as I could tell. Kurtz is strangely held in awe by many, and when the narrator finally reaches the destination, it's obvious he's been out in the jungle wilderness far too long- he has the native population (depicted in very racist, stereotypical fashion from a nineteenth-century imperialist perspective) under his thrall, raves in lunatic fashion and appears to be suffering from some awful disease.

Most of the novella is about the frustrating travel upriver through the dense jungle, suffering frequent breakdowns, lack of materials, poor management, horrific exploitation and suffering on the part of the natives. It's very rambling and dense, a lot of it internal monologue on the depravity of human nature and moves without description or explanation between scenes- so I often had difficulty understanding what was actually going on. In a way it is Kafkaesque, in another way the deeply visceral prose reminded me of William Golding's The Inheritors (which I now regret I culled out of my library- this book makes me want to read that one again, oddly enough). Many of the passages also brought to mind Lord of the Flies, and I rather wonder if Golding wasn't heavily influenced by Joseph Conrad. Sample of the descriptive power in the text:
Trees, trees, millions of trees, massive, immense, running up high; and at their foot, hugging the bank against the stream, crept the little begrimed steamboat, like a sluggish beetle crawling on the floor of a lofty portico. It made you feel very small, very lost, and yet it was not altogether depressing, that feeling. After all, if you were small, the grimy beetle crawled on- which was just what you wanted it to do...

The mind of man is capable of anything- because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valour, rage- who can tell? - but truth- truth stripped of its cloak of time. Let the fool gape and shudder- the man knows, and can look on without a wink. But.... he must meet that truth with his own true stuff- with his own inborn strength.

It's a book I found hard to put down even though it was difficult to get through, and one that definitely merits a re-read (or several!) in order to understand. I read this one in e-book format.

Rating: 3/5              280 pages, 1902

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Nov 16, 2018


by Doranna Durgin

Sequel to Dun Lady's Jess. Wanted to read this one enough I finally just bought a secondhand copy online. Pretty enjoyable. The writing is smoother- only a few times did I have to stop and re-read a conversation or phrase again because it wasn't quite clear what was going on. This story is set in the alternate, magical world. Jess can change between being Lady the horse and being human, but as Lady she can't change herself back voluntarily. A few of her friends from the human world are here. Jess thinks she will just settle into another of the courier holds, learning more about how to navigate life as a human, and sorting out her feelings for Carey (who used to be her owner and rider when she was only a horse). But things get dicey when they realize some unknown wizards are working dangerously powerful magic, and at the same time some confused, strangely-behaving people show up here and there- animals turned human against their will. Mule, large wild cat, cairndog... None of them have had the training and close human guidance Jess received when she suddenly changed the first time, so it doesn't go well for them.

Jess and her companions have to figure out fast who is causing trouble and why- they suspect it is their old enemy, who wants revenge. Turns out to be more complicated than that. I was expecting the story to have a lot of animals-turned-people in it, but although the ethics of that is explored, the turned people themselves are in brief scenes. Mostly it's about the intricacies of how magic works in this world, the laws and strictures around it, the confusion of figuring out who is wielding it wrongly. They almost don't put the pieces together in time. There was a huge component of substance abuse which I didn't expect to be part of the story, it was a surprise that fit into the narrative well. How it affected magic, the dangers which none in this world could anticipate, really. In the end they go after the bad wizards and there is a bitter showdown of sorts.

It's also a romance. Not a heavy one- but the tension of feeling between Jess and Carey runs a thread through the whole story, plus the interest another courier has in her, and one of her friend's interest in him. Some of them don't really realize what's going on at first, so it's not really a triangle- kind of an undercurrent. There's also the long struggle Jess has to gain control of when she is horse or human. Most interesting were still the parts where Jess as human struggles against her equine nature- or acts out what she feels naturally, on purpose (pretty funny when she goes kicking guys she doesn't like). The way unfamiliar people treated her was interesting- you'd think in a world of magic an animal-turned-human wouldn't be unusual, but it is, and people don't know whether to treat her as an intelligent being deserving respect, or someone they can walk all over because she was an animal. I hope some of these ideas get worked out more in the final book of the series.

Rating: 3/5          352 pages, 1997

Nov 12, 2018

Listening to Cougar

edited by Marc Bekoff and Cara Blessley Lowe

This is a collection of short stories and essays about cougars (aka puma or mountain lion). Some of them are firsthand accounts- brief sightings, face-to-face encounters on trails, one guy watched a cougar cross a tennis court and then dart through a street, another once found a young puma hiding under his cabin. Other chapters in the book are by biologists or conservationists: reports of studies on cougar population dynmaics, detailed description of the habitat cougars like to use- a variety of these: dessert, mountainsides, rocky canyon. One quite different essay describes a drying-up riverbed, a boy who rescues a fish stranded in a pool, and at the very end evokes the presence of cougar. There are nineteen authors total, plus Jane Goodall wrote the foreword. I have to admit a few of these - especially the scientific ones- were a bit dry for my taste, and I skimmed a lot- thus the rating below. Others went the other direction: writing about cougars and spirituality. In one case this was an explanation of some Navajo beliefs, which I found interesting. In another, it was a woman gushing about what a glimpse of the big cat meant for her soul- the connection and inspiration she got from it- a bit much, for me. Even further out there, but curious in its own way, was an author who wrote about several dreams he had with cougars present in them- then deconstructed what the dreams meant. Very intriguing. Barry Lopez and Ted Kerasote are among the writers featured here. My favorite essay was one of a personal encounter: "Lion Story" by Rick Bass- about running into a cougar on a walk with his dog. Vivid. Overall the impression is of the secretive, powerful cat itself: elusive, silent, with its gliding motion and long, floating tail. The few people who report having seen a wild one up close were mesmerized, no doubt. Magnificent animal. End of the book has a listing of people reported killed by cougars over the last century (very few, compared to deaths caused by dog attacks, and minuscule compared to the number of casualties caused by car accidents!) and then some notes on how to live safely in cougar country, and what to do if you encounter one. There are references for further reading, as well.

This book perhaps doesn't deserve the number I gave it. I'm tired, there are other reasons I lacked focus, having nothing to do with the authors' various styles or the angle of their writings. Borrowed this one from the public library.

Rating: 2/5            200 pages, 2007

Nov 10, 2018

The White Puma

by R.D. Lawrence

I've read this book before, but it was so long ago the prior review was written from memory. Had the chance to enjoy it again, as I bought a copy recently from Powell's. The nature writing is just as good as I remember, but funny how the dramatic hunting scenes from the final sixty pages made the strongest impression on me before- in reality, most of the book is a slow buildup, showing the life of the mountain lion. It starts with his mother. The female puma has a negative encounter with a pair of wildlife poachers, one of whom accidentally gets his arm damaged in a trap he'd set for her- and afterwards the puma is touted as a "man-eater" who "almost ripped his arm off". The bad experience instills her with a deep fear of mankind that she teaches to her cubs later in the story. A lot of the book is just about how the family of cougars lives- the mother puma and her three young. How they navigate the landscape, find and ambush prey, show affection for each other, learn skills, hold their territory, avoid danger (encounters with wolves, bears and man). Eventually only the main puma of the story- a very rare creature with an albino coat- is left alive of the family. His fear of man boils into a hatred, and when the poachers come after him specifically, he starts stalking them in turn. I had forgotten most of the story about the hunters and their operation, which has just as much page time as the puma's daily life. In the end, a trio of conservationists comes to try and protect the rare cougar from being killed- whose existence is accidentally revealed to the public by one of the hunters when he gets drunk and starts bragging of the future trophy. Reading it this time around, I found the parts about the animals' behavior and survival methods satisfying, the parts about the people a bit stiff- perhaps it's just the writing style or the age of the book. Near the end, I thought the tactics of the woman who camped out in the forest alone to foil the hunters, a bit laughable. Times were different when this book was written, that's for sure. The ending gave me a nice surprise- I had completely forgotten the turn of heart one of the hunters takes. Nice that it was the one I found a bit more sympathetic during the entire storyline.

Rating: 3/5              329 pages, 1990

Nov 7, 2018

Snail in the Woods

by Joanne Ryder

I picked up this book for my seven-year-old. She's never quite as keen on animal stories as I was at her age (still am). I also found for her a book about a bear cub, and a more fanciful one about a crow family (which I might review here later). Tried to read Snail in the Woods as a bedtime story, but my kid was grossed out by hearing about slime and snails eating fungus and how they can retract their eyeballs back into their heads through their feelers; she refused to finish it. So I read the book myself. It's very simple text, decent monochromatic pictures, about the life of a land snail. Hatches from an egg, eats its own eggshell, crawls around seeking shelter and food. Estivating when there is no moisture. Avoiding getting eaten by shrews (more drawings of shrews in this one book than I've ever seen before!), mice, birds, millipedes and other predators purely by luck. (My kid thought the millipede looked like a monster. It surely is to a tiny snail). Biggest event in the story is a flood, which some snails escape by crawling higher on trees and shrubs, and our snail gets carried downstream on a log. Finds a new home, finds a mate, crawls around more, lays eggs which will hatch in spring. Nice little book, if your kid wants to learn about how snails live.

Rating: 3/5               62 pages, 1979

Nov 5, 2018

Frontiers of Life

Animals of Mountains and Poles

It's cold weather, so I liked reading a book about cold places. Found this at a thrift shop, it's two books published in one volume. The foreword by David Attenborough features his picture- let me tell you, it's quite something to see a photo of him as a younger man.

Polar Life
by Joseph Lucas and Susan Hayes

The first half of the book was pretty interesting to me. It describes in detail the opposite regions of the poles, and I learned a lot about how life hangs on in such cold, arid climates. While the northern Arctic is rich in wildlife and plant species, the Antarctic is all the more remarkable that anything lives and thrives there. Not just penguins- fishes, whales, a few lichens, seabirds. The book describes the habitat in detail, the oceanic currents, how the weather affects everything, where living things are distributed, and a bit of how they survive such rigorous habitat. I didn't realize before (perhaps silly of me) that icebergs are shaped very differently on either end of the earth- flat thick sheets of ice or chunks- and why. Particularities about the land formation kept coming up - how the Arctic is frozen ocean surrounded by land masses, while the Antarctic is one land mass surrounded by oceans- separating it widely from any species that would try to colonize it. Would I had read this book before Rockbound- it's got a brief description of 'Mother Carey's chickens' or the storm petrel- complete with a photograph. Sadly, I couldn't help thinking through much of this, how drastically the Arctic and Antarctic regions are changing today- descriptions of polar ice sheets and impervious nature of permafrost- no longer so. It also really dates itself by mentioning here and there how much was unknown at the time of printing: what certain animals ate, how exactly whales and seals evolved from land mammals, etc. Even so, it was a more engaging read than the second half:

Mountain Life
by Bernard Stonehouse

This part of the book is, of course, about mountain ranges across the planet, how they are formed and what lives on them. I was expecting some interesting facts about how wildlife (and plants) are adapted to life in cold, high-altitude regions, but the details were rather lacking. There is a lot about rock formations and how the land masses collided during the past to form the various mountains. Maps show the features discussed in the book- where the ranges cross continents. Comparisons between the places, especially showing how animals in some ranges are related to those in others, proving their divergence from what used to be one land mass. I feel like it was the writing style that made me feel disengaged, here- it seemed more to be a listing of plant and animal species for each area and habitat range, without much description on how they live. I did find some details interesting: all those stunted, twisted-looking trees you see bent under winds are not small and weak but surprisingly long-lived and strong, very tenacious.

Overall, the reading started out interesting and I ended up skimming a lot just to finish. Noted a lot of species names to look up online- animals and plants I'd never heard of before. The photographs are fairly grainy and often poor in focus. Kinda worth skipping.

Rating: 2/5               288 pages, 1976

Nov 2, 2018

She's Come Undone

by Wally Lamb

Sorry ahead of time if some of this is spoilers. It wasn't what I expected. Never read any Wally Lamb before, although I've heard of his titles. Wow, this guy can tell a story. I couldn't put it down. It's one of those narratives of a train-wreck life, but you can't look away (I'm thinking of The Book of Ruth). This girl goes through everything. Mentally ill mother, father who disappears from her life, Catholic schooling, raped by the upstairs tenant at thirteen, struggles with her weight, hates her life, serious rebellion, floundering attempt at college life, running away from it all, stay in a mental hospital, some strange but life-affirming therapy, ditching that before her psychiatrist thinks she's ready, finding a man but that's a mess too, writing them off altogether. In the end circling back to where she began (reluctantly), and finally coming to peace with her life, with the mistakes her parents, her grandmother, her ex had made. Epiphanal moment with a stranded whale in Cape Cod. Abortion. Suicide attempts. Friends stricken with AIDS. Chaos of the seventies and eighties. Some parts were a bit crude for me, but I found myself rooting for this narrator, in spite of her caustic commentary and consistently bad choices. I did think a few of the events in the story were implausible- like how she tracked down her college roommate's former boyfriend- but I bought it while I was reading the story. Or the drastic changes her body went through- it seemed rather unrealistic, too easy? But again, I blasted past that while I was in the narrative. I was dreading what the ending would lead to, relieved the author didn't turn it into a disaster or a perfect ending, but something that felt satisfyingly real. Of anything, the complex relationships between people are so vivid in this story. The little networks of lies, the gradations of trust. Especially the unhealthy relationship she had with her mother, which it took her whole life to come to terms with (the book spans about forty years).

PS: I was horrified at how fish were treated in this book. So rarely do I come across my hobby depicted in fiction, I had some anticipation when an acquaintance invited the narrator to see her aquariums. It was appalling what she did to them in a fit of revenge. Much later in the story she kept her own fish, in atrocious conditions, and of course they died. Bah.

Rating: 4/5               405 pages, 1992

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Oct 30, 2018

The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly

A Physician's First Year
by Matt McCarthy

Narrative of a doctor's training year working in a New York City hospital as intern, this one caught my eye browsing library shelves. Probably because I had Farmer's work on my mind, which not surprisingly the author references once himself. Compared to an older book I've read about internship, this one is very modern (so modern that I got a little tired of the author referencing popular TV shows and describing his co-workers by what famous actor their looks or manners reminded him of). (Also tedious is his frequent use of swear words in tense situations- particularly the F one). But mostly it was a good read, one I constantly found interesting and hard to put down. Even when some scenes were distressing. McCarthy did a small stint in surgery- realized it wasn't for him- and then worked in the critical care unit, then intensive care, also doing some time in general practice. The book is really about how his skills as a doctor were built up- from nervous and fumbling to confident and leading teams himself. He describes the structure of the hospital; the different teaching styles various supervising residents gave him, panicky moments when he made a wrong diagnosis, the checks that saved his butt from serious error, the difficulties in figuring out what was wrong with unconscious (or just uncooperative) patients, the long hours and incredible stress of it all.

A lot of it is not only about his learning curve in practicing medicine- how to actually do procedures, use the equipment, etc.- but about how he gradually develops a better bedside manner, starts to connect with his patients, finds the balance between keeping himself dispassionate (so he can think critically about a case) and showing the patient that someone cares. Some of the doctor-patient interactions he describes are very touching, others actually nerve-wracking. He describes his euphoria at being part of a team that literally brings a person back from death- and the depression when it goes the other way. The second half of the book also has a lot of internal quandry and fear, as he accidentally gets a needle stick from a patient with a serious, highly infectious disease- then has to take a severe regimen of medication proactively, while waiting for his own diagnosis. It really gave him some perspective on how patients might feel about their treatment.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5              323 pages, 2015

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Oct 28, 2018

Mountains Beyond Mountains

the Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World
by Tracy Kidder

I admit I'd never heard of Paul Farmer before, although I recoginzed this title. He was a brilliant doctor and anthropologist who as a medical student had already traveled to third world countries, and appalled by the lack of medical care for poor people, started doing something about it. In particular he focused his efforts on a community in Haiti that lived above a lake caused by a dam which had flooded their farmland. Most of them never moved anywhere else, just up the hillside, and suffered from starvation because they could no longer grow enough food. Widespread tuberculosis and other diseases were exacerbated by poor nutrition and squalor. Farmer set up facilities and procedures to treat and cure tuberculosis among hundreds of impoverished families, but he did so much more than that. He learned about their native culture especially voodoo beliefs and how it affected their view of illness. He traveled personally (sometimes hiking an entire day to read isolated huts) to visit the sick in their homes, especially entire families affected by tuberculosis. He made efforts to provide the poor with clean water, concrete floors and tin roofs for their modest homes (replacing dirt and leaking thatch), and dietary supplements. He conducted studies to find out exactly what types of treatment would have the best results, and worked tirelessly to bring the plight of thousands to the attention of the global medical community, raised money, started programs in other countries. Peru and Russia are featured large in the book although Haiti was always his base. It amazed me that he was so dedicated to his patients- insisted on treating people even when medication for tuberculosis was expensive, unavailable to the poor- and of course they couldn't pay- and proper treatment took years. Missed or late doses caused drug-resistant strains of TB to arise (it's a bit more complicated than that) so Farmer would often personally go find the patients to find out why they had missed their appointments- sometimes tracking them down to prison and extracting them in order to give them medical care (his phraseology). I learned so much more about tuberculosis than I ever wanted to know.

I am in awe at the work this man did, the far-reaching influence he extended, even when others didn't believe in his methods at first. For example, when he found out how horribly expensive medication to treat drug-resistant strains of TB were, he personally did things to drive the price down. And it had a cascading effect. He also worked with AIDS patients in parts of the world and among impoverished communities that no one else wanted to touch, saying it wasn't worth the effort. This book is kind of a jumble- it leaps around some, tells of the author's connection with Farmer, but not much explanation about how he managed to earn the role- travelling around with Farmer to learn what he was doing in order to write this book- reminiscent to me of In Africa with Schweitzer by Dr. Edgar Berman- also his habit of questioning Farmer about his views and then noting them down in the text. Several chapters tell of Farmer's childhood and how he got to where he was when Kidder met him. The rest is a complex, eye-opening account of his life's work, ranging from squatting in mud-floored huts to take the blood pressure of his patients to flying around the globe for various meetings and conferences in his quest to do whatever it takes. Wow. (Another similar read: Witness to War by Charles Clements, inasmuch as they both deal with bringing medical care to marginalized people who desperately needed it). Did I mention? Farmer founded Partners In Health, and was a renowned infectious disease expert (among other things). There are a lot of other people in this book, who worked alongside Farmer or donated or otherwise helped with his cause, but I can't possibly name them all. You have to read the book!

Rating: 4/5           322 pages, 2003

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Oct 22, 2018

The Blue Sweater

Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World
by Jacqueline Novogratz

This book is, ultimately, about helping people to help themselves. The author started out as a Wall Street banker but soon left her job to follow her dream instead: travel the world and find ways to solve problems of poverty. Initially she worked with companies that provide microloans to the poor, consulting and helping them evaluate if their systems actually worked or not. She saw firsthand in many different areas (mainly India, Pakistan and parts of Africa) that traditional charity often does not provide a lasting solution. She wanted to put power in the hands of the people, to listen to their needs and give them what would be most beneficial in the long run. Her vision changed as her experiences grew, in the end she developed (if I understand the final chapters right) a new type of enterprise to help the poor which was based on capitalism but seems to make sense...

The message is strong, and the examples clear, so this book doesn't really deserve the rating I gave it except that: I had to make myself finish reading it. I got a lot more out of reading the anecdotal accounts of the author's personal experiences with impoverished people she aimed to serve and teach, than I did reading about her theories, her management strategies, her meetings with people and travels to and fro all over. The names start to blur. What stood out to me were stories like the one of the women's bakery in a slum, or how she worked to get malaria-preventing mosquito nets distributed to the poor, or of her visits to Rwanda shortly after the genocide to find people she had known and hear their stories. I really admire that she was honest in writing about her mistakes, in admitting that at first many local people resented her assignment, as an outsider, to help them run their fledgling enterprises. Some places she was never really accepted and did not return. Other places she made lasting friendships and revisited years later.

But honestly, a lot of the book was difficult for me to stay interested in. Probably someone going into the business of humanitarianism would find this a lot more engaging.

Rating: 2/5                262 pages, 2009

Oct 20, 2018

Aquarium Fish

Eyewitness Handbooks
by Dick Mills

The subtitle of this volume is: The visual guide to more than 500 marine and freshwater fish varieties. It has nice, glossy pages and shows a stunning variety of fish species, but I found it somewhat lacking. It's got the usual intro section, in this case with more about the biology of fish than aquarium setup and care, which was fine with me. The pages on fresh- and saltwater habitats was interesting (did you know that freshwater constitutes only 2 or 3 percent of water on the planet? and yet freshwater habitats are far more diverse than saltwater- which covers over seventy percent of Earth). The bulk of the book, of course, is profiles of individual fish species and varieties. Most of them freshwater, with a few uncommon fishes I've never seen before, and just sixty pages of marine species. The big disappointment was in the quality of the images. A lot of the fish shown look stressed with completely washed-out colors. If you want to identify fish solely by their fin shape, well okay but for me, I want to see their colors. The accompany text often said "males of this species in prime condition will show-" or "content individuals will be-" describing the colors and patterns I always think of for them. When you browse a book to enjoy the visual appeal of such a variety of aquatic life, there's something really amiss in not having them shown at their best. Also, the descriptions on individual temperament and care needs were very brief. I was appalled to read on the page about goldfish that "the maximum size a twin-tailed goldfish attains depends on the size of the tank in which it is kept." That's not entirely accurate. There are a few other tidbits of outdated info in here, but that was the worst. And this is rather petty- but my current favorite, the paradise fish, was mentioned in another description as a comparison, but never actually featured. It's a shame to leave out one of the oldest ornamental fish in the hobby.

Rating: 2/5            304 pages, 1993

Wild Animals in Captivity

an outline of the biology of zoological gardens
by H. Hediger
translated by G. Sircom

You might think by the image on this book cover, that it's about how animals suffer in captivity, but it's not. It's about the biological needs of wild animals, using facts about how they exist in nature to promote husbandry methods in zoos that are better for their welfare. Such as: making sure tree-dwelling animals feel high enough off the ground to be safe, herbivores have enough flight-distance from human observers, nocturnal creatures aren't in constant daylight, etc. Down to the smallest details like what type of flooring in a cage makes the animal comfortable, what type of feeding situation suits its social needs, how to train wildlife to accept the presence of humans (so they aren't constantly in a panic) and even basic training to make their handling easier. The particulars about keeping snakes, whether or not to trim birds' wings, arguments if certain animals need a lot of space to live comfortably- were quite interesting. The author points out that most animals in the wild are not so free to roam around as we might think- they are often constrained by the microclimate, dietary needs and the pressure of conspecific rivals holding them into a strict area. He emphasizes time and time again that animals' welfare is best met by avoiding anthropomorphizing them and looking at what animals actually need, not what humans would feel better about in a certain situation. It's a book far ahead of its time- I was stunned to find it was first translated from German to English in 1950! A lot of it is rather dry, technical reading but the reasoning so clear and the snippets of case studies offered as examples so illuminating, I persevered all the way through.

There are more reviews of this book on Goodreads.

Rating: 3/5              207 pages, 1950

Oct 17, 2018

Animals Make Us Human

Creating the Best Life for Animals
by Temple Grandin
with Catherine Johnson

Very interesting book about the welfare of animals, based on their core emotional needs. Temple Grandin is well-known for her design work, making livestock handling facilities easier for animals to navigate calmly. A lot of the recommendations in this book was stuff I'd heard before- about dogs being unhappy left home alone all day, or horses needing company in the field, and so on. What's different is the way Grandin interprets the animals' needs. Her take on it is that all animals share a core set of emotions- defined as play, 'seeking' (engaging in curiosity or pursuing a goal), fear, rage (usually beginning as frustration), and panic. These things can be pinpointed in regions of the brain, and she explains how most undesirable behavior stems from these emotions being activated or not.

First she talks about livestock animals that live in very confined conditions- cattle, pigs and chickens. She describes how each of the emotions are affected- for example pigs need opportunities to 'seek' (have straw to root around in) and chickens need to feel safe so they aren't constantly in fear- and tells specifically how she has seen these needs neglected or met in facilities she visits. She is open about her own research with pigs and how the results weren't at all what she expected, but taught her something. She tells how conditions in the industries have changed over the decades of her career- some things are worse, but surprisingly a lot of things have improved, especially since audits haven been instigated (with measurable steps).

The next section of the book is about domestic animals that live as pets- dogs and cats mainly- and whether or not they have a good quality of life living in people's homes. I was actually taken aback that her conclusion on dogs was they used to have better quality of life when they were commonly allowed to roam neighborhoods (which she recalls from her childhood). She points out that keeping dogs shut up alone in houses all day frustrates them and causes separation anxiety, and when they are out but always on a leash, fights between dogs are far more likely. Interestingly, she goes back and forth about whether or not dogs need to live in a pack hierarchy system like wolves- human owners making themselves the leader. She claims this idea of wolves living in strict hierarchy is wrong, that usually they live in families and your dog needs you to be a parent, not a pack leader, but dogs aren't really the same as wolves anyway. Also that wolves avoid fights because they have a repertoire of submissive behaviors to communicate to each other with, and dogs appear to have lost this via breeding- I had never heard this theory before but she explains how some researchers actually studied the number of submissive behaviors different breeds of dogs typically use, and some of them were appalling low in number, which led to more fights because they can't diffuse the tension properly.

Anyway. The final part, about animals living in zoos, was even more intriguing. Grandin was asked by a number of zoos to help them manage their animals' welfare- either recommending how to make life better for the animals or helping them train animals to accept medical procedures. This last was the best reading in the book for me. Most prey species, the book states, are very easily startled into panic and flight- if they are suddenly frightened in an enclosed setting, they can literally kill themselves frantically trying to escape the situation. Training consisted of using clickers to anticipate a reward, and gradually habituating the animals to novel objects or situations, until they had skittish antelope and similar animals very calmly walking up to zoo vets to have blood drawn or be given a vaccination! It's thrilling to read about that kind of work making strides with animal welfare. She also discusses other types of animals in captivity- how much easier it is to keep a group of monkeys happy than say, an elephant which can't live in a large family (no space) and basically she is against keeping large predators in captivity, because they can never engage in the roaming and hunting behaviors that keep them mentally well-fit and content.

I have paraphrased a lot here. There is so much more detail and the very specific viewpoint Grandin has on animal emotions -how that affects their behavior, and how we need to understand it to improve their welfare in captive situations- was one I had never quite come across before. It made all of this an engaging read, especially beneficial to anyone interested in animals sciences I think.

I borrowed this book from the public library.

Rating: 4/5             342 pages, 2009