Mar 31, 2018

A High Wind in Jamaica

by Richard Hughes

- there are some spoilers in this review -

I found this story curious, amusing and baffling at the same time. It's about five English kids who have been raised in Jamaica at the end of colonialism. Their parents' estates collapse when a hurricane basically levels the island, and the kids are shipped off to England for safety. The ship doesn't get far when it is set upon by pirates, and the children get transferred to the pirate ship. The adults on the orignal boat think them killed, the pirates make off with their loot and then don't know what to do with the kids. They try to offload them on another island, and fail. They take them along criss-crossing the Carribean in a desultory way (piracy being a faltering occupation at the very end of its heyday) and rather ignore their presence unless forced to deal with them. So the children are more or less left to their own devices on board. Someone else said the book was like a mix of Lord of the Flies with Peter Pan or Treasure Island- I'd concur.

The story is mostly concerned with the inner lives of children- and how different it is from adults' reasoning. The children unquestioningly accept their change in circumstances and adapt, even developing an affection for the pirates they now live among. Not so many horrid things occur as you might think- although what events do turn, are awful enough- however seen through a hazy uncomprehending screen of the childrens' viewpoint most of the time. The oldest girl may have been raped by one of the pirates, that is never made clear. Another girl kills a man the pirates had taken prisoner, in a fit of pure terror. There's a monkey with a gangrenous tail, a girl who makes dolls out of every ragtag bit of paraphernalia on board, a boy who unthinkingly imitates and idolizes the pirates. (There's a significant scene near the beginning that takes place in an old elevated warehouse, with a beam and tackle for raising cargo. I actually saw for the first time myself these hooks on the outside of upper stories of buldings during a brief stop in Amsterdam last year, but never encountered them in fiction until I read Heartsease. Now I can actually picture the situation, where before seeing those buildings it would have been harder to imagine.) There's also a very sad scene where the pirates run down a ship that happens to carry wildlife as cargo, for a circus. The tiger and lion were released from their cages in hopes of a fight, but there was no spectacle- the animals were so emaciated and sick from sea travel that they only wanted to crawl back into their cages, and just lashed out at people when they came too near...

Most of it though is about the strange dreamlike inner world the children inhabit (for one in particular, Emily, it shows her sudden self-realization quite distinctly.) Their games and small bitter quarrels, their quirky logic and fierce battles for attention. Eventually the children's presence becomes a hindrance to the pirates, who determine to be rid of them- but in a humane way if they can. The fragmented way in which the kids answer questions after they leave the pirate ship, mis-remembering certain incidents, entirely forgetting others, fixating on small details that don't seem relevant- that appeared quite accurate to me. There's a terrible ironic twist at the end. The whole story is so odd and uneven, yet brilliant in its depiction of the kids in a rough situation. I had a hard time getting through it and at the same time can't stop thinking about it. I'm not sure if I really like it, but it's one I want to re-read later and see what I think again.

Rating: 3/5           241 pages, 1929

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Mar 26, 2018

The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag

by Jim Corbett

I'd been on the lookout for another Corbett book, because his one about the man-eating tigers in India was so interesting. This volume, about a notorious leopard he strove to track down, was rather dry in style but I kept going back to it regardless. Corbett relates how he was summoned to hunt down a man-eating leopard that terrorized villages near Rudraprayag. He surmises what makes a leopard habitually prey on man (old age, serious injury, or learning humans can be a food source when bodies are dumped over a cliff instead of properly buried during a disease epidemic). His account is one long list of failures- following every little rumor of a kill, sitting up for the leopard over a body, staking out goats in hopes the leopard would come to it (it still fed on cattle and goats when couldn't get a person), setting out poisoned bait and careful traps many times over. I was puzzled why he repeatedly claimed leopards were easy to hunt as they had no sense of smell (what?) yet the big cat neatly eluded him over and over. He did kill two leopards that were in the vicinity but knew by the details of tracks and behavior patterns it wasn't the right leopard. It took eight years of tracking, stakeouts and numerous attempts before he had success. With several breaks to rest and avoid getting killed himself, when fatigue set in and he feared would let his guard down. Through the story are some details about life in rural India, the superstitions of the local people (many believed the leopard was an evil spirit, impossible to kill), their abject terror of the beast, their profuse gratitude when the leopard was finally done in. Also, very similar to the other book, some interesting notes on other wildlife in the area, and how Corbett's observation of their behavior helped him track the leopard.

Rating: 3/5               164 pages, 1947

Mar 21, 2018

In Africa with Schweitzer

by Dr. Edgar Berman

I knew very little about Albert Schweitzer before picking up this memoir at The Book Thing out of curiosity. Schweitzer was a brilliant philosopher, theologian and a virtuoso on the organ. His great loves were writing, studying religion and music. As far as I understand it, he was Lutheran and wished to travel to then-French colonized Africa to preach to the natives, but the church declined to send him because his historical studies of the life of Jesus were considered heretical. So at the age of thirty he took a three-year course at a medical school and then went to Gabon to set up a hospital in the jungle on the edge of a river. There was no other medical care available in the area at the time, people would travel from hundreds of miles away. Schweitzer treated the impoverished native people for myriad diseases and injuries, in appallingly primitive conditions, while indulging in his desire to preach the gospel (his view of it, over the supper table more or less) to them. Schweitzer received the Nobel Prize in 1953 for his humanitarian work. He used the money to build a sanatorium for lepers on his hospital grounds. He ran his hospital, living in rough conditions without electricity and many other conveniences, for some fifty years.

Anyway, this book was written by a surgeon who deliberately volunteered to go work at the hospital in Gabon because he wished to get to know the famous man, and question him personally about his views. He was honest about his intentions and Schweitzer reportedly said well, if you work hard and prove yourself, we'll get to know each other. So part of the book is about conditions in the hospital, how the local people were treated, how the staff was managed, certain medical cases and surgeries the author assisted at or performed himself. The rest of it relates the private talks he had with Schweitzer (which some of the staff resented, as they were not on such close terms with the man in spite of having been there much longer, and had to often act as interpreters for these conversations as well). They discussed religion, medicine, music, touched a bit on recent history- the atrocities of WWII were painfully close and that subject often avoided- and especially Schweitzer's personal philosophy of reverence for all life. He had a pet deer, pig, owl and myna bird, and allowed various monkeys, goats and chimpanzees to roam the hospital grounds freely. I liked reading the few descriptions of the animals. One incident where an elderly tribesman brought his wounded, ill dog in for treatment, which Schweitzer took quite seriously, was very touching.

In all, the description of work at the hospital was very interesting, the chapters on philosophy and religion could get tedious- either because they were frankly over my head, or simply outside of my interest. There was an obvious contrast when the author once went downriver to perform an emergency surgery at another small hospital (because its surgeon was drunk, a state he cultivated to forget the horrors he had survived as a prisoner of the Nazis). This other hospital had more modern, pristinely clean facilities which impressed the author, but the surgical tools were so crude he had difficulty performing the operation. After several months spent working at Schweitzer's hospital and living in awe of the man's company, the author returned home, obviously relieved at having modern comforts again. He returned once more to Gabon some twenty years later, after Schweitzer had died and the hospital was run differently, and reflected upon the improvements made, but the loss of "spirit" that had once pervaded the place.

I looked up some stuff after reading this book. The hospital still exists in Gabon, it is now a world heritage site. The original buildings are part of a museum, and newer ones operate as a research and medical facility providing care to the locals.

Rating: 3/5                308 pages, 1986

Mar 19, 2018

There's a Rhino in the Rosebed, Mother

by Betty and Jock Leslie-Melville

This is a hilarious, and sometimes sobering, collection of little stories and anecdotes by a couple who ran a private tourist operation in East Africa during the sixties. I've read their book about raising Rothschild giraffe, and apparently they were famous through their other writings because they spent half the year touring in America, giving talks about their life in Kenya and drumming up business, the other half of the year taking people on safari.  The book has kind of an odd beginning- it pitches almost immediately into anecdotal stories about traveling around the States, getting into odd, amusing mishaps. Other parts have just as amusing snippets about their dealings with safari guests, and what life was like in remote, rural Africa. And their complaints about how things changed as it became modernized. The book is solidly placed in its time. Diane Fossey was still alive. There's mention of the Adamsons filming stories of their lions, and of Zamba as well. African countries were just gaining their independence from colonialism; in fact several of the final chapters went into great depth about the horrors of apartheid and the "terrorists" in Rhodesia, which gave a different view on the local situation as described in Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight. There is not a lot about wildlife, something I missed as I rather expected it from what I remembered of another book they'd written. In spite of that I found this one quite entertaining with its sometimes insightful look at people just being people. The friendly, down-to-earth tone reminds me of Betty MacDonald. Of all the many quirky little incidents related, I think my favorite is the one about a man who encountered a chicken in the outhouse, and thought it was a snake. In spite of his misfortune, I laughed so hard.

Rating: 3/5           253 pages, 1973

Mar 14, 2018

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight

An African Childhood
by Alexandra Fuller

Memoir of the author's childhood in Africa - she grew up on various farms in Rhodesia, Malawi and Zimbabwe, during and just after the Rhodesian war for independence. It was a rough childhood to say the least. Her family was always struggling on poor land, whether it was for cattle ranching or raising tobacco. Drought, disease and violence were common. Her mother was a drunk, to put it mildly, and struggled with mental instability after loosing three of her children when they were very young. The author describes all the struggles they had with poverty, and then the moment of revelation when, as an older child, she finally stepped into the home of an African for the first time, and realized there was another level of deprivation altogether. All the details of growing up, with correspondence lessons and then boarding school, with treks into the bush and picnics on lake shores, with hyenas whooping at night and dogs forever crowded under their feet. Endless teasing from her older sister, casual racism towards servants and nannies. Bad roads, poor medical care, soldiers and checkpoints wherever they went. Blackouts, frequent power failures, unclean water, you name it. Came through it all with a fierce love for the country, which stayed with her, even after living in America later when she became married. Not much wildlife mentioned in the story- well, aside from snakes, rumors of leopards and baboons that lurk near. Mostly it's about the vast land, the people, the political upheaval and what it was like to live through all that as a kid. Reminiscent of The Flame Trees of Thika, and also in some ways Rules of the Wild.

Rating: 3/5                  315 pages, 2013

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Mar 12, 2018

Salvage the Bones

by Jesmyn Ward

This is sad, brutal and touching. It's about a poor family on the Mississippi coast, facing the oncoming terror of hurricane Katrina unawares. Well, they've had warnings. They prepare as they have always done, for hurricanes. This one is different. Without a mother, with their father injured, ill and abed. One son preoccupied with basketball, another keenly focused on his treasured pit bull who just birthed puppies and is also lined up for a fight. The daughter, through whose eyes we see all, has just realized she's pregnant. They don't seem particularly tender or supportive to one another, but cling together fiercely when facing the dire hurricane. The book has so many heavy themes: poverty and racism, dogfighting, teen pregnancy, the kids growing up pretty much on their own, older ones still keenly missing their mother and trying to raise the youngest. There's also some very poetic and vivid prose, which led me to read it all the way through, in spite of the times when you'd want to look away.

Just so you know, there is brutality towards dogs, and to people. There is death. Katrina is a looming presence all through the book, but the actual storm doesn't happen until the final two chapters. The aftermath is very brief, with the survivors going through the wreckage and finding who is still alive. Then it ends and you don't even know what happened to all the characters, particularly the one I was most interested in... it has a hopeful note, but still, you don't know.

Rating: 3/5                      271 pages, 2011

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Mar 7, 2018

Menagerie Manor

by Gerald Durrell

This wonderful book is about a young zoo. Durrell was determined to start his own zoo against all odds; he parked his collection of wild animals in his sister's back garden and simply went looking for a location. Happily acquired the grounds of an expansive estate to convert into his zoo. Some of the book is about the management, brief purchasing trips to foreign countries, public relation efforts and necessary fund-raising. But most of it is just about the animals, which delights me. Durrell describes with obvious fondness the antics and behavioral quirks of many of his wild charges, as well as their efforts to provide the proper diet, improve housing, treat diseases, deal with accidents and breed rare species. There's an amusing account of trying to catch a tapir that escaped and rampaged through a neighbor's fields (at night, in a rainstorm), and another of baby coatis that constantly squeezed out of their cage to romp on the main driveway, and a funny bird that seemed to think its role in the zoo was to welcome every new animal that arrived (a few of them did not appreciate its company). Some of the more interesting animals featured include a spectacled bear, a pair of tuatara, surinam toads, a very grumpy crested porcupine, some wonderfully amusing marmosets and a wide variety of apes, monkeys and smaller primates. A chinchilla that liked to ride on the backs of giant tortoises and steal their food. An overweight skunk who needed a mate to encourage her to get enough exercise. And more. Near the end of the book Durrell realizes that the zoo's purpose should be to keep more rare specimens and attempt to breed them to aid conservation efforts, and he closes with an environmental appeal in particular asking for donations to further the zoo's cause and hopefully slow the extinction rate of wildlife.

As usual, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the animals' behavior, and efforts made with their care and husbandry. There's plenty of very amusing passages as well which had me laughing aloud. Durrell has a real knack for telling a story. The book has some beautifully expressive pen-and-ink drawings by Ralph Thompson illustrating nearly every other page. I love that so many were included, and found through one of the descriptions that the artist made at least some of these drawings (perhaps all?) from life, which you can tell by their liveliness and quality.

Rating: 4/5                 180 pages, 1964

Mar 6, 2018

El Zoo Petrificado

Los Diarios de Cereza
by Joris Chamblain

I bought this book while traveling, because the illustratons intrigued me so much. It's the first book I've ever read in Spanish and actually enjoyed, rather than struggling to translate every sentence. I did have to look up quite a few words, but not enough to slow me down. The original is in French.

It's about a young girl Cereza who dreams of being a writer and likes to imagine other people's secrets. She's busy decorating a tree house with her friends when they notice an old man come out of the woods in paint-splattered clothes. They're nervous and go home. Cereza comes back later on her own and sees the old man again. She decides to follow him and see what he's doing. Without telling her friends and lying to her mom, by the way.

- spoilers ahead -

He's painting scenes of animals on the walls of a derelict, abandoned zoo in the forest. Cereza decides to help him and gets her friends and other kids involved in cleaning up the old zoo grounds. Eventually they get some adults of the town involved as well to make major repairs. Delightfully, the artist not only paints animals on the walls, he renews the paintings periodically to make it look like the animals are feeding, new young are born and grow up, etc. It's a constantly evolving art form. Cereza convinces him to let the town see, and they open the doors to visitors, bringing memories alive for many of the older citizens and recognition to the old man for his art. The front and end pages of the book are like a diary (in a hard-to-read handwriting font) and some of the later pages are news articles about the revitalized zoo in its new format, and criticism/praise of the old man's art. These articles with more formal language was the most difficult for me to read.

- end spoilers -

The story is a nice tidy mystery, and in spite of some flaws (dishonestly, ignoring and criticizing her friends) I rather liked Cereza's character. At the end of the book she determines to find a way to talk more openly with her mother, but isn't quite there yet. While a big part of it is about friendship and acceptance, I admit I liked best the parts about the old man's secret work. I'm reading this book aloud a second time round with my teen, so she can practice her Spanish, and she's quite enjoying it as well.

Rating: 4/5             72 pages, 2017

Mar 3, 2018


Exciting Recipes for Cooking with Herbs
by Linda Tubby

I have so many cookbooks, and I rarely use them. Attempting to change that. This book delighted me with its absolutely beautiful photos of live plants and fantastic-looking plated dishes. They are a bit sophisticated for my regular kitchen pantry, but the author helpfully mentions what substitutions can be made, if you can't find a particular ingredient. Which is nice because she uses a lot of uncommon items like shiso leaves and fenugreek (at least, they're unfamiliar to me). The intro portion of the book has some basics on selecting fresh herbs or growing them yourself, and methods of  preserving them. The list of plants tells a bit of interesting facts about each one- where it originated or something of its historically medicinal and culinary use. It has me curious to try a few new things in my garden: lovage, winter savory, tansy. The recipes are sorted into groupings: appetizers, soups and salads, light brunch/lunch dishes, full entrees, vegetable courses, pastas and breads, desserts. Final pages include how to infuse olive oil and vinegars with herbs, make candied flowers, tisanes, syrups and flavored drinks. I am encouraged to try!

The stretched pasta with herbs pressed between thin layers and then quickly cooked, has me super intrigued. It's pictured all over the endpapers- see below.* Unfortunately, I don't have a pasta machine. I did make the salmon and new potatoes dish, with dill. It was pretty good, but not spectacular. However I used dried instead of fresh dill, and fresh instead of smoked salmon. Definitely going to make more recipes from this book. Especially in the summer, when I have fresh flavors at hand out in the garden.

* photos coming soon

Rating: 4/5               144 pages, 2004