Jun 28, 2020


by R.J. Palacio

Ten-year old Auggie starts fifth grade after years of being homeschooled. He was born with severe facial anomalies that required years of surgery- and his appearance is still so disfigured that strangers often recoil in horror or shock on seeing him- even if they're trying not to. He's used to the stares and remarks, but understandably gets frustrated because on the inside he feels totally normal. He's smart, funny, sometimes whiny and stubborn. Going to school is hard. Some kids are nice or polite to his face, but say things behind his back. Others are outright rude and mean. One particular kid tries to turn the whole student body against Auggie, making up a game where anyone who accidentally touches him is contaminated. Sounds really juvenile, but it's very hurtful. Auggie does find a few real friends, and in a nice surprising turn of events (nice because I thought it would turn out much worse), draws even more good friends to his side when at a school outing he's harassed by some older kids. Meanwhile his parents are trying to avoid being overprotective, his older sister is dealing with her own issues at high school and some resentment at all the attention Auggie gets- the extra care and support from her parents, and the negatives she fears from her peers. I wasn't expecting the book to have alternate viewpoints- from those of Auggie's friends, his sister, the sister's boyfriend, etc. It was nicely done and showed a lot of empathy for how Auggie's condition affects all those around him. And how his humor and spirit inspires them. I did find the closing scenes with the speeches a bit- overdone- but some very nice sentiment. A book I'll gladly put into my kid's hands.

I found out there's a sequel Auggie and Me, which tells the story from three alternate viewpoints- a childhood friend and two classmates- which I'd very much like to find at my library (now open again!)

Rating: 4/5           315 pages, 2012

more opinions:
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Jun 25, 2020

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

Finished this one yesterday and had to organizing my thoughts around it. It's about a black woman from a small town in Virginia (now unincorporated) who died of cancer in the fifties. Samples of her tumor were taken and the cells continued to multiply in the lab indefinitely (usually cell samples loose vitality after a certain number of divisions have occurred). This was a huge thing for not only cancer research- enabling studies that had been difficult before- but also, it turns out, a mind-boggling amount of other types of research. Henrietta's cells became known as the HeLa cell line, and were involved in erradicating polio, mapping genes, testing effects of radiation, developing an HPV vaccine and much more. The doctor and researchers who first took and grew the cells in culture gave them away freely to any other researcher who wanted them- free dissemination of knowledge and materials helped science expand. But since then, the cell line has been produced in labs and sold to researchers in staggering quantities as a medical industry. 

During all this time, Henrietta's family knew nothing about what happened to their mother's cancer cells. Some of them barely knew what a cell was. It was twenty years after her death when they first heard that not only had a sample been taken of her tumor, but that it had been so widely used in medical research, with some huge profits (for some). Meanwhile her family and descendants couldn't even afford doctor visits. The author worked very hard to meet the family, hear their story, and educate them on what had happened. She took Henrietta's daughter -who had no memory of her own mother- with her on reporting trips to find out what had happened to her sister, Henrietta's oldest daughter who had been sent to an institution at a young age, for example. To the labs in John Hopkins where she saw her mother's living cells in a vial and under the microscope lens. They read articles that had been written about her mother's cancer cells, and found original medical records that finally revealed to the family how Henrietta had been treated during her cancer treatment (she suffered a lot). Needless to say, although it provided a lot of closure and answered tons of questions the daughter and other family members had about their mother's life, it also caused them much pain to learn some things. 

This book is so full. It's about Henrietta's life, and the lives of other poor black people in the forties and fifties, how deplorably they were sometimes treated by the medical community (often viewed as free research subjects). It's about how the family is doing fifty years later, their strengths and their struggles. It's about the efforts the author had to make to learn all that was put into this book, the personal journey and discoveries. It's about how medical research works, pointing out quite clearly that tissue samples are still taken from patients on a regular basis, often without their knowledge or consent, building an immense database of material for researchers to work with. And how it could all fall apart if suddenly the research community had to throw those samples away, or had a dearth of material if people were given the right to refuse their tissues being kept and used in that way. This hit home for me, because not so long ago one of my children was participating in an outpatient program via a hospital. Part of the consent form includes this: 
Use of Biological Samples. During your care at the facility, biological samples . . . might be collected from you for the purposes of your care. Sometimes, after your visit there might be excess or leftover biological samples no longer needed for your care. These samples are usually discarded. However, sometimes these samples might be used for research within our hospitals and occasionally made available to researchers. . . The research can help answer questions about the causes of diseases, how to prevent them, or even how to treat them. Please note that for this kind of research, (i) there might be no practical way to inform you about the details or results of the research.... (ii) generally, no results on tests performed on your samples during the research can be returned to you or entered into your health record. (iii) it is not likely that you will directly benefit from the research, and (iv) there are no plans to compensate or recognize you for use of your samples or any discoveries made during the research. When these samples are used in this manner, your privacy is safeguarded consistent with applicable federal and state privacy laws.
So I knew this, and I was okay with it, because what else am I going to do, refuse treatment? The huge thing here is, back when a sample was taken from Henrietta Lacks, there were no laws in place protecting her privacy- the samples were marked with an abbreviation of her name, and eventually someone leaked the name to a journalist. The terrible thing is the manner in which the family found out- it was literally a shock to them- and then there's the great disparity between how much money was generated by growth and sales of the HeLa cells, and the poverty Henrietta's family continued to live in. To many people, this doesn't seem right. I feel like a lot of these things never should have happened, but then what about all the great strides science made thanks to those very cells. When Henrietta's daughter and other family members realized what it meant, how greatly those immortal cancer cells had contributed to science, they were rightfully proud. 

I could say so much more, but really you should read the book. Highly recommended.
Rating: 4/5             2010

Jun 23, 2020


Cadfael series by Ellis Peters- Read Warbler
The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater- SmallWorld Reads
Among Others by Jo Walton- Shelf Love
Catfishing on Catnet by Naomi Kritzer- Reading the End
Finna by Nino Cipri- A Bookish Type
The Lost Man by Jane Harper- Bookfoolery
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah- SmallWorld Reads
Weather by Jenny Offill- A Bookish Type
In the Dream House by Carmen Machado- Sophisticated Dorkiness
Highfire by Eoin Colfer- Rhapsody in Books
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee- SmallWorld Reads
Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See- SmallWorld Reads
Pomegranate Soup by Marsha Mehran- Last Book I Read
A Hundred Suns by Karin Tanabe- Bermudaonion
Nature's Best Hope by Douglas Tallamy- Bookfoolery
Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Wang- Sophisticated Dorkiness
Eating the Sun by Oliver Morton
Orphaned by Eliot Schrefer- Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb- S. Dorkiness
Smacked by Eilene Zimmerman- C Bookbinder
The Earth in Her Hands by Jennifer Jewell- Farmer Pam
Forest by Sonya Hartnett- Thistle-Chaser
The Last Light Breaking by Nick Jans- Bookfoolery
Places I've Cried in Public by Holly Bourne- Curiosity Killed the Bookworm
The Book of Koli by M.R. Carey- Musings of Bookish Kitty
Without Expiration by William Hincy- Read Warbler
Notes from a Public Typewriter by Gustafson Uberti- Bermudaonion Weblog
Thin Girls by Diana Clarke- A Bookish Type
You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat- A Bookish Type
My Penguin Year by Lindsay McCrae- Melody's Reading Corner
Benefits of Breathing by Christopher Meeks- Book Chase

Jun 19, 2020

Me Talk Pretty One Day

by David Sedaris

This was better. I actually laughed aloud a few times near the end- the part where he's newly moved to France, trying to learn the language, very funny. All the pieces in here are short- some a decent chapter, others only two or three pages long. In the beginning he talks about having speech therapy as a child for a lisp, taking unwanted music lessons, and some pets his family had; also more about his relationship with his father (who hoards spoiling food in disgusting ways). Later essays are from adult years- being disappointed by the fancy food in NY restaurants, working as a furniture mover, teaching a college writing workshop when he's not really qualified or prepared, and overhearing American tourists loudly criticize his appearance (in France, after he's lived there a while, and of course they don't realize he speaks English. He muses over different ways he will embarrass them with a final revelation that he understood all- and then does nothing). The only two parts I really didn't like were the section where he goes through a phase of creating "performance art" under the influence of drugs, and the very last bit where he's daydreaming wild scenarios of fame during bouts of insomnia. Well overall it was a curious and amusing read. Quirky is a good word. Not a keeper though; if I feel like trying more Sedaris I'll make sure to check it out from the library.

Rating: 3/5                   272 pages, 2000

Jun 18, 2020

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls

by David Sedaris

This one- was not funny, to me. I know a lot of it is sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek or exaggerated, but it was often either so bizarre, distasteful or just plain weird I didn't find it amusing. The short fiction essays in between longer chapters that were from different viewpoints really threw me off at first. Until I went back to the beginning and read the author's note. I got it, but I didn't laugh. More like cringed. The parts about living in France and the UK as an American, that was interesting. And those of his childhood, how it was a different era- stricter in some ways, and more lenient in others- and the difficult relationship he had with his father (especially when his dad constantly admired another kid on the swim team, causing streaks of jealousy and resentment that were not at all understood). Reading how he caught small wild animals and kept them as pets- particularly the sea turtles- was distressing. Of course it wasn't illegal back then, but the lack of concern when the animals clearly weren't doing well . . . Reading how as a teen he wanted to have a black girlfriend apparently just to shock people- made me uncomfortable. His views on politics, health care and the discomforts of air travel- well I share some of those but it felt tiresome. I did like the part where he fed a kookaburra outside a restaurant in Australia- fascinating tidbit. The owl story is one of those weird ones- so strange it must be true, how could you make that up. He was trying to find an owl as a gift for his boyfriend, and the taxidermist showed him some preserved human parts. Creepy. There's nothing to do with diabetes btw. I guess he thought the title would grab attention, and it surely did. Even though he makes the sedative effects sound blissful, his description of having a colonoscopy doesn't really make me look forward to ever having one myself. I'm glad he picked up trash along the road around his cottage in West Sussex, but I'm not sure the essay about it was so interesting. Overall this book is quirky, it definitely catches your interest- how strange and icky and plain senseless life can be- but just not terribly funny, which is what I was kinda expecting from the last Sedaris I read.

Rating: 2/5               275 pages, 2013

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Jun 17, 2020

At Crossroads with Chickens

by Tory McCagg

Subtitled: A "What If It Works?" Adventure in Off-Grid Living and Quest for Home. The author and her husband lived in Rhode Island and bought some land in New Hampshire where they built a solar-powered house for vacation use, where they end up living full-time. I was interested to read this book because keeping chickens is something I aspire to - and I admire off-the-grid living but don't know if I'll ever do so (it sounds like a lot of work). The chickens don't show up in this book until about page 50. A lot of it is actually backstory- where the couple came from, how they met, how she grew up and that formed her world. Struggles they had, not only with building and maintaining the house on a windy hillside up a long winding rough road but also in their relationship, in their feeling of responsibility towards the Earth, and in a very personal way, the author watching her parents grow older and face death. The story of her father's passing very sad. Reading about her mother's progressing difficulties living with Parkinson's disease also very sad. Even keeping the chickens- which began as an effort to only eat "happy eggs" from chickens that had been raised well and treated humanely- had its sad moments. In spite of trying to only buy or adopt chicks that were female, they ended up with more than one rooster. (They let a hen hatch her own eggs too). Sometimes they were able to find another farm that needed a rooster for their flock, but they also once went through the process of slaughtering their extra roosters for food- emotionally difficult after knowing those chickens so well, their personalities and little struggles and triumphs over the years. Of course they also lost some chickens to natural causes- taken by hawks and other predators, and quite a few died of cancer (a vet did autopsies for them). But there are glad moments too, and wonderful ones, and bright humor. For example, their first rooster considered everything outside his domain, and would attack the husband whenever he went out to work on the building project. He figured out how to deflect these attacks, and it was hilarious!

It feels a bit scattered at times- the book's focus is their whole life, their view on things, what that came from, how it grows and changes just as much as anything. Ongoing concern for the environment, personal efforts to live better, have a lighter footprint on the earth, and struggles to reconcile other things they can't, or won't, change about their lives. No, it's not just chickens. They are a central part though, once you get through the beginning.

I received an ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating 3/5               191 pages, 2020

Jun 15, 2020

Animal Heroes

by Ernest Thompson Seton

Fair warning: there are a lot of SPOILERS in this post. I tell what happens because I think many readers would like to know ahead of time that A LOT OF ANIMALS DIE in these tales. Akin to Jack London's writings, there's plenty of fighting and mistreatment. Seton claims that his animal stories are based on fact, however I assume they are embellished with detail. Not quite sure how all the animal protagonists qualify as 'heroes' yet they are compelling stories. I actually started reading this one right after The Triumph of Seeds, but then between each story in this volume, I picked up another book as follows:

"The Slum Cat"- life of an alley cat, with remarkably pretty markings. At first the story is just about the cat's life, how it grows up, daily search for food, avoiding bigger meaner cats, etc. Then the cat starts hanging around what sounds like a disreputable shop that sells pet birds. The seller comes up with an idea to fob off the alley cat as a rare pedigreed import at a local fancy cat show. Everyone is taken in, and the cat gets sold to a wealthy family, who do some remarkable mental gymnastics to excuse every ill-mannered and anti-social behavior the cat exhibits in their nice home. The cat is well-fed and pampered but hates it all and longs to return to its alley. Eventually it escapes and makes its way back home. Story doesn't quite end there, though! After this one I read Maverick Cats.

"Arnaux" is about a homing pigeon. The bird lives in a loft that appears to have multiple owners- and the story describes how the pigeons are kept and flown. Different from nowadays (which I only know from reading a general nonfiction book on pigeons). The birds must have excellent navigational skills, endurance and smarts, to make it home again. There's one bit where a pigeon takes a message to get help for a ship stranded at sea, but most of it is about regular homing pigeon races. One bird is less attractive and smaller than the rest, but the fastest racer in the loft. In part of the story this bird gets captured and shut into a different loft on his way home- by a fancier who doesn't intend to actually steal him, but to breed him and then let him go again. He ends up staying in the strange loft for years before escaping and heading straight on home again. But then the pigeon meets a sudden and cruel end. I'm sure Seton just means to show how life is not always kind and fair, but still, you might not want to read this story to a sensitive child. Following this one I read A Pigeon and a Boy.

"Badlands Billy: the Wolf That Won" is about a large wolf that preys on cattle so hunters are always after him. The first part of the story tells how he grows up as a pup, looses his mother and is raised by another wolf, his foster-siblings die from poisoning so then he gets all the milk and grows larger than most. Looses his foster mother at the hand of man as well but is old enough to fend for himself. Soon gains the attention of men from killing cattle- the second half of the story is mostly from human viewpoint, how they hunt down the wolf with dog packs. In this one the wolf is victor, but still it's unsettling to read how all the dogs are killed by the wolf (the author warns you ahead of time this is coming, in case you want to stop reading!) Not one of my favorites. After this one I read Flight of the White Wolf.

"The Boy and the Lynx"- there's a boy visiting some friends (a young man and his two sisters) who live in a small cabin in northern Canada. Out in the middle of the forest. Kid has gone there to recuperate his health, and is having a fine time until they all get ill. (The description of the fever and chills they suffered reminded me instantly of a scene in Little House on the Prairie). Completely debilitated by the illness, they're all mostly bedridden and start to run out of food. At the same time there's a lynx living nearby, has a den with two kittens. The lynx is near starving because rabbit population has crashed. Lynx starts coming to the cabin to steal chickens, and then gets bolder. The boy has seen the lynx a few times in the forest, but now weak and sick he has a hard time recognizing the fierce animal that comes into the cabin to eat the food off their table at night. There's a final confrontation, and even though it escapes alive, the lynx gets the worst of it in the end. The final scene in this story is very grim, and probably also very realistic. I couldn't stop picturing it. I don't have a book on my shelf specifically about lynx or even a bobcat, so next I read Wild Cats.

"Little Warhorse"- When I first glanced through the table of contents, thought this was about a wild horse. Nope, it's a jackrabbit. One larger, faster, smarter than all the rest. The rabbit has his speed and hiding places and quick maneuvers to evade dogs and coyotes that chase it. But then humans hold a rabbit drive. The whole town gathers to beat the shrubbery and drive all the wild rabbits into a kind of corral. Hundreds are simply slaughtered, but those that catch people's eye are set aside and taken to use in greyhound coursing. Which usually means the dogs kill the rabbits, while people on the sidelines are betting on the dogs. Our jackrabbit excels here, too- outrunning the dogs time and time again, gaining admiration from the crowd who dub him Warhorse. The rabbit man (whose job is to take care of jackrabbits that haven't been used yet) argues that Warhorse has earned his freedom. The dog people all want to pit their greyhounds against him, so they agree on a set number of matches after which if the jackrabbit is still alive, it can be set free. The rabbit gets holes punched in his ears to mark each race won. But then they argue for more races, because other people are now eager to pit their dogs against this rabbit too. Rabbit man gets into a fight over it. So in this one the main animal character survives in the end, but a ton of his fellow rabbits died for sport. The Adventures of Peter Cottontail was my next read.

"Snap: the Story of a Bull-Terrier"- man owns a fierce little bull-terrier dog that is vicious to everyone. It took him a week to earn the dog's trust. He's the only one who can handle it safely, and the dog is always super eager to fight any other dog it meets. Man visits a cattle ranch on business and goes along on some wolf hunts; the ranchers are no longer allowed to poison wolves so track them down to mitigate livestock losses, but their dogs won't actually grapple with the wolf. They have foxhounds to trail the scent, greyhounds to chase, and great danes and wolfhounds to close in the fight- these dogs working together can get coyotes but not the wolf. So the main character brings his bull-terrier along. It is slower than the other dogs (having shorter legs) but once upon the wolf, dives into the fight without hesitation. The men are glad to finally kill a wolf, and admire the bull-terrier's bravery, but the dog takes serious injuries. Sorry to say this is another one where the animal dies. I read a juvenile fiction book called Grip: a Dog Story next and that was a very fit pairing.

"The Winnipeg Wolf" is about a wolf that's taken from its den when its mother and littermates are all killed for bounty. The young wolf is chained up outside a saloon where people amuse themselves by setting their dogs on him and poking him with sticks. A bratty child flees his irate father into the wolf's shelter, and instead of attacking the animal defends him. Soon the boy and the wolf are stout companions, even though the wolf is always tied up. Eventually it gets free, is harrassed by people and chased by dogs, but never caught again. When the kid gets sick and dies from a fever, the lonely wolf hangs around town, never leaving into the wilderness. It continues to hate men and dogs but never will harm children. However the townsmen enjoy pitting their dogs against the wolf, over and over until there's a final fight with a whole scrum of dogs against the one wolf. Guess how it ends. After this one I read The Dog with Yellow Eyes.

"Legend of the White Reindeer"- I don't quite know what to say about this one. It's set in Norway, about a white reindeer which is born in a herd that is annually inspected by men to pick animals out for training to pull sleds. The white reindeer is big and strong (it fought off a wolverine as a yearling, with the help of its mother), so of course attracts attention. It is taken into captivity and trained, but retains its fierceness and will turn on any man that mistreats it. A lot of this story was a jumble to me though- there were so many unfamiliar place names and foreign terms I had trouble following it. At one point there are races, of reindeer and horses respectively, and the white reindeer does so well it is put in a race against the fastest horse. Then there's a lot of doings among men it seems there was a misunderstanding and someone was going to turn traitor- the white reindeer was harnessed to take him carrying a message but instead of going where he was supposed to the reindeer ran off into the wilderness up a steep trail he'd often followed as a young free animal, and they were both lost in a storm, never heard of again. Which was beneficial to the country. I didn't get it. 

Well, in spite of all the dismal treatment animals get in these stories, and the brutal fights, nevertheless I found them engaging and lively, with wonderful descriptions. Seton just is a darn good storyteller. Except for the last about the reindeer, they all stuck in my head vividly. Really like the illustrations, too. I think my favorite was probably "Slum Cat."

Rating: 3/5                   362 pages, 1901

The Dog with Golden Eyes

by Frances Wilbur

Thirteen-year-old Cassie is lonely and miserable. She gets teased about her weight, her best friend started hanging out with other girls, her parents are split and she suspects her mom is dating a new man. She feels like her mom criticizes her too much and at one point thinks of just running away. Then a big white dog shows up in her backyard. She starts feeding it, thinking it can become her pet. Does odd jobs for neighbors to earn money for dog food. Reads books about dogs from the school library, but "her" dog doesn't seem to fit any of the descriptions. Then a teacher loans her a book about wolves (it's Of Wolves and Men!) and she is shocked to find that the dog might actually be an arctic wolf. Now Cassie feels she has even more problems: what's a wolf doing in her neighborhood? can she really tame and keep it? is somebody looking for it?

I really liked some things about this book, and had issues with others. It's a very nice, refreshing depiction of wolves in a book for kids. Like Flight of the White Wolf, the animal's behavior is realistic and bucks stereotypes; in this case it highlights how friendly the wolf can be after it finally trusts Cassie, how mischievous and independent and also destructive, when at one point she coaxes it into the house. I liked that Cassie showed some character development, and it was rather subtle- she overcomes her shyness to find work, realizes she misjudged some people in her life, starts to socialize more with a kid at school, and even looses weight (taking long walks uphill with the wolf). However the writing style is rather flat and simple, and some aspects of the story I felt were way too obvious, as if put in there just to make a point. It really bothered me that when Cassie is upset about her mother going to dinner with a man and feels her problems are overwhelming, she briefly thinks of suicide- because she'd heard a kid at school had done so the year before. The idea was immediately dismissed, but I found that upsetting: WHY throw that detail in there, if you're going to deal with it so casually? it didn't really fit in the story (the running away idea made more sense). The writing seems aimed at middle grade readers, but then the themes are much more mature- especially that one mention of suicide.

But it's a great story about a wolf. And the ending has some heightened drama which will appeal to kids- of course there are people with guns coming after the wolf (first hunters - including one of the girl's classmates - then police). There's an animal control office who chats with Cassie throughout the book, interested in catching the wolf to give to someone who trains wild animals. And then it looks like Cassie might actually track down the real owners- because this is obviously a wolf that's already been socialized to people. It has a good ending. Which is really nice after all the Ernest Thompson Seton I've been reading (see the next post).

Rating: 3/5                       193 pages, 1998

Jun 14, 2020

Grip: a Dog Story

by Helen Griffiths

Even though this is juvenile fiction, and has a rather somber subject matter, I found it an excellent read. The characters were totally believable, the plot had unexpected turns that put them in difficult situations, nothing is black-and-white, especially the moral issues. It's about dog fighting. This boy grows up in an unloving home with his single father, whose one passion is breeding bull terriers as fighting dogs. When the boy gets to choose a pup to raise as his own, for the first time he feels stirrings of love, but he doesn't understand it. He wants to be proud of his dog, but as it grows the pup doesn't measure up to his father's standards. So he's ashamed of his closest companion, but still loves it too, feeling torn and unhappy. Worse, he's told he must get rid of his dog if it can't do better after some training; as his father won't tolerate the presence of what he considers sub-par animals. It gets really interesting when another child enters the picture, a fellow student. The boy visits this other kid's house a few times, sees how other families live, and starts to realize that not everyone is as cold and scornful of emotions as his father. He also sees a way to keep the relationship with his dog without facing his father's scorn, but this puts a burden on the other kid. It all works out in the end, however not without some startling brutality. 

I would really have to be careful what kid I handed this book to- there are scenes of dog-baiting for training, and also badgers are used (although one is rescued from that fate to be kept as another kid's pet - which is problematic too). The dog fights are described in detail also, and the attitudes of the people who engage in that activity- some of them value the dogs for what they see as bravery and grit, others are just in it for the betting or bloodlust; all of them scoff at newer standards that breed dogs just for show (dog fights having been outlawed a decade earlier when the story is set, so the men hold them in utmost secret). So it's got a lot of examples of rough living, unkind and even illegal behavior. But it also shows how this negatively affects the family, and how the boy works out for himself that things ought to be different. That's why I found it outstanding. For such a short book, this has so much going on. Incidentally, the main character here made me think a lot of Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden- sour and unhappy at first, then undergoing a significant change- although in this story that transformation is a lot slower and only just beginning to show fruit when the pages close.

Rating: 4/5         129 pages, 1978

Jun 13, 2020

The Adventures of Peter Cottontail

by Thornton W. Burgess

This little book has three storylines. In the first two chapters, Peter Rabbit decides he doesn't like his name and is going to go by Peter Cottontail. Which is silly, because it's not that different from his current name. Even sillier is that he puts on airs to seem like someone different, and refuses to answer to his old name. His friends soon use this to play a trick on him, which makes Peter realize it was a mistake and drop the name change.

Then for many chapters Peter, some of the other little animals and Reddy Fox repeatedly pull pranks on each other, some just for laughs, and others to get even with those who had tricked them. Not sure that exactly sends a good message! A big part of this is Reddy trying to catch Peter so his sick Granny Fox can eat a rabbit dinner. Of course he doesn't, because none of the named characters in the books ever do get eaten- although Reddy eats unnamed chickens, mice, etc in other stories. So you know well he's a predator but the banter between him and Peter Rabbit make it seem half in jest. The fox gets frustrated after trying many different methods to catch Peter and finally gets the weasel to help him out, but even though the weasel can fit into Peter's narrow paths among the brambles, he too gets foiled and Peter stays safe. In another part the fox runs into a wasp nest, gets stung and his face swells up. He plasters it with mud and the other animals make fun of him, but then become bold around the fox, seeing that he's hurt. Reddy then tries to pretend he's still disabled after feeling better so he can catch someone, to no avail.

The final part of the book has Peter puzzled at the actions of some of his friends, who are preparing for the winter- squirrels burying nuts, the woodchuck absolutely stuffing his face, and he is astonished when he sees Grandfather Frog bury himself in the mud. He doesn't seem to know anything about how other animals hibernate or migrate to avoid the winter cold. When someone clues him in that his friends the skunk, raccoon and others sleep most of the winter, Peter thinks this is a fine idea and determines to try it himself. Of course it doesn't work, and when the others realize what he's doing, they play another trick on him. 

Not quite as engaging as some of the other Burgess I've read, but still a fun little book. I don't have a hardcopy, this one's on my e-reader.

Rating: 3/5               120 pages, 1914

Wild Cats

A Grosset All-Color Guide
by Michael Boorer

Wanted to read a book about a bobcat or lynx, and I don't have any that specific. This one is an overview of all wild cats (featuring a lynx on the frontispiece). It has the basics. How they evolved, structures of a cat's body, a few pages about domestic cats. Then it dives into the wild cats. All the small cats- ocelots, servals and bobcats to the flat-headed cat, kodkod and jaguarundi- get just a few paragraphs, with the exception of the puma that has a several pages with more details on behavior. Most of the cats it's very minimal information- distribution range, how many young in a litter, size and markings, what they eat. Beyond that, very little is consistent. For example some wild cats the book told me the gestation period, others there's no info on that. Maybe because it wasn't known? It is a rather old book. Names thirty-six feline species whereas the count I found online goes up to forty, depending on if some are actually considered subspecies or not. (Here's the lynx)
The last part of the book has the big cats: tiger, lion, leopard, jaguar, snow leopard and cheetah. This is more interesting; it goes into a lot more details about behavior and especially interactions with man. I did learn some surprising facts, such as that snow leopards have been found to make a den in vulture nests. Tigers will eat carrion or remains of their prey that have partly spoiled in the heat, if they are hungry enough. The book does have some old ideas, though- such as that cats are mostly driven by unthinking instinct, and will react the same way to a situation every time. It describes how lion-tamers are able to intimidate the big cats in order to display them for the public, and matter-of-factly relates how tigers, leopards and lions were hunted for sport (also with some notes about man-killers). Then there's this odd tidbit:
Lion hunting as a sport became really popular at the beginning of the twentieth century. This was the period when a man disappointed in love was supposed- if he could afford it- to redirect his resentment toward the fauna of Africa. 
Really?  Men who felt jilted used to go off and blast animals to make themselves feel better? I'm sure some of them did, but I never realized it was a socially accepted thing to do so. I had more of the impression men went on safari hunting trips to show off, bag trophies, or just enjoy their marksmanship skill. Anybody heard this before? On a smaller note, I did find it odd that the author described the base coat color of tigers and leopards as brown, but said that cheetahs are yellow-tawny. Hm, I've always thought of tigers as basically orange, and leopards as yellowish.

Overall, an interesting little book if you're into cats, or just want to gather some facts on them. However a lot of the unknowns when this was printed are spelled out elsewhere now, and most kids would of course just look stuff up online anyway. I do really like the illustrations by Peter Warner (they look like gouache paintings). Here's some samples- ocelot:
Sand cat:
'King' cheetah:
Nevertheless, if I ever have to cull my library because of space issues, I'm afraid this one will probably go. I have other books on wild cats that are more comprehensive and more current.

Rating: 3/5            159 pages, 1969

Jun 12, 2020

Flight of the White Wolf

by Mel Ellis

Boy and his pet wolf go on the run after the wolf kills a valuable, pedigreed dog that was pestering it. At first he's chasing his wolf to try and catch it- even though he raised the wolf from a pup, it doesn't let him come close enough to touch. When he doesn't return after a while, people assume the wolf killed the boy, and armed hunters with dogs come after them. Now boy and wolf are fleeing in earnest- he can't stand to see the wolf killed and can't figure out how to recapture it. It's companionable enough, but won't follow back to the kennels where they lived. So they strike out north, for a forested area devoid of people where the boy has heard a wolf pack lives. He wants to introduce his wolf to the pack hoping they'll accept him and the wolf can live free in the wild.

Most of this is an adventure story, the journey through the woods trying to find shelter, food, and evade capture. More than once the boy and wolf have to face conflict for their survival- confront a dog that tracked them, kill birds or rabbits for food, get the wolf freed from a leg trap. At one point the boy resorts to stealing food, though he does manage to contact his parents (who for some reason are ok with this dangerous trek- the kid is fifteen, and apparently they have a lot of confidence in his abilities-) at one point and get supplies and food, so then he goes into small towns to buy food along the way. Lots of places are named in the book, I glanced at a map and was easily able to see the route they took. Even though the writing style didn't really appeal to me, I really liked how realistic the wolf's character was written- its modes of communication and wariness reminded me a lot of those in Julie of the Wolves. Appreciate that even though there's quite a lot of killing, it's very matter-of-fact, and made clear that it's done by necessity. I think kids -especially those who like adventure stories (such as those by Gary Paulsen) and animals would find this book more exciting than I did, though I like it well enough to look for a few more by this author. There's only one part that made me raise my eyebrows: when the boy mentions an uncle who used to give him a glass of wine before bedtime, how he missed that!

Rating: 3/5                   195 pages, 1970

Jun 10, 2020

A Pigeon and a Boy

by Meir Shalev

I didn't realize this when I first picked it up (at the Book Thing), but it's a love story. Two love stories actually- past and present which have an almost too tidy connection, but also confused me at first keeping straight who was who. Doesn't help that the narrator sometimes addresses his mother in second person, other times referring to her in third. Not just in the same chapter or paragraph, but often in the same sentence. This is also a war story, and pigeons have a key role, because several of the main characters work in pigeon lofts. Two of them start as young people, boy and girl in different cities, sending love notes to each other via the birds (even though they're only supposed to carry official messages). I did like the parts about the pigeons and how they are kept, the symbolism quite strong as a lot of this story is also about home. What makes a home, what holds you there, what draws you back when you've been away. And a large part is also about one character (present day) having an old house remodeled to suit his tastes exactly. Some parts were interesting and others bored me a lot and then a key event occurs which seemed so implausible (plus the pigeons start talking to people- and this is not a talking animal story- maybe they were delusional?) that I really had difficulty finishing the book at all. Well, it certainly was a romantic idea, but kind of ridiculous too. I did not like the ending. Characters did things that seemed really unlike them, made no sense, and even angered me. This one's not staying in my collection.

Rating: 2/5                  311 pages, 2007

Jun 7, 2020

Maverick Cats

Encounters with Feral Cats
by Ellen Perry Berkeley

The author and her husband lived in a rural area of Vermont, and soon noticed cats around their property. At one time or another they fed or closely observed six different cats, and here describe the feline characters. Some only came to eat and they left again without much interaction. One brought her kittens, which disappeared within a few days. An obviously ill black cat staggered onto their driveway, laid down and died (while the author watched from inside, considering shooting the cat to end its misery but unable to bring herself to do so). Two male cats- one that hangs around for a while then goes off to make its individual living elsewhere- they often see it at some distance in a field later on- and another which starts to act pushy towards a female cat they really admire- are prominent characters. The cat that gets the most pages is a female tortoiseshell that gradually became very friendly and eventually lived inside their house. In alternate chapters the author discusses facts about feral cats. There's several studies on feral cat populations on individual islands mentioned, how the cats do or do not affect other animal populations. Other studies on feral cat numbers in different areas of the country, how prevalent disease is among them, how old they live, etc etc are also referenced. This book was written before trap-neuter-release was really done, so other methods of control- and questioning the need for it at all- is gone over. Reports on findings inside the stomachs of feral cats are given, indicating that they don't kill many songbirds- the vast majority of their prey is rodents. It's a nice little book, but seems to have so many unknowns stated, especially in those chapters on studies that don't have any consensus- because many of them were not finished, or done extensively enough, or had different results in different areas. The main conclusion I drew was that cats are definitely survivors, they don't really need people, they are very much individuals, and thus is all the more a mystery and pleasure when they share your home. But I would have preferred more detail about the cats the author personally knew, then reading all the people she quoted. Maybe this is one of the first books to consolidate research on feral cats, but if so it's done rather casually is my opinion.

Rating: 2/5           142 pages, 1982

Jun 6, 2020

The Triumph of Seeds

by Thor Hanson

How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History. This book was plenty interesting. Some parts are about the minutiae of how seeds work- what kinds of energy storage different species have, what triggers growth after periods of dormancy, how they have evolved chemicals to avoid being eaten (which humans use for medicine and poison in turn) or fruits to tempt animals to disperse them (make humans in essence slaves to plants in some cases). Other parts are about the history of seeds that had huge impacts on civilizations: coffee beans, cotton, wheat, chili peppers, etc. Other sections are more personable, describing the author's own investigations into the nature of seeds, including participation of his enthusiastic three-year-old son, and his interviews with researchers who do various work dealing with seeds. Sparked a lot of interest, and prompted me to attempt to finish another heavier book simply titled Seeds which is more like a dense textbook and has been languishing on my bedside table for months on end.

Rating: 3/5             277 pages, 2015