Aug 28, 2019

The Wild Robot Escapes

by Peter Brown

Sequel to The Wild Robot. My kid brought this one home from school, and we were reading it together as a bedtime story. But then of course she read ahead, finished first, and I had to catch up later. Sorry, there are a few spoilers below.

Picking up straight where the previous book left off, Roz the robot has been refurbished and sent to work on a farm. The farm is mostly run by technology- this farmer rarely leaves his house- but has fallen into a lot of disrepair. Roz is there to fix it all up. But she's no ordinary robot, she remembers acutely her old life on the wild island, and misses the animals especially her adopted son the goose. Roz starts having conversations with the dairy cows on the farm, but can't let any humans know of her ability to talk to animals- she'll be seen as defective and sent back to the factory. She comes to befriend the farmer's children, who help her make a plan to run away, and return home to her island. When the moment comes- after a lot of difficulty- Roz is suddenly torn- having grown attached to the children, the cows, the farm itself. Ahead of her is a long, dangerous journey. Migrating geese find her and spread the word, so eventually she comes in contact with her 'son' again and they travel together. They have to face down wolves, a ram that randomly bashes anyone with its horns, human hunters and terrible storms. They see other farms, some operating with greater efficiency than the one Roz worked at, but at greater suffering to the animals- this isn't elaborated on, it's kind of mentioned in passing. As is the presence of an abandoned mine, the idea of humans living on a space station, working conditions for other robots, and so on. Lots of big issues, gently skirted by.

Eventually Roz and Brightbill the goose have to travel through cities, where the robot tries to blend in but eventually attracts attention and has to run for her life again. Flocks of city pigeons mobilize to help her, a rat leads her through the sewers, but she ends up back at the factory anyway- where she meets the very scientist who made her. The doctor is adamant that Roz must be destroyed- the public fears her aberrant behavior- but first she insists on having a few long talks with Roz, and finds the robot's way of thinking fascinating. Will Roz be melted down into parts? or will she finally find a way back home to her island. There, I left you something to find out!

Borrowed from the school library.

Rating: 3/5          278 pages, 2018

Aug 27, 2019

Zoo Story

Life in the Garden of Captives
by Thomas French

Picked up another book from my shelves, on the same subject matter. I was a bit surprised how very similar they were. In both books, the same animals get a lot of focus- tigers and elephants. This one also has a lot about a certain chimpanzee who had lived in the zoo a very long time, seen many changes- but started his life raised in a private home, so he had some confusion including a fixation on human females instead of his own species. The shuffling of hierarchy among the half dozen chimps at the zoo as some aged and younger ones came in, was pretty fascinating. The tiger- beautiful and always fierce- even to the older, larger male tigers they bought in hoping to be her mate- met a tragic end after getting out of her enclosure one day. Main thread going through the book was about the elephants- brought over from Swaziland to spare them from being killed in a cull (the area they lived in had too many elephants, no room to roam, and they were destroying the habitat, running out of food. This felt very familiar to me- I think I read about the same elephants in Animal Wise). The zoo's acquisition of these elephants caused a huge outcry from animal welfare groups. There was also a lot of conflict among the zoo staff- some wanted direct contact methods used with the animals, others pushed for new methods that kept the keepers and staff safer from the elephants. This book, like the other, also had a lot about how inner operations and politics, but it felt more focused. Quite a lot about the zoo director's decisions and actions, how it impacted the workers, the animals, even how his wife felt about things.

Some other animals featured in the book are the manatees which the zoo rehabilitates and releases into the wild, patas monkeys that escape off their island and run around the outskirts of the city for weeks, and endangered frogs being bred in captivity. It's all based on six years of research- four of which the reporter spent in visiting the zoo and going behind-the-scenes. The appendix has detailed notes about sources for all the described scenes and conversations, very thorough. Most of the time I appreciated the author's attempts to imagine what the animals were thinking, feeling or perceiving in certain moments, but I found his constant comparison of human behavior to chimpanzees (especially in terms of males seeking high status) annoying- it just started to get old. Although he made a good point to reiterate what zoo staff told him about how they help endangered species and work for the good of the animals, a lot of what's in this book made me feel dubious about zoos for the first time- usually I enjoy visiting them. Now I'm not so sure.

Rating: 3/5                 288 pages, 2010

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Aug 22, 2019

The Peaceable Kingdom

a Year in the Life of America's Oldest Zoo
by John Sedgwick

A reporter spent a year at the Philadelphia Zoo and then wrote this book about it. He talks just as much about the keepers, administrators, construction, repairs, management problems and so on as he does about the animals- getting a lot of behind-the-scenes look at how the zoo operates. For me, these details about how the people and politics in running the zoo weren't nearly as interesting as the animals- so I ended up skimming quite a lot, especially in the beginning. I even skipped an entire chapter (two pages) that was all about the budget. That, and the fact that much of the humor missed the mark with me, is why this book rated low for me. On the other hand, I did enjoy reading about all the wildlife- attempts to breed a rhino, raising baby animals rejected by their parents- kangaroo, binturong, marmoset- veterinary procedures, moving gorillas from old bare cages into new outdoor habitats, tricky work with dangerously strong elephants, bringing in a new zebra to replace one that had died, making a stubborn camel move into its shelter from the winter weather (it didn't want to go indoors), watching interactions among the group of wolves. There was a koala on loan that was a star attraction for weeks- even though it slept ninety percent of the time on exhibit. Some of the descriptions are very brief, others- the wolves, elephants, rhino and gorilla in particular- are longer or revisited through the book. You might want to know there's a several-page very detailed account of the rhinocerouses mating. The author seems to take delight in nonchalantly describing the animals' sexual endeavors, including the tiger, the gorilla, and a tortoise (who kept mounting boulders). He also keeps mentioning how dangerous certain animals are, or how stupid others, without much attempt to see beyond this sensational or disparaging attitude. This was the era when zoos were just starting to recognize the importance of conservation and captive breeding as a means to preserve species, rather than just have more lion cubs to show off to the public. There's a bit of history and side stories about collectors (but with none of Durrell's charm) which unfortunately only detracted from the main narrative for me. It's certainly a piece of its time, an honest look at what a zoo was like in the 1980's. Rather sad how ineffective most of the veterinary attempts were- there seems to be more mention of animals getting ill or dying than of new births and successful treatments- but maybe they just stood out to me more.

Rating: 2/5                 299 pages, 1988

Aug 18, 2019

Finding My Distance

A Year in the Life of a Three-Day Event Rider
by Julia Wendell

Daily journal of a horsewoman, she and her husband owned a farm in Maryland. There are racehorses, and retired racehorses turned to show jumping or breeding, but her main focus is three-day eventing which entails dressage, steeplechase and show jumping. Seems a very demanding sport for one horse to learn but I gather that's the point- it requires skill, finesse, endurance and guts. Some of the jumps are set up specifically to test how brave a horse (and rider) can be. The author tells about her daily challenges and struggles, not only with the horses, their training and constant upkeep- especially dealing with injuries, wow the legs seem to need a lot of attention- but also with her family, her grown children (one newly off to college and the other travelling India), her poetry-readings (she includes some of the poems in this book), and just life in general. Coming to the sport late, in middle age, she relates the learning curve, working with different instructors, trying to build up her confidence, and all the hard choices that come with keeping and showing horses. It's always one thing after another and there's lots of discouragement but her passion for it blazes through. It's rather strange to read a book written so intimately about a world so different from my own- and yet with striking familiarity- I live the next state over and know the locality. I've even driven on the road past Morven Park- but without any reason to ever go in. I like reading about it for the glimpse of it all- but I bet this book would really be loved by anyone in the horse world. It feels so honest and real.

I found there's a sequel, Come to the X, which I'd also like to read- particularly I want to know what happened with several of the author's horses and how her progression went in the sport. You can read a sample of her writing style here.

Rating: 3/5              399 pages, 2009

Aug 11, 2019

Indian Saddle-Up

by Glenn Balch

Two young Native Americans from the Comanche tribe are out hunting pronghorn and bison when surprised by enemies from the Ute tribe. As one youth runs back to warn their tribe, the other decoys the enemy. When he finally evades the Utes and makes it back to camp, all his people are gone except for an elderly man they call Old Man Crazy, because he speaks of things no one believes- people with white skin who wear armor and travel on the backs of animals. At this time none of the Comanches had ever seen a white man and horses were unknown to them. So the youth and the crazy old man travel alone together, and they come across a small band of horses, (escaped from the Spanish Conquistadors). At first they find the strange animals frightening, then are eager to learn how to possess and ride the horses themselves, so they can take these new valuable animals back to the tribe. It isn't easy, particularly as the natives don't have any idea how to approach or control the horses, but they are smart in the ways of wild animals, and quickly learn by observing how different horses are from wild game (being domesticated, and already accustomed to humans). The younger Comanche is particular invested in the attempt to use horses because he has a lame foot which always slowed him down; this will give him an advantage among his people. But he has to face a lot of unexpected challenges, and looses the guidance of the old man too, ending up on his own to figure out how to ride the horse and then find his own people again.

This was a really well-told story, with good descriptions, realistic animal behaviors, engaging writing style and an interesting plot that surprised me a few times. I suppose its quality really stood out to me following close on a just-okay book, but it reminded me why Glenn Balch is still one of my favorite authors.

Rating: 4/5            210 pages, 1953

Aug 10, 2019

Horse Tradin'

by Ben K. Green

I know I read this book long ago as a teen, found at the public library. So when I came across it recently in a discard sale, snatched it up eager to see how it compared to my fond memory. It was a good read- enjoyed all over again.

It's a collection of short stories written by a man who traded horses and mules for a living, back when they were the major form of transportation and power in America (although a few stories feature early cars, or tractors first coming into use). The stories are mostly with a little twist- where the man thought he made a good trade but found out the horse had a hidden fault or behavior problem, sometimes thought he had sneakily played a poor horse off on a better trade, only to discover the animal he'd acquired wasn't as advertised, either.

There were mules painted to look like young, grey dapple, a gypsy mare trained to lie down and groan when saddled, a spoiled lady's riding horse that wouldn't go more than a few yards from the barn. Many times the author showed how he could make the best of a poor situation, due to his understanding of equine behavior- train them out of their bad habits, or cleverly corral a bunch of wild mules that he'd been given in trade because the prior owner assumed he would never be able to catch them. Most of the tales take place in Texas, a few further south- he traveled a lot in his work. There's one story of a match race on a native American reservation. Sometimes, Green couldn't make good on a bad trade, and foisted the poor quality mule or horse off on another unsuspecting person. But there are good, honest transactions in here too, where both parties were well satisfied and respected each other.

I was kind of shocked to read an instance of wasted, sickly horses fed arsenic to fatten them up (and have since read online that inorganic arsenic is commonly used in animal feed to make hogs and chickens grow faster). And the last story surprised me with a little detail that made sense of a totally unrelated book I also read and loved as a kid, An Edge of the Forest. In that one, a herd of deer feeds in a valley that makes them all sleep like death. I always puzzled over that. Here in one of Green's stories, some wild unbroken horses were put to graze in a valley of "sleepy grass" so they could be pawned off as tamed and gentle. There was something in the grass that made the animals lethargic. I've looked it up, and it's a real thing. In some ways, this book also reminded me of Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour.

Rating: 3/5             304 pages, 1963


Stallion of Broken Wheel Ranch
by Albert G. Miller

Fury is a stunning wild horse, viciously aggressive to anyone who approaches his herd. Two ranchers manage to catch him and pen him in a corral. Joey is an orphan boy who loves horses; he sneaks into a rodeo show, almost gets caught and hides in a vehicle going back to that same ranch. When he arrives, of course the ranchers insist on taking him back, but he really wants to see the wild horse first. The first moment they meet, this wild stallion is tamed by the boy's touch. The kid doesn't even know how to ride, throw a rope or shoot (basics for ranch kids) and yet he is able to calm Fury. It winds up he stays at the ranch, they're going to adopt him. Adventures ensue with the wild horse. The boy starts to learn ranching skills and is very happy in his new life. Then the stallion starts breaking out of his corral at night, and neighboring ranchers complain that someone is stealing their mares. They blame Fury. Joey is knows Fury isn't the culprit; there's another wild stallion out there taking mares, and Fury simply keeps busting out of his corral to go fight the other stallion. But nobody else has seen the white stallion, so how will Joey convince them?

It's quite a lively story but I'm afraid this one suffers from its age. Aside from the golly-ghee-whiz attitudes, and the penchant of grown men to want to beat up their rivals (especially a con man who shows up on the ranch at the end of the story claiming to be Joey's true father) there's the entirely unrealistic behavior of the horses- Fury in particular. The taming could have been a little more plausible if it hadn't happened so instantly. But there's quite a few scenes where the horse acts like he understands human speech and motives. I have the two sequels and started to read the second one, but was dissuaded when the horse started acting like Lassie the dog- eagerly leading people to those in trouble, snorting and prancing as if he understood human jokes. It was a fun read at first, but oh well. I guess I'm just too old for this one. Moving on.

Rating: 2/5                   190 pages, 1959

Aug 8, 2019

Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons

a Journey to the Flora and Fauna of a Unique Island
by Gerald Durrell

This book predates the one I just read- it's about a collection trip Durrell took to Mauritius (near Madagascar in the Indian Ocean), in particular visiting several tiny islands- Round Island gets a lot of mention- where species of snakes, birds and lizards live that exist nowhere else in the world. These species were nearly extinct due to introduced rabbits, goats and monkeys which either denuded the vegetation or destroyed the native animals' young. When Durrell visited the island, less than forty pink pigeons remained, there were only eight Mauritian kestrels known to exist, and the Round Island boa numbered seventy-five. Their purpose was to get an estimated count of the various endangered species, capture just enough individuals to set up a captive breeding program, and ascertain what could be done about the invasive animal problem. A lot of it of course, is about the mishaps and struggles working in remote, foreign conditions- in this case under constant blistering heat with little shade. Giant land snails invaded their tent and ate their sandwiches, shearwater chicks kept them awake at night screaming and trampling on everything, and mosquitoes swarmed in hordes. While the focus of the trip was the golden bat, pink pigeon and Mauritian kestrel, a lot of the text describes the numerous and beautiful lizards- there being plenty of those to observe. The phelsuma day gecko in particular has gorgeous colors (look it up!). Apart from the collecting efforts, Durrell also describes the beauties of the reef, as they spent several mornings snorkeling. The descriptions of the dazzling variety of fishes, corals, invertebrates and more is just wonderful. Unlike most Durrell books I've read, this one is illustrated with photographs (as well as some nice pen-and-ink drawings).

Happily, a bit of online search reveals that Durrell's efforts were the first of many (the Mauritian government, various other conservation groups and zoos became heavily involved), and they have paid off to save the species in Mauritius. While still vulnerable, the pink pigeon population now has over 400 birds, the Mauritius kestrel numbers about 200, the golden bat more than 20,000, the Round Island boa around 1,800 but the burrowing boa Durrell described is now considered extinct.

Rating: 3/5                       190 pages, 1977

Aug 7, 2019

The Aye-Aye and I

by Gerald Durrell

Charming little book about the last collecting trip Durrell made to bring rare, endangered animals back to his European zoo for a breeding program. His main purpose in visiting Madagascar was to find the aye-aye, a strange nocturnal lemur at risk of going extinct. They also searched for and collected snakes, endemic tortoises, gentle lemurs, a jumping rat and spiny-tailed iguanas. As always, Durrell's writing is interesting and humorous. He describes the difficulties they had navigating bad roads, finding accurate sources of information, getting local men in power to allow them access, dealing with breakdowns and scant supplies, etc. All the logistics involved in finding, feeding, and safely transporting the animals home. Coaxing newly-caught, frightened lemurs to eat. Scrambling to find medical care when one of the team members became ill. The descriptions of the red, pothole-strewn roads, the upright brick houses and the gentle native people are vivid. He also describes beginning attempts at conservation, the plans they made with local government to set aside wildlife refuges, do something about severe deforestation and protect the wildlife- many animals were illegally caught to be eaten or sold as pets, with no law enforcement in place. Aye-ayes were often killed outright by local people, who had strong superstitious fear of the animal. They did a lot of work to educate the people on the true nature of the wildlife, and to teach the local children about animals they had heard many fables of, but never actually seen. I think my favorite passage of the book was Durrell's description of a fossa- he was sitting quietly by himself one day while the team went ahead, when the animal walked into the road, treating him to a personal, rare encounter.

The end of the book has a sudden switch to the island of Mauritius, where Durrell and part of his team stopped on their way home from Madagascar, to check on a program they had put in place there years earlier to save some rare animals, especially the pink pigeon. I haven't read the book about the Mauritius trip yet, although it's on my shelf. Finally, Durrell sees the newly acquired animals safe home from their trip, settled into quarantine quarters at the zoo. There is an afterward by a Mammal Keeper from the zoo, who gives more details on how the animals fared after the expedition, and more information on the conservation and breeding programs set in place by Durrell.

Rating: 3/5                184 pages, 1992

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Aug 5, 2019

Fillets of Plaice

by Gerald Durrell

Five short stories, wonderfully descriptive and intriguing, often had me laughing. While I (mostly) enjoyed reading them, I think it's really best to start somewhere else, if you're new to reading Durrell. They don't have a lot of introduction, are unrelated incidents that Durrell realized later in life he had never fit into any of his other books, so he put them together here. His brother suggested the title, as a joke- it has nothing to do with the contents.

"The Birthday Party" is a story from Durrell's childhood on Corfu, where his family decide to give their mother a birthday outing in a boat, which turns into a huge mishap. I felt sorry for the woman, and the only reason I could laugh during this one was I knew that it all came right in the end. It's packed with amusing (or insufferable, however you like to look at it) characters, but it's really more funny if you already know how these people relate to each other from the Corfu trilogy.

"A Transport of Terrapins" - This was my favorite of the stories. Set later on, when Durrell's family had returned to England, and he found his first job as assistant in a pet shop. He loves the animals and wants to enrich their dull cages, but has to find a way to do so without offending the owner (who doesn't have a lot of interest in or knowledge about the animals himself, but as the boss has his pride). Later in the story Durrell meets another eccentric shop owner in town who keeps birds, with a curious way of running his shop. Then there's an older gentleman he meets on the bus over a spilled box of baby turtles, who invites him to his house to play a game. He is at first suspicious of this man's intentions, but it turns out to be honest and they strike up a nice friendship over strategy games with tin soldiers.

"A Question of Promotion"- Jumping ahead years, this one takes place in Africa, when Durrell was in the Cameroons collecting wild animals. That's not the focus. Most of the story is about plans he helped an acquaintance make for a dinner party to impress a visiting District Officer. There's pages and pages of conversation between Durrell and the other people he gathered together to help plan the meal- difficult because they lacked supplies- but it is lively and amusing enough. When they event finally takes place, all their careful planning meets with one huge accident. It was hilarious. However this was during time of British colonial rule, so there are unfortunately some attitudes towards both native servants and women, which I know some readers would find offensive.

"A Question of Degrees"- the one story that had me cringing. Durrell is ordered by his doctor to take some rest, sent to a place he calls "the loony bin" but the doctor insists sternly is "a highly respectable nursing home that specializes in nervous complaints". So, mental health in-patient. While there, Durrell suffers a series of very bad nosebleeds, that won't stop, so he is sent to the hospital. Twice. The first time, the taxi takes them to the wrong place. The doctor is careful and efficient, and it's all over quickly. The second time, the doctor is very rough with crude methods that leave Durrell in worse pain than ever- and it ends with him staggering back to his bed in the inpatient facility, given a shot of drugs to wipe out the pain and fall asleep, wishing he'd gone to the wrong hospital again instead. I guess it was supposed to be funny, but it had me feeling sick the way some Mr. Bean episodes do.

"Ursula"- The last story is about a young woman Durrell dated for a time. She was incredibly vivacious, with a loud animated way of speaking that always drew attention whenever they went out. Durrell soon found himself in a number of embarrassing situations, especially the day he took her to a Mozart concert and she brought a dog in a basket. Of course it escaped. The nice thing about this story is that Durrell comes to see the tenderhearted, kind side of Ursula, even though her manner is sometimes off-putting to others. I had a very personal reaction to the this one. Like the main character, I sometimes use the wrong word when speaking. In my case, it's often mispronunciation rather than the malapropisms Ursula frequently uttered- but I could oddly sympathize with her. I don't angrily insist I'm always right, like she did- but I do feel criticized and sometimes made the fool, depending on how the correction is worded. So the end of this book made me feel oddly unsettled and uncomfortable, because I identified with a character I felt the author intended us to laugh at.

Rating: 3/5                 216 pages, 1971

A Passage to India

by E.M. Forster

Just a quick note on this one. I tried to read it on a very long drive. Sixty pages in, after picking it up and putting it down repeatedly, I had to give up with a sigh. If this is Forster's best work, it makes me wonder if I should cross Room with a View and Howard's End off my want-to-read list. It's about a bunch of people in India nearing the end of colonialism, snobs of the British ruling class trying to mix socially with native Indian people (who are well-educated themselves) but nobody understands each other and it all goes wrong. At least, I gathered that much from the back cover text and glancing at a few reviews online. I just could not picture anything in my mind, or figure out what was going on, or keep the characters straight, while reading this. So I ended up disinterested and bored. Of course, it could just have been my mood and the surrounding circumstances (long hours in the car with a restless eight-year-old in the back seat) so I am re-shelving this one to try again at a later date. Do tell me if it's worth the effort of another attempt.

Abandoned              335 pages, 1924

Aug 4, 2019

Collected Short Stories

Vol. 4 
by W. Somerset Maugham

Thirty short stories. Surprisingly, I found Maughum's short stories really satisfying- they didn't leave me wishing a whole lot more or feeling adrift, like I usually do after reading short pieces.

Most of these stories take place in Malaya, during British rule, and are about Europeans stationed there, their wives and sometimes families. Several are situated in a nearby Asian countries, a few in America or England. They are all quite astute with character development and really intriguing, in spite of being so brief (a page or two, up to twenty in some cases). Sometimes it took me a while to get into the tale- often the crux of the subject is approached in a roundabout way- the narrator telling how he met a certain person, got a certain impression, had curiosity piqued, found out so much more later, here's the whole story wrapped up then, etc. They are about scandals, folks who have certain oddities, or get into troublesome situations by chance, or who do astonishing things that no one expected. Maugham himself said (in the intro) that he liked to write about people who were strange or got themselves into unusual circumstances, being more interesting than the majority who led quiet, ordinary lives. A lot are about women or men unfaithful to each other- some hiding it all their lives. Stories about men in different situations and how they struggled to get along with odious characters they had to work with. Quite a number grouped together about men in a French penal colony (reminded me immediately of Papillon). One quite unlike the others- more fairy-tale like in tone, about a princess with a wild nightingale she tamed, that her sisters convinced her to lock up in a cage . . . My favorite was the last one, about a young man who loved natural history and was sent to a remote place to work in a museum, went out into the jungle to find specimens, got into a pickle when his superior's wife began flirting with him. I did smile a lot when I ran into characters that loved books, in these pages. They stood out to me.

I wonder if most of these stories are based on real people or incidents the author heard about- it certainly sounds like he traveled about talking to and observing people, and then wrote based on that; I've heard tell it's more or less embellished fact. I borrowed this book from my brother-in-law while on holiday- it's the fourth volume of a complete collection of Maugham's short stories- someday I'd like to read all the others.

Rating: 4/5              464 pages, 1951