Dec 31, 2020


A Natural and Fabulous History of Ravens and Crows
by Catherine Feher Elston

     The cleverness and pervasive success of ravens and crows has been recognized by humans in many cultures, for ages. In native american tribes the raven is often seen as a creator or a spirit guide, although in other minds ravens are associated with death (because they feed on carrion). This book is a kind of celebration of ravens- the first part has legends and creation stories featuring Raven from various Pacific Northwest tribes, the middle part is some native american history (with the raven connection a thin tangent that is barely mentioned) and the final section is more factual about raven behavior with quotations from some scientific studies including several from Bernd Henrich and Konrad Lorenz (which in my opinion are better read in their original context). The first part was good, I had mixed feelings about the middle, and the last section wasn't anything new to me. Actually one of the better parts is the afterward, where the author describes some of her own work rehabilitating and caring for injured ravens. So the book feels rather uneven and sometimes the wording was odd or I felt dubious about the content. It would have been nice to have more of the legends, or more detail about the personal experiences. I could have really done without the history section, which had a different tone entirely and felt out of place to me. I did really like the inked illustrations by Lawrence Ormsby, very nice.

Rating: 2/5                       208 pages, 1991

Dec 30, 2020

spring interlude

This was such a nice puzzle. 550 pieces, fairly large size, varied shapes, lovely colors.
I'm fond of lilacs and the artist Beth Hoselton captured how light plays on the foliage and flowers just beautifully here. There's fine brushstrokes visible on the bird, barely discernible on the butterfly,
and the blooms and background treated more loosely where you can see the paint strokes if you look close, which I happen to enjoy. Assembled:
Made by Reflective Art, Inc. which I would definitely buy again, this feels like a quality puzzle. 

Dec 29, 2020

The Beginning

Animorphs #54 
by K.A. Applegate

     Wow, hard to believe it's actually over. I finally finished this sixty-two book middle-grade sci-fi series (counting in the four Meagamorphs and four Chronicles. I didn't read the offshoots called Alternamorphs, which it sounds like are in Choose Your Own Adventure style). Warning for some SPOILERS.

Jumps right into the action showing how the battle ended- and yes Rachel ends up in a fight with Tom/Yeerk and his followers. They both die. The rest of the team manages to end the war against the alien Yeerks, the Visser is taken captive, Jake cleverly talks the Andalites into doing things their way (don't want the Andalites running Earth or taking credit for the victory) without much loss of face (amusingly, Earth becomes a tourist destination for Andalites who want to taste food). The Animorphs kinda go their separate ways and we see what happens to each of them- and I found all their paths fitting (although Tobias made me feel sad- he's distraught at loosing Rachel and basically leaves to just live as a hawk). After a year the Visser is brought to trial for war crimes. Jake has been suffering ever since it ended- most of the others found a purpose to their life, but Jake is depressed and directionless. The trial brings back all his memories as he has to testify and feels the mountain of guilt again for his role in killing innocents. The other Animorphs force him into morphing dolphin in the ocean so he can physically release some tension and feel a bit of joy again- and they all have a long serious talk about the war, its effect on them, where the guilt lies, etc. Very good stuff!

Then the story takes a sudden turn- I knew before that a lot of fans hate the ending of the series, but it really took me by surprise what it was. Jake receives a report that Ax had been scouting around in outer space (he's a Prince and captain of his own ship now) and encountered a suspicious, seeming-empty huge ship. He went aboard with part of his crew, something went wrong, there's only one survivor. Of course Jake gets together the few remaining Animorphs (addition of two new people who have been studying under Jake and minus  Cassie who stays behind) and they secretly take what used to be a Yeerk ship, out there to investigate. They find that Ax and his crew were subsumed by a huge new alien thing- and they get ready to face off to it, even though they have no chance. And that's it.

The book abruptly ends. You can only assume that they were all taken by this new alien. I nearly yelled aloud in frustration because- I wanted to know what happened! But after some thinking I kinda get what the author was aiming at. A lot of this book was showing what happened to the main characters in the aftermath of war, how they were able to adjust and go on with their lives, or not. (Strange that the families were hardly mentioned). But then this new threat comes up and they go face it- so the message I take from that is: there's always another battle. You think it's all over and you have peace but something else will eventually rear up and make you fight again. And sometimes- you just can't win.

It sure would be nice if someone wrote another series continuing where this one dropped off- do the Animorphs still retain a thread of consciousness or individuality in that alien thing? Could they be rescued? what happens if that alien finds Earth- where Cassie still is, with all the other humans, Hork-Bajir and visiting Andalites. Hm, maybe there's some fanfic out there on this one . . .

The book is on my e-reader.

Rating: 4/5               176 pages, 2001

 More opinions: 

Dec 28, 2020

The Answer

Animorphs #53 
by K.A. Applegate

     Man, this one was intense. Events moved quickly, but I wasn't glossing through them like the last book. Unavoidable SPOILERS: It's down to all or nothing for the Animorphs. The aliens have destroyed their home town. A new Yeerk pool is being built, and when they go there to try and sabotage the construction, they get trapped. Totally surprised to find allies among the Taxxons who having seen what the morphing power can do, foresee a way to escape their relentless hunger. (Did Cassie really guess this might happen? or only thought of in retrospect. It nullifies her betrayal but only a little). Jake finally has a determined, multilayered and dangerous plan- and this time he doesn't back down when it involves putting his friends and allies in danger. He even blackmails the pacifist Chee into assisting them- right on the battlefield as it were. Early on in reading this you get a sense someone is going to die- and they sure did. Secondary characters but still, that was hard to stomach, how coldly Jake had to go through with his plan even as he watched them dying for the cause. They pull some insanely successful bluffs, and infiltrate the Pool ship, sneak right in to where the Visser is, who knows of their capabilities but still fails to detect their presence until it is too late. Blustering and bragging as always. When the last chapter abruptly ends (because I gather this is really an ending told in two parts which concludes in The Beginning) Jake in the Pool ship in a tense situation next to the Visser is facing his brother Tom/Yeerk who is attacking them from a Blade ship- because Tom's Yeerk has his own idea about snatching power and escaping offworld with the morphing cube. 

In spite of all the fighting and subterfuge and quickly escalating scenes, there were also elements in here which brought back what I like about the Animorph books- the senses of being in animal forms. Jake with the wild flight and altered sense of being a fly. The lithe power and heat-sensing acuity of an anaconda. A new one was dragonfly.

This one's also on my e-reader.

Rating: 4/5                   176 pages, 2001

More opinions: 

Dec 27, 2020

The Sacrifice

Animorphs #52 
by K.A. Applegate

     It's been so long. Maybe that's why this book didn't really impact or impress me much, even though a lot of significant things happen. I feel like I was reading it too quickly, being so eager to finally finish the series. 

Well- in this book it turns out that Ax has secretly been communicating with the other Andalites who are circling off-world. The Andalite commanders want to basically let the Yeerks have their way, and then they will destroy Earth, getting rid of the problem (and wiping out mankind in the bargain). Ax is appalled by this. However later on he starts to feel very bitter towards the humans himself. He finds out how Cassie had betrayed their entire mission, he witnesses more friction and division within the group, and their basic inability to make decisions based on logic and tactics instead of emotional pull. With the newer recruits and adults along (who strangely still don't have much say or leadership at all in things), they bust security to steal some trucks loaded with tons of explosives (laughably easy), acquire some backup from the National Guard, and plan to load a train full of bombs, then run it straight into the main Yeerk pool- possible because the Yeerks have built subway lines going straight to their source of nourishment. They're able to morph into indestructible forms (cockroaches) and escape right as the bomb blasts, getting out just in time (had to be on the train to trigger the bomb at just the right moment, and prevent Yeerks from stopping them of course). Thousands of innocents don't- humans who were trapped while their Yeerks were in the pool, Yeerks themselves who were actually part of the underground resistance. Even though exploding the pool was a huge success for the Animorphs team, they feel heavily the loss of innocent life they caused. 

This feels like things are very rapidly moving towards the end (they are!) but still, I was annoyed that a good twenty percent of the book seemed taken up by Ax (the narrator) explaining things to the reader. Gah, how unnecessary. It all felt like an action film with hasty argumentative planning under pressure, poorly carried out ideas (that worked in spite of what these kids did), adults coerced or easily convinced into helping them, and some very sobering moments that were glossed over too quickly. Like scenes where they witnessed train cars packed with people who had been taken from their homes and forced aboard by the Yeerks, headed to their alien enslavement in the pool- which was very reminiscent of things from WWII, some of the characters even mentioned that in an aside. As always I missed the sense of what-it's-like-to-be-an-animal, barely present in this book- they switch forms to get somewhere, or to fight and survive, none of the wonder is there. Early on in the book Ax morphs a raccoon (hence the cover) and comments on how nimble and useful its hands are, that's about it.

I did really like one idea presented in here that could annul the main conflict, if it were used properly. That is: if the Yeerks have the morphing capability, they could morph human forms (or other animal bodies) and no longer have the need to actually take over human brains. This isn't explored very much, which is rather disappointing. Seems like it would solve a lot of problems!

This copy was on my e-reader.

Rating: 3/5                   176 pages, 2001

More opinions: 

Dec 26, 2020

The Hopes of Snakes

and Other Tales from the Urban Landscape 
by Lisa Couturier
I can't quite put my finger on why this book fell flat for me. It's a collection of essays describing the landscape and encounters with wildlife the author had when living in New York City and the area surrounding Washington, DC. Some of the encounters are brief- just a glimpse of a coyote- others are more personal- helping a researcher find and catch snakes in a field, following crows to locate their roosting site. Interspersed with quotes that felt meaningful (and I recognized many of them) but were a bit too frequent- I would have rather heard more of the author's own words. Also interspersed with details or asides about her personal life- including what felt like a disconnect with religion while being surrounded by religious people- but just a glimpse of this, never felt connected enough. It always loops around again to the animal the chapter is about, but sometimes in such a skipping, circling manner I didn't feel it strongly. She describes a longing to know wild animals better, to know more details about their lives- and shares what she's learned from reading (I was interested in the insights about coyotes. For example- I always thought they rebounded from intense "predator control" by having larger litters but this book tells me it's also because if a dominant pair is removed from an area, all the younger coyotes are suddenly free to breed, no longer held in check by their social hierarchy). This book is full of the type of material I usually enjoy- personal encounters with wildlife and interesting facts about them- but the analogies didn't speak to me, the descriptive language often felt too flowery, the wanderings asides left me feeling lost. I shut it at the end feeling disappointed. Maybe it's just that this author's writing style is not to my taste. 

In case it is of interest, the animals featured in this book include mice, red-tailed hawks, crows, snakes, coyotes, peregrine falcons, canada geese, vultures, a barn owl, gorillas (in a zoo), ants, pigeons, cockroaches, toads, bald eagles, foxes and deer. I just wish I had liked it more.

 Rating: 2/5           160 pages, 2005

new e-reader!

This was my big christmas surprise, and I'm absolutely thrilled. My husband bought me a new e-reader, a Kindle Paperwhite. It replaces my old Kindle Fire which died just shy of being ten years old. I was able to transfer nearly all 144 books off my old device onto the new one. (The only book I lost was Beautiful Joe, which isn't a big deal- already read and it wasn't a favorite so not sure if I'll even replace it). 
There are some things I like about the Paperwhite right away. It's very lightweight- so easy to handle, and doesn't make the book I keep it in feel unexpectedly heavy. The screen is slightly smaller and shorter than the old Kindle which disappointed me at first, but then I figured out how to adjust the line spacing, font size and type in the device, so the page read doesn't feel as truncated now. 
I fully charged it yesterday after transferring all the book files, and then spent some time reading on it- got nearly halfway through the next Animorphs book. With my old Kindle, this would have drained a good part of the battery- but the Paperwhite is still at ninety percent. I do believe I could easily read on this for a week before needing to recharge. It also has far more storage space (helped by the fact there are no games or any features not related to reading books, which is what I wanted!) I put my whole e-book library on here, which took up less than a tenth of the storage space. I could fit over a thousand books on this if I wanted to.
Only downside for now, is that my hollowed-out book space is too large for it. For now I've wedged it in with a bit of foam, but eventually I will want to make a new hollow book case. When I find the right book to sacrifice . . . or maybe I will buy a blank one just for that purpose this time. Have to find just the right one, though.
One odd thing, is that when I power the Paperwhite completely off, the screen looks rather bright- as in the first photo. Compared to when it's in sleep mode and shows a picture, as in the last two photos. 

Extra tidbit- when I wrote that previous post about getting the Kindle Fire, I mentioned having approximately six hundred books on my shelves. In the ten years since, I've easily added a thousand more paperbound books to my collection (!)

Well, can you tell I'm excited. I hope your holidays all had some specially happy bookish surprises, as mine did. I'm off to test another nice feature of the Paperwhite now, by seeing how easily I can read in a patch of sunshine (through a window today, but in the future I look forward to reading outside in the garden).

Dec 24, 2020

Gift Horse

by Betty Levin

Matt has always dreamed of owning a horse. His great-uncle, a filmmaker who travels the world to find rare animals, promises to send him one, although Matt's parents think this is a misunderstanding. Matt works hard to get a space ready in the old carriage house on their property in the suburbs; his family assumes he's just playing out there. When he announces the horse has arrived (early in the morning when everyone else was sleeping) they think it's still a game and nobody goes out to see the horse for nearly a week! Then they're all stunned. Matt is crushed when his family says he can't keep the horse- but since it's an unusual breed- a Norwegian Fjord- they contact the horse farm it came from to try and find a buyer. Meanwhile Matt works hard to take care of his horse, alleviate its boredom (stuck in the stall or taking walks around the streets most of the time) and figure out how to scrape enough money for its food and other necessities. His friend next door helps out, he cajoles his older siblings to contribute, and before long all the neighborhood kids want to come see his horse, pet it, lead it around, maybe take a ride. They find someone to give some basic riding lessons, and then get a bright idea to enter the horse in a local pet show. Maybe the prize will help them keep it. It doesn't turn out perfectly, but there is a satisfactory solution in the end.

This book has a lot of amusingly ridiculous scenes, some honestly portrayed sibling and parent/child dynamics, and an unexpected ending that was nice. I liked the mention of other exotic animals- there's a small local zoo/museum that features rare animals and teaches the public about endangered species, a neighbor science teacher who wants to raise emus and keeps hibernating bats in his fridge, and the great-uncle is on a trip to Australia searching for the presumed extinct thylacine. When the kids use finger paint to make the Fjord horse look like a zebra, they run out of paint and instead turn him into a quagga for the "costume" contest in the pet show. Except nobody knows what a quagga is, they think the kids made it up. (I looked online because I've heard about the quagga breeding project, and there's actually zebras been bred now to have a very similar appearance). 

Good horse kid book, though the writing is simple enough I don't think I'll find it appealing as a re-read. I'll see if my fifth-grader might like it. Incidentally, this one reminded me a lot of Zoe's Zodiac by Mary Jo Stephens.

Rating: 3/5                  168 pages, 1996

Dec 23, 2020

Tarka the Otter

by Henry Williamson

This is a book I put on my TBR over a decade ago- probably before I even started blogging. Now I also want to read the author's book Salar the Salmon, though it's also out of print so that will be happenchance. And whatever else of his I might come across.

It's the life of a river otter, though the animal does spend some time on the edge of the sea as well. It's mostly the otter's rovings, endlessly going up and down waterways, chasing fish with delight and wondrous dexterity, fiercely driving others off his food one moment, playing with them the next. It depicts the otters as very gregarious and friendly to their own kind, while driven off and hunted with dogs by men (the fishermen view them as competition and vermin). Very specific to a place- around the Taw river in North Devon. Detailed descriptions of the animal life, plants, weather, lay of the land etc- and specific local dialect when the otter encounters man. I liked this as it gives a real sense of place, but had to refer to the glossary a few times, which oddly isn't in alphabetical order but it's not long so easy enough to find a word. I didn't know before how avidly otters were once hunted with dogs and guns. From the wild animal's perspective it sounds terrifying, to be harassed by the hounds even to death- which is how this otter finally meets his end. Not without pulling a dog down with him. I think what stands out most vividly to me through this reading was how fluidly the otter moves through the water, using the course of rivers and streams to his advantage.

My edition has an introduction by Fortescue (who was a friend of the author), and an afterward by Williamson which is a very personal account of the circumstances surrounding his writing of the book- including how ill his wife and baby son were at the time. It's also got a curious feature I only noticed halfway through- each page has a word at the top not a chapter title but naming a place the otter was on that particular page. It's distinctive on every page, never saw that before. Also I really liked the illustrations by Barry Driscoll, and the heavy inky smell of the pages- as if my copy, in spite of being so old, had never been opened and read before. I fanned and smelt the pages way more often than I usually do in reading (which is probably at least once per book haha).

One to treasure. It's very like String Lug the Fox or Argen the Gull in tone.

 Rating: 4/5              265 pages, 1927

Dec 21, 2020

TBR #75

Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon- Bookfoolery
Exiled: Clan of the Claw by S.M. Stirling, et al- Thistle Chaser
the Candlelit Menagerie by Caraline Brown- A Bookish Type
In the Country We Love by Diane Guerrero- Caroline Bookbinder
We Could Be Heroes by Margaret Finnegan- Semicolon
Shane by Jack Shaefer- Lark Writes
Museum of Forgotten Memories by Anstey Harris- Bookfoolery
Venus Among the Fishes by Elizabeth Hall
the Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.W. Schwab- A Bookish Type
the Body a Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson- It's All About Books
Soil Science for Gardeners by Robert Pavlis- Sustainable Market Farming
the God of Animals by Aryn Kyle- Living 2 Read
the New Valley by Josh Weil- Living 2 Read
The Black Pearl by Scott O'Dell
Badger Boy by Elmer Kelton
Six Bits a Day by Elmer Kelton
The Catalog of Shipwrecked Books by Edward Wilson-Lee
The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond
Rescue by Jessie Haas
all these from Sam's list of books on books:
Howard's End is on the Landing by Susan Hill
Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo
Sixpence House by Paul Collins
A Passion for Books by Harold Rabinowitz
My Reading Life by Pat Conroy
Bookshop of the Broken Hearted by Robert Hillman
Bookshop of Yesterdays by Amy Meyerson

not found in my public library's catalog:
the Islander by Gerald Kingsland
Doodlebug by Irene Brady
Truthtelling by Lynn Schwartz- Book Chase
Fabulous Monsters by Alberto Manguel- Captive Reader
Keeping Barney by Jessie Haas
the Peppermint Pig by Nina Bawden- Semicolon
One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes- Bookfoolery
the True Adventures of Gidon Lev by Julie Gray- Book Chase
Dear Reader
by Cathy Rentzenbrink 
Black Star, Bright Dawn by Scott O'Dell
the City Under the Back Steps by Evelyn Lampman- Semicolon
An American Type by Henry Roth- Living 2 Read
To Destroy You Is No Loss by Joan Criddle
the Wolf and the Buffalo by Elmer Kelton
the Man Who Rode Midnight by Elmer Kelton
Stand Proud by Elmer Kelton
the Hungry Place by Jessie Haas
After Man: a Zoology of the Future by Dougal Dixon
The Cichlid Fishes: Nature's Grand Experiment by Dr. George Barlow
and more from Sam:
Jacob's Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill
Slightly Chipped by Nancy and Lawrence Goldstone
Shelf Life by Suzanne Strempek Shea
So Many Books by Gabriel Zaid
The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri
A Gentle Madness by Nicholas Basbanes
Modern Book Collecting by Robert Wilson
Leave Me Alone I'm Reading by Maureen Corrigan

Dec 20, 2020

A Fish Caught in Time

the Search for the Coelacanth 
by Samantha Weinberg

The story of this fish is just amazing. The coelacanth, closest fish relative to tetrapods (ancestors of all reptiles, amphibians and mammals) was thought to be extinct for over three hundred million years until one day in 1938 when a fisherman in southern Africa offered part of his catch to a local museum curator- including a large and very strange fish. She was unable to properly preserve the specimen, so soon hoped to find another- it didn't happen for thirty years- but then when rewards were offered, fisherman began pulling coelacanths out of the sea rather regularly (considering how long they'd been so hidden). This narrative describes the scramble of scientists and museums to get their hands on coelacanth specimens, and the struggles to procure a live one- even though the fish has an oil-filled organ in lieu of a swim bladder (so it doesn't suffer from decompression when brought up from the great depths where it lives) yet all the coelacanths caught and brought to the surface soon died from the stress and other factors. It was rather stunning to read the description of the first person who built a submersible and was able to dive deep enough to view the coelacanths in their habitat- and find out where they were actually living. There are two known extant populations- one off the Comoros Islands near Madagascar and the other off the coast of Indonesia. (They have different colors- the African coelacanth is dark blue with white markings, and the Indonesian one is brown speckled with gold). When the ancient fish was first discovered the scramble was to procure specimens for study, but then people realized it had a low reproduction rate - giving live birth in small numbers compared to oviparous fishes- and they switched tactics to make fisherman release any coelacanth caught instead of rewarding them for bringing them in. I looked it up and there are still the only the two known populations so it's very rare. Makes you wonder what else is out there, lurking in caves under the ocean, that we don't know about!

The book is pretty engaging, but was a lot about the people involved in the discovery, including political squabbles over who had rights to the first coelacanth specimens- rather than details about the fish itself. I would really like to read some of the firsthand accounts or more about the physiology of the living coelacanth, but this was a really good introduction to the species and its wonders. Here's an article I found about the species (which relates a lot of the same found in this book) with a video of a live coelacanth.
Rating: 3/5                220 pages, 2000

Dec 19, 2020

The Ancestor's Tale

A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution 
by Richard Dawkins 
with Yan Wong

I don't think anything I write can do this book justice. It's staggering in scope, dense with details, mind-expanding and yet surprisingly readable. The premise bases a look at evolution loosely on The Canterbury Tales- the idea being that we time-travel skipping backwards to points where can meet up with common ancestors (the first is shared with chimpanzees) then on down through the ages meeting up with common ancestors of other primates, smaller mammals, fishes, etc etc on down to the one-celled organisms that arose at the dawn of time (and so many of them are still here on earth with us). Calling each chapter something like "The Peacock's Tale" or "The Rotifer's Tale" was a bit of a stretch- these weren't narrative tellings of anything, but very brief descriptions of the varied life forms and then lessons on what they can teach us about how we are all related. About gene transfer and how enzymes build proteins, about divergence and likewise convergence of species, about drifting and inheritance and molecular biology and tons more. I admit I did not understand it all, there were plenty of sections I had to read twice, but I didn't skip anything. Some of the stuff about molecular clocks and the math and chemistry when you get the end chapters about one-celled organisms that existed before plants converted solar energy into what others could consume- well it felt over my head. But there was so much that made me go wow, or sit and think hard, or feel just boggled by the huge swarms of life that we can't even see- like this diagram that shows how all life is related via molecular comparisons? it's got about eight branching groups each with five to eight branches in there- the others are all things like algae, slime moulds, amoebas, fungi and things I don't even know- radiolarians and pelobionts and so on. Plants are one tiny branch. Animals are another- and we are such a tiny fragment of that it's not even visible on the diagram! It is mind-numbing the way that Watchers at the Pond is. One main idea stated here was that we are more closely related- at the molecular level- to some bacteria, than those bacteria are to other bacteria. That's how huge and varied the expanse of life really is.

Some things of wonder in this book: this "brain map" that shows parts of the body in size difference according to how much of the brain is devoted to sensory input from and control of them. On the star-nosed mole biggest are the nose tentacles and then the digging paws. On humans, it's the hands, and only slightly less the facial features especially the mouth (for speaking). Ever wonder why a tiny injury on your hand can hurt so much? well they're so dang sensitive and your brain has so much invested in their control and dexterity. So many things I looked up more about: the bdelloid rotifers which have been reproducing asexually- apparently there are no males- for 40 million years. The trichoplax, a tiny organism only a few cells thick that reveals a lot about early life, and I never knew it existed. The tooth-billed pigeon otherwise known as the little dodo- because it's the only living relative of the dodo and is on the verge of disappearing now, too. The microorganisms that live in termite guts- without them, the termites could not digest cellulose. To those microbes, the termite is the whole world. Who is serving whom in that regard. I thought of all the little things living in my own gut. I thought much more closely about viruses and bacteria near the end of this book.

It was hard to wade through some of the later chapters about the tiny microscopic life forms, simply because all the terminology about them is unfamiliar to me. But I was wowed by the next-to-the-last chapter. I really liked the explanation comparing the spread of fire, to how reproduction can happen without heredity and why that's significant. Also the description of what the atmosphere and basic components on earth were like before oxygen really existed. There were other things that, when a scientist put them all in a vat and left it sitting for a few weeks, turned into a "soup" of biological compounds- which with the right catalyst could spring into life. My husband tells me he's read of an experiment where basic elements were put together and a living cell was made, unlike any other living cell that's existed before. I had no idea. Look up synthetic biology.

And here's another big picture idea- Dawkins tells how many times evolution has come up with specific things- eyes for example, or the power of flight. Very few things have happened only once (there's one bacteria that created a wheel!) So he posits that if most of life were wiped out, it would eventually all arise again- because the basic pieces would still be here- and just like the dinosaurs had all kinds of animals that filled all the niches- some that ate plants others that ate the grazers, some that climbed or flew or ate insects or used sonar in the ocean- the mammals spread to fill them after the dinosaurs were gone. On isolated islands like Madagascar or the continent of Australia, a slightly different form evolved to fill all the niches (think the marsupials). If an asteroid nearly wiped out all life, it would rise again and proliferate into all the diverse forms- maybe not with humans in it, but eventually with something pretty darn close. It's a lot to think about. I will say, I don't feel as much dread of us ending everything with our destructive ways- LIFE will recover again, we just wouldn't be here to see it! ha. And I'm also not quite so leery about GMO's either, if the commonality of genes between all living things like Dawkins outlines in here, is what I understood from it. We are all interrelated, much closer than you'd imagine.

No way is this even a fraction of what I gleaned from this book. I borrowed a copy to read from my brother in-law, but I'd sure like to have this in my own library someday. Maybe the newer edition, which I gather has a few updated chapters.

Rating: 4/5                      671 pages, 2004

Dec 13, 2020

Whimsy the Talking Pony

by Sandy Duval 

     Cute story about Jamie, a boy on a ranch who gets a pony for his birthday. Rather like in Summer Pony, he brings home a thin, scruffy pony with overgrown hooves, even though his father urges him to pick out one of the many well-groomed and healthier horses. This is because he feels sure he heard the pony talking to him at the auction ring, urging him to buy it. It's long hard work to get his pony in shape so meanwhile another kid at the neighboring ranch teases him about having acquired a useless pony. Jamie is further frustrated when he can't coax the pony to talk again, until he's almost certain he dreamed it. He didn't- it just doesn't want to talk unless there's a real need. Well, eventually the pony's feet are in better condition and he can ride- so they go on secret night-time adventures. They find a herd of wild horses that the pony originally came from (with a lame explanation for why the pony can talk). The wild horses are finding it difficult to live because ranches surrounding them are fencing off the best pastures and watering places. So Jamie and his pony lead the herd to a safer place- with the help of the kid next door, who gets in on the secret, and Jamie's parents (who don't). Spoiler! I kind of liked that in the end, things aren't perfect for Jamie- the pony goes back to live with the wild horses. But the closing page has Jamie at the auction with his dad again to buy another pony, one that winks at him, suggesting he'll soon have a new equine friend.

This little book was a fun read on a rather dull day, but it's not a keeper for me. While the story has a lot of nice elements (including some realistic equine behavior and details on their care), the whole thing feels rather awkward and unpolished- the pacing, the dialog, even the illustrations. I'm sorry to sound harsh, but it feels like a book written by a high school student, or by a parent for their kid's amusement, rather than one that went through publishing avenues. Although considering the age group (early middle grade) it's aimed at, I doubt young readers would notice anything about the quality. 

Rating: 2/5                100 pages, 1980

Dec 12, 2020

The Field of the Dogs

by Katherine Patterson 

    I was kind of surprised that two books I read as interlude to a hefty doorstopper, had lots of similarities. Both feature animals that can talk to a kid, who gets subtle help from them in dealing with an unpleasant relationship. In this case, Josh has many unpleasantries to deal with- his family has just moved, there's a new baby and a stepfather in the house, and a kid at school picks on him. He's not used to the deep snow and cold of Vermont, and the other kids call him "Flatlander". One day he trails his dog to an empty field where it romps with some other neighborhood dogs. He's surprised to hear the dogs talking to each other, although when he confronts them about it, they just wag their tails and pretend ignorance. Josh soon finds out that his dog and its buddies have a problem with a gang of bigger dogs threatening them. He hatches a plan to solve both his problem with school bullies, and scare off the bigger dogs- but it involves sneaking his stepfather's gun out of the house, which he's forbidden to touch. Although the same in length, this book is much more serious than the pony one. Fair warning: there's dog fights and other injuries that occur. I was a tad disappointed at some lack of depth- for example, when Josh helps take his dog to the vet, she tsks at how many dogs have been getting hurt lately, and tells him how to care for the wound at home, but there's no description of her inspecting or cleaning it herself! I found omissions of some detail like that odd. But it's still a good story. I also liked that the dog isn't suddenly talking all over the place and making plans with the kid. Even though the dog knows that Josh knows- he still keeps to just ordinary dog behavior most of the time, not acting otherwise unless really compelled to.

Rating: 3/5                   99 pages, 2001

Dec 11, 2020

cathedral rock, Arizona

504 pieces, made by Encore. Unlike most of my puzzles, this one is scenery. It was included free when I bought the labrador puzzle. It's rather old- or feels so to me. The pieces are very small, very loose and all the same shape. Several times I had a piece in the wrong spot which threw me off. The sky was difficult. It wasn't until the area of putting together dirt and grass that I felt "in the zone" of puzzling. 
At the end I discovered why it was free. Two missing pieces. Bah. So I made a patch- just for the heck of it, as I'm not keeping this one. Thin cardboard, pencil, small sharp scissors, colored pencils and packing tape burnished.
Not precise, but they do blend in. Here in the puzzle, before and after coloring:
I think I did a rather good job, as my husband and kids all had trouble finding the substitute pieces in the finished puzzle. Last time I patched a jigsaw was the row of kittens. This was harder as the pieces are much smaller.
Finally, here's the assembly sequence (click for larger view):

Dec 9, 2020

Jonathan Livingston Seagull

by Richard Bach 

     On the heels of Argen the Gull I felt like revisiting Jonathan Livingston Seagull, especially since I knew I could read it in one sitting. It was a brief but lovely sitting. I had forgotten how very short it is (half the book is pictures of gulls, very nice pictures too although many are blurred to the point of abstraction). I must've read this five or six times somewhere between ten years old and college age, I was so taken by it. Younger me loved this book. Older me- well, I rolled my eyes a few times, then shrugged and just enjoyed it for what it is.

It's an allegory on religion or philosophy- some parts feel very much like Jonathan Seagull is supposed to be a messiah figure, other parts he's suddenly transcending space and time, talking of previous lives that led into this one, so- reincarnation? But the overall message is simply: be true to yourself. Strive for what you love to do best, and be kind while you're at it. At least, that's what I got. On the surface, it's a story about a seagull who wants to fly higher and faster, push himself beyond the limits. When the others are searching for food, he's out blazing around in steep dives over a hundred miles an hour (how a gull clocks his own speed is beyond me, but hey, one of the things you just have to shrug off). His antics get him banned from the flock, who have rules of conduct and a leader (not at all how gulls actually live, shrug again). Jonathan Seagull is shunned for being different. He flies away to perfect his aerial stunts by himself, and then finds other seagulls, though few in number, who also love flying just for the sake of flying. He joyfully strives to learn more with them. Then one day decides to go back to the old flock and see if there's anyone else stuck where he had been so long ago. He thinks of how much faster he would have progressed, if he'd had a mentor then. And starts teaching some eager young gulls his specialized flying skills, right in front of the disbelieving flock . . . 

Some of the far-out-there ideas in this book: death is just a shift to a different level of consciousness. You can transcend the limits of your body simply by putting your mind to it. Seagulls can communicate telepathically and instantly travel through space and time! But I still really like a lot of the rest of it. Bits like this: 
His vows of a moment before were forgotten, swept away... Yet he felt guiltless, breaking the promises he had made himself. Such promises are only for the gulls that accept the ordinary. One who has touched excellence in his learning has no need of that kind of promise. 

If our friendship depends on things like space and time, then when we finally overcome space and time, we've destroyed our own brotherhood! But overcome space, and all we have left is Here. Overcome time, and all we have left is Now. And in the middle of Here and Now, don't you think that we might see each other once or twice?

You will begin to touch heaven, Jonathan, in the moment that you touch perfect speed. And that isn't flying a thousand miles an hour, or a million, or flying at the speed of light. Because any number is a limit, and perfection doesn't have limits. Perfect speed- is being there. [this is where he learned to move from one place to the next in a blink]
Heavily colored with nostalgia for me, of course. If today was the first time I were reading this, well I don't know what I'd think. If you've read the book, go look at the reviews on LibraryThing, you have to read the one that posits Jonathan Livingston Seagull being on Oprah. It's absolutely hilarious. I laughed so hard.

Rating: 4/5            93 pages, 1970

More opinions:

Dec 8, 2020

Argen the Gull

by Franklin Russell 

     There is not a single word of dialog in this book. Yet it is overwhelmingly full of sound- the birds scream, gurgle, choke, mutter and mew at each other. They communicate even more strongly with gestures- stretching tall to threaten, hunching down submissively, flattening their feathers in fear. Frequently launching outright attacks with stabbing beaks and flailing wings. Especially the protagonist, a herring gull named Argen who lives mostly around an estuary on the edge of an unnamed ocean. After his short period as a nestling dependent on his parents, and a few years spent exploring the area while learning how to find various food sources, he asserted himself against the other gulls with such an aggressive drive to gain food and live, that he was often described as being full of rage against the other birds. This story is not at all a pretty picture of nature. The gulls are scavengers and hunters- they squabble and steal from each other, smash shellfish, grab herring and smelt from the sea, pull apart carcasses found on shore (the aftermath of storms was a time of plenty for a seagull) and even pillage eggs and hatchlings from rookeries- including their own- in times of hunger. Any opportunity was taken. 

I thought the narrative- all from the viewpoint of one gull as he grows, learns from experience and observation driven by instinct, and makes his way through the world- would have a lot about raising the young, that his strong demeanor would soften when he fed his own chicks- but actually that's just a brief thing- it describes the urge he feels to find a mate, return to the offshore island when they breed, and the ceaseless to-and-fro bringing food to the offspring, but not any tender feelings for them. Well, I should have expected that by the time I got so far. Not all his breeding years are successful- sometimes other birds kill his young, or the weather is too cold, and once there is a famine. But there are many good years, and with three different partners he has through his long life, Argen raises many young gulls successfully. 

Overwhelmingly through this book is the power and sensation of the elements, the huge forces that sweep across the shores- changes in weather and currents that affect all the living things in a cascading effect. The swarms of other seabirds, fishes, shrimps and myriad tiny things in the surf and across the sand wax and wane. Argen witnesses a whale being killed by ocras one time, sees ducks dragged down by seals, evades hawks, eagles and falcons, and one year survives an injury to his wing that sends him creeping through the marsh to hide- a strange environment for him. I honestly though at some point I was going to start finding this account a bit tiresome- but at the end of each chapter I would turn another page and keep on reading- wrapped into the tides, the pushing winds, the blinding sun rising over the edge of the winking water. It's pretty incredible how well the author conveys the powerful forces of nature, with the life of one relatively small but definitely fierce creature thriving in it- until finally he reaches old age (for a bird) and time stretches differently, things that once filled him with passion simply don't anymore, and things wind to an end. It was very moving.

Rating: 4/5                      240 pages, 1964

Dec 6, 2020

Gull Number 737

by Jean Craighead George 

     Luke spends summers with his family in a small building on an island beach, where his father does research on seagull behavior. In particular, he's attempting to recreate experiments done by Dutch scientist Niko Tinbergen, to show that the birds have the same instinctive behavior in completely different areas of the world. I found this particularly delightful, as I've read Tinbergen's book myself, remember it very well and knew exactly what they were talking about. Luke's father is adamant about doing his studies scientifically and collecting enough data- which means repeating the same thing over and over. Luke himself gets frustrated with the tedium of the work, and sees different things in the birds' behavior that he wants to explore, but his dad gets angry and dismissive, sees this as a distraction and doesn't want to go into those other ideas. Luke also has a difficult relationship with his sister, jealous that when she gets a job on a lobster boat against their father's wishes, he lets her go ahead and keep working there, while Luke is forced to continue helping with the gull research. He chafes under his father's rule and wants to find another avenue for himself. Yet at the same time he finds himself becoming fond of certain individual seagulls and interested in their daily doings (some chapters are from the gulls' point of view, which is nice). When the summer winds down his father can't find anyone who will fund continuation of their study, and the reluctant decision is made to close the bird lab. Luke is surprised that he's actually disappointed their summers at the gull rookery might end.

The final chapters take a sudden turn when an accident at a local airport is caused by seagulls and other birds that frequent the airfield (and a man they know from the island was on board, making it very personal). Suddenly his father's knowledge of seagull behavior is in demand, as the airport authorities try to solve their bird problem. Luke gets to see first hand how the research material can be of use in the real world, although he still is at odds with his father, as they have different ideas on what the best solution is.

This book was pretty wonderful. I don't think I've ever read another juvenile fiction that had such a clear picture of field research work before- including the difference between applied and basic research, the struggles to obtain funding, the long boring hours of observation when nothing happens. It's also rather dated- sometimes in a quaint way. I can't imagine a teenager being allowed to just wander through an airport and go up into the traffic control tower! The sister gets roundly chastised for saying a mild swear word at the dinner table (her parents dramatically blame the rough compnay on the lobster boat as a bad influence) and the main character's attitude towards girls- especially his own sister- are rather demeaning even though he means it kindly. I didn't find this bothersome though, it just reminded me soundly of the timeframe.

Rating: 4/5                198 pages, 1964

Dec 5, 2020

The Silent Miaow

a Manual for Kittens, Strays, and Homeless Cats 
translated from the Feline 
by Paul Gallico

      A book from the cat's perspective which details how a one may successfully take over and run a human household to their own liking. When done skillfully, the humans won't even realize this is happening. It's all about clever, subtle manipulation, making the humans think they're getting their own way, while really they end up doing everything to the cat's desire. It's more smug and self-assured in tone than The Devious Book for Cats, and very charmingly illustrated with professional photographs of a cat in her home by Suzanne Szasz. It doesn't at all feel outdated, except maybe for a few remarks on the nature of men and women. The feline advice is on things like: getting people to serve what you want to eat, claiming your own chair, making it a given that you will sleep on the bed, dealing with travel and visits to the veterinarian, coaxing the man of the house to give you tidbits from the dinner table, how to treat unwelcome houseguests, making sure doors will be opened for you, training humans to recognize your different miaows (including the voiceless one which must be used very strategically), what poses and attitudes are most becoming to win people's admiration, making the holiday fuss all about you, and finally- if you happen to have dalliance with a tomcat and become a mother- how to properly pass on these lessons to your offspring so that they, too, may acquire and influence a human household. There are also remarks which let you that know in spite of her calm sense of superiority, the cat behind this book obviously loves her humans as well. 

There's more, but really you should have the delight of reading them for yourself! so I will stop here. I still remember very clearly when I first saw this book on my great aunt's shelf. I read it once during a visit there and ever after longed for my own copy. How thrilled I was to finally find one- many years ago now but I think I came across it in a used bookstore. I am sure anyone who loves cats would be charmed by this book, and the photographs, while all black-and-white, are so perfectly composed with precise focus and contrast, you almost forget there's no color to them. 

Rating: 5/5                 160 pages, 1964

Dec 4, 2020

The Cats of Lamu

the Feral Cats of an Exotic African Island
by Jack Couffer

     It was lovely to re-visit this book. I would not change one word of what I said on it eleven years ago. Delightful and intriguing account of a study on feral cats the author delved into while living as an expat on Lamu Island (off the coast of Kenya). What I found more interesting this time around, that I don't think I mentioned before: more tidbits of culture, like how the author felt he had to hire a housekeeper and then a cook, because that's simply how it was done on the island. The letter he includes that his housekeeper wrote to him when he was back living in America, is so different in syntax it takes concentration to read as if the person who wrote it thinks in different patterns.

The mention of how islanders interacted with the cats, even thought at first it was assumed most were wild and untouchable. A few would let themselves be petted, or even rub against people in greeting. One man once gave a beach cat a bath in the sea "because he looked dirty". Several people he found out sheltered dozens of cats in their homes- one old woman routinely fed about forty of them in her three-room house. Also at the village school, some fifty cats were regularly fed and hung out all the time, sitting among the children- which surprised the author when he discovered it, and a few photos showing the cats among the boys are just charming. There's mention of the island donkeys that provide nearly all transport and load-carrying, as the streets are too narrow for cars. There are bats- both insect-eaters and frugivores. 

I loved a description of kids on the beach making toys out of palm fronds that skidded across the sand, pushed by the wind, how a kitten pounced on one repeatedly. And of course, all the little observations of the cats' lives in their various groups- some claim the beach, others live at the dump, yet others in town where they get regular handouts. They fight for status, court each other, some move from one group to another. Kittens are born and raised, hierarchy shifts when an older male dies. Many hours just spent in quiet companionship, the cats sitting together, or each in its little patch of shade spaced evenly apart. They often go about their own affairs, where the author couldn't follow (through strangers' gardens and private courtyards), much of their lives remaining a mystery that he tried to piece together. Beautiful photographs. 

Though relatively brief, the book spans many years, and he mentions at the end how things have changed from when they first moved to Lamu. I can only assume it has changed even more since then. Yet it looks such a timeless place in the pictures, the ancient-looking cats strolling independent on the beaches under the bluest sky.
Rating: 4/5                  156 pages, 1998