Jul 30, 2020

The Other

Animorphs #40
by K.A. Applegate

This one didn't really advance anything in the war against the aliens, but it was plenty interesting regardless. The Animorphs team discovers a pair of Andalites living in the suburbs- hidden in plain sight because one of then can morph human. The other is injured- missing his tail blade- and basically considered a worthless cripple in Andalite society. Ax certainly demonstrates this viewpoint, and the team roundly calls him out on it. These two new Andalites have been here all along, since the crash way back at the beginning of the series but never revealed themselves or joined the fight because one is caring for and protecting his friend who is disabled. However there's something suspicious going on- they seem to have some kind of deal worked out with the Visser. So the Animoprhs approach them cautiously, Marco and some of the team sneaking into the Andalites' house to spy on them and figure out what's going on. It ends up the disabled Andalite is being held captive by the enemy, and the team goes to battle an overwhelming number of Hork-Bajir in a derelict train yard to free him, with the new Andalite at their side. After which, the two go back to living in obscurity. Maybe they show up again later, I don't know. It was nice to see this book tackle the issues of prejudice in societies against the disabled, and after this I feel like Ax can never act so superior to the human race again.

I have this one on my e-reader, and it had a surprising number of typos. The last book had a few, marks indicating spoken dialog missing for the most part. This one had several words that didn't make sense, an entire two paragraphs repeated (starting in the middle of another sentence) and Jake at one point saying "HeCO which is - what? However after staring at the page baffled for a moment, I just continued on.

Rating: 3/5             144 pages, 2000

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Jul 28, 2020

cosmopolitan cat

Did another puzzle this past week. 500 pieces but rather challenging, because it's mostly about texture and pattern. I really like being able to see the paint strokes in the cat's fur, contrasted with the flat stripes of the floorboards, and the very busy wallpaper pattern. It's another Springbok one, lots of fun varied shapes in the cut. No idea who the artist of the original picture is. 
I've had this puzzle since I was a teenager, and only assembled it three or four times. I found myself following the same sequence as before- first putting together the floor, then the cat, then last of all the wallpaper. (Click to view larger and scroll through).
When this puzzle was finished I left it sitting out on the table for a while. I like to run my hand over it. (Although it's so old some of the print is actually starting to wear off the puzzle pieces). I said to my youngest: "pet the kitty!" and she laughed: "I already did!" and everyone else in the family had to do it too- the fur texture looks so inviting.

I think I'm going to paint the sheet of plywood that is my puzzle board, before doing another one. I find the darker marks of knots in the wood grain distracting, and adjusting for differences in lighting after I take the photos would be easier if it's a flat white background. (You might notice where I edited out some of the darker marks in the photos with rubber stamp photoshop tool . . . )

Jul 27, 2020

The Hidden

Animorphs #39
by K.A. Applegate

Wow, this was great. Simple plot, but the implications. The characters are acting more like themselves again, there's more what-it's-like-to-be-an-animal insight and some humor, the violence is getting worse when they have to fight. And this book was all one long fight, it seemed. The Yeerks got hold of a device that allowed them to detect morphing energy, so they could pinpoint the Animorphs' location, and also that of the blue box that gave them that ability in the first place. So most of the book is the team fleeing desperately in different animal forms, trying to elude the enemy and confuse them until at the very end they come up with a crazy plan, that might just work, to destroy the detection device. What really got me was the cape buffalo. At one point, Cassie hides in a transport truck from the zoo that holds a cape buffalo (why it wasn't sedated to be in the truck, who knows). She morphed the buffalo to calm it, but then the animal unknowingly touched the blue cube, so it gained the ability to morph. This was crazy. Made me wonder why it hadn't happened in some way sooner in the series. What happens to an animal that can change form, but has no idea it's doing so? The buffalo was obviously confused, but it saw Cassie morphing into buffalo form, so formed a temporary bond with her and then started following the Animorphs around and defending them for a while against the enemy's troops. Then it bumped against a human and started morphing into that form. The Animorphs were really freaked out when it started trying to walk upright and mimic simple words. Also terrified what would happen if the enemy got ahold of this morphing buffalo, so they decided they had to destroy it, but Cassie couldn't bear to do so. However when an ant also gained morphing power and started taking Cassie's form, she was horrified and had no qualms squashing it.

Turns out this book bothered a lot of other readers, because all the stuff about the blue box contradicted what was established in earlier books. Which I totally forgot because it's been so long since I read them. So that didn't bother me at all while I was reading.

Rating: 3/5            144 pages, 2000

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Jul 26, 2020

The Arrival

Animorphs #38
by K.A. Applegate

This was much better. Had some issues, but overall I found the storyline interesting and wanted to keep reading the series! Probable SPOILERS ahead.

From Ax's viewpoint, but some things were odd about it. A small team of Andalites has actually finally shown up- they're suddenly present at a battle alongside Ax- which really threw me off because his reaction was so non-plussed I thought it must be fake. The Andalites, I mean. Nope, they're real. But very few in number. And not acting the way Ax expects. Turns out it's not a rescue ship bringing warriors in to save Earth as the Animorphs had hoped for all this time, but a small secret mission to assassinate Visser Three just to save face for the Andalites (who are off helping a different alien race on another plant). At this the Animorphs despair that the war against the aliens is completely hopeless, and most of them announce they're flat out giving up, can't handle it anymore, yell at each other and storm out of a meeting in the barn. Ax leaves and joins the Andalites, but there's not much explanation of how he feels about leaving the Animorphs, it's mostly about him trying to figure out what's really going on with this new small team. And there's a young female Andalite among them, which um, complicates things for Ax. (She goes bonkers over the taste of jelly beans). In the end, Ax is in a very tight spot down at the Yeerk pool surrounding by enemies, attempting to stop one of his compatriots from doing something to wipe out the Yeerks, which could very well also wipe out the human race. It looks like the end (but can't be, as there's sixteen more books in the series) so things are saved in the nick of time when the Animorphs show up again- having been hidden observing things all along in tiny forms- flies, roaches and things you know. Ax seems to know after they morph into their battle forms, but he hadn't let the reader know. Or I didn't catch on? 

I missed the inner look at what it feels like to change into an animal from many of the earlier books, but this one brings back in some of the sci-fi aspects and morality issues which make the series interesting in a different way. 

Rating: 3/5          160 pages, 2000

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The Weakness

Animorphs #37
by K.A. Applegate

Wow, it's been a long time. I didn't really feel like reading Animorphs again, but my other current read is a tough book- so I need breaks between chapters, and this happens to be a good alternative, in an odd way. Turns out I read half of The Weakness months and months ago, then put it down and forgot about it. Don't remember why. Skimmed a bit to remind myself of the storyline, but didn't bother to re-read entire chapters again. Jake is absent so the team decides to put Rachel in charge when a report comes in of discovering the Visser's secret feeding spot. They can't pass up the opportunity to try and get the enemy. Rachel is all for just trying to chase him down (using a new cheetah morph) but of course they fail. Also meet a new alien creature, the only good thing here being that the Visser and this new enemy the Inspector appear to despise each other, which is to the Animorphs' advantage. Then they decide to rush around town storming different shops and locations one after the other making it appear that they have much larger numbers than in reality, so the Visser will look bad in front of the Inspector. Causing a lot of conspicuous damage and probably hurting innocent people (not like them at all). Then to bash in on a meeting of high-up Controllers, all of them using polar bear form instead of their usual battle morphs. It goes badly. Cassie gets captured and almost forced into the Yeerk pool. The others barely save her in time- using bird of prey morphs and one cobra. They pretty much only escape because when Marco-as-cobra takes the Inspector down, the Visser and all his underlings just stand there staring, instead of grabbing the Animorphs who are exhausted and injured. All these frenetic attacks without much planning were Rachel's push, but she has doubts the whole time and feels terrible about putting her friends in danger and afterwards when Jake returns asks him: how do you do it? how can you stand to make those decisions, putting your friends' lives on the line? He flinches for a moment then closes it off and says: I just don't think about it. Well, I could have done without all the hectic nonsense fighting scenes, but the ending had a more serious note.

Rating: 2/5                144 pages, 1999

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Jul 25, 2020

Just a Dog

by Helen Griffiths

   Story of a stray dog, born in a derelict house and living on the streets. Only two puppies survive out of her littermates. She has a rough start. Most people ignore stray dogs in the poor neighborhood where she lives. Some children chase and torment them, others are kind and try to befriend them. One boy tries to take in the puppy, but his mother won't let him bring her indoors, he ties her up outside until the neighbors complain, then he has to get rid of her. He asks a friend to have his dad drive her to a distant part of town and dump her there. She's bewildered by the change, but eventually takes up with a group of dogs that hangs around a gypsy camp, attaching herself to another young boy. The dog is content living with them for nearly a year. When he leaves for a distant opportunity she's left behind, having a litter of pups to care for (an earlier litter she bore died quickly from cold exposure). After her puppies are grown and dispersed she wanders off looking for the boy and never finds him but befriends a lonely old man who spends most of his days sitting on a park bench. He can't keep her though, and when he dies, his daughter drives the dog away from the vicinity. She wanders off bereft again, and eventually starts hanging around with a pair of dogs that live at a construction site. The workers like the dogs there because they bark at night scaring off would-be thieves; children and a few kind-hearted adults in the apartments nearby feed them scraps. Here the dog finds acceptance at last- some children become very fond of her and eventually their family takes her in. It is a long gradual process though, because all her past experiences - being beaten, chased and otherwise abused at different points in her life on the streets- makes her very wary of getting close to people again. 

This book was vaguely familiar to me, I'm pretty sure I may have read it when I was a kid. It's got a gritty reality to it, completely different from Rusty. The writing is very descriptive yet concise and easy enough for children to grasp, but with mature themes- obviously doesn't shy away from telling of the hardships animals experience, and cruelty of some humans. The characters- dogs and people alike- all are distinct personalities and very realistic. I could have read this book in one day but stretched it over two on purpose. I really like this author. I looked it up and she's written more books about dogs, horses and cats- I'd love to get my hands on all of them. 

Rating: 4/5              180 pages, 1974

Jul 23, 2020


A Cocker Spaniel
by Colonel S.P. Meek

I have mixed feelings about this older book that was published among a run of "famous dog stories" so it must have been popular back in the day. It's a charming enough story about a plucky little cocker spaniel. Rusty was the runt of his litter. He's bought from a pet shop by a young woman whose fiancée owns kennels of show dogs- springer spaniels and cocker spaniels. So the man Allen disparages the puppy Ruth chooses, but she loves him at first sight and refuses to accept that he's a worthless dog. Rusty soon shows himself a quick learner and brave as well. Among his exploits he learns to not steal cake or pie off the kitchen table, retrieves the morning newspaper (including that of all the neighbors nearby, in a very funny episode), dives into heavy surf after a ball when larger dogs fail to retrieve it (and needs to get rescued), saves a baby from a burning building, guides adults to another child lost and injured in the forest, survives being mauled by a rabid dog, gets lost and finds his way home again travelling miles. Some of the events in the story were so dramatic and unlikely I was rolling my eyes (as when the main characters flee a forest fire and the car narrowly misses being hit by a falling tree- it bounces off the rear fender). The little dog is very smart, and like Lad performs many heroic deeds in service of his mistress. Thankfully he wasn't too perfect- when he's entered into a local dog show, he gets placed at the very bottom for his poor physical form. But Ruth is determined to prove -most of all to her fiancée what a great dog he is, so she secretly has him trained and enters him into field trials. The last part of the book was better- I liked reading about when the dog got lost (that chapter is from Rusty's viewpoint) and after that it tells about the field trials so I learned how spaniels are trained to find and retrieve birds- it's a little different from the Irish setters I read about earlier. And one point, Rusty's trainer proclaims that his methods using a choke collar are much kinder than "shooting him with fine shot" to teach the dog of wrongdoing- as was done in "Don: the Story of a Lion Dog"- which makes me realize the use of birdshot must have been rather common.

What I really didn't like was the people. Not just the trainer's outdated methods, a lot of attitudes in this book really show their age- especially that of Allen towards Ruth! He was often making fun of her for "being brainless" although he loved her and expressed admiration when she did something clever. At one point in the story, when the child went missing in the forest and a fire was approaching, one woman started screaming in fright. The other man advised his companion to slap her repeatedly in the face to snap her out of it. Dogs are beaten to teach them, and women are told they would just be in the way in a crisis, to stay home and keep the coffee hot. Bah.

However the dog is cute, very bold, and proves to everyone that he's smart and full of moxie (not a word from the thirties!) I was really impatient and annoyed with certain parts of this story, but found myself enjoying it closer to the end, especially the description of the dog's performance in the field trials. I think for most though, it would only appeal if you are nostalgic from having read it in your childhood.

Rating: 3/5              296 pages, 1938

Jul 21, 2020

Homer's Odyssey

A Fearless Feline Tale
by Gwen Cooper

  or How I Learned About Love and life with a Blind Wonder Cat. Homer is a small, black cat. He was found as a very young stray and brought into a vet's office with a terrible eye infection. The vet had to remove his eyes to save his life, and then tried to find him a home. Gwen took him in. Even though he couldn't see, Homer soon found his way around the apartment by touch; his hearing and sense of smell were also remarkably sensitive. The story recounts his many exploits- some funny, others just amazing, or incredibly brave- he once chased an intruder from their home, and regularly would climb heights or leap up onto furniture, shelves, etc that he knew were there even though couldn't see it. Funny how Gwen was the vet's last resort before sending Homer to a shelter- nobody wanted a blind kitten- yet as Gwen's friends, roommates and family got to know Homer, everybody loved him. She always had offers to leave him behind if she couldn't keep him (she had two other cats). He was just so engaging, bold, inquisitive and amusing. Most of all, his audacity and eagerness to be involved in life inspired Gwen when she had difficulties of her own. I thought the book would get tiresome when it shifted from talking mostly about the blind kitten to going over Gwen's struggles to find a new place to live, deal with a string of job losses, relationships with different boyfriends, moving back in with her parents and then out again- but through it all, her concern for her cats, especially Homer's safety- and tying things she learned from them back into her own story kept it intriguing. Then near the end of the book, something huge happens which I did not see coming, and I suddenly could not put the it down. I knew (of course) of this incident but had never read the aftermath described in such detail. This was a much better read than I expected going into it. Even the final chapters, about a new relationship the author got into, and how her three cats won over her boyfriend-then-husband (who was much more of a "dog person" at first) was really good. Four stars.

Rating: 4/5               299 pages, 2009

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Jul 16, 2020

Making the Rounds with Oscar

the Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat
by David Dosa, M.D.

In spite of it's serious subject matter, this book was a light read- I finished it in two days. The author is a doctor who works at a nursing home that provides end of life care, where many of the patients have dementia. This nursing home welcomes animals- there are six cats in residence (also a bird, I think but that didn't get much mention). The cats provide comfort and distraction to the residents. One of them, Oscar, caught the attention of visiting family members and staff- he's not a very social cat, but when a patient is within a few hours of death, Oscar enters the room and sits on the bed until the end. The doctor was skeptical about this at first, until he started asking details and opinions from those who had seen Oscar performing his vigils. He couldn't deny there was something unusual- and very comforting- in the cat's behavior. Most of the book is actually stories about patients and their families, especially how they come to terms with later stages of Alzheimer's, and make difficult decisions about care and treatment. The cat kind of feels like a side note for most of this. I found it all very thoughtful and compassionate, a good read even though it's not mainly about the cat, as the cover might lead you to expect. There is some speculation near the end about how Oscar could actually know when someone was near death- he never appeared to be wrong- and maybe it was from a scenting a chemical given off by cell death. Like how dogs can sniff cancer. There's also mention of cases where people have been ill, and their cat sits with them unusually close, for longer periods, sometimes never leaving the bed. Certainly seems like they can sense more than we often give them credit for.

Rating: 3/5              225 pages, 2010

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Jul 14, 2020

american gothic

Been a long time but I had some relaxing hours doing a 500-piece jigsaw today. It's a Springbok puzzle of the famous painting by Grant Wood, American Gothic. I wondered at first why I had kept this one all these years- it's a rather easy picture. Then I remembered- the cut shapes are really different and varied, some of the standard types have little variations like knobs with tiny divots in them
and some pieces that you'd expect to be interlocking, aren't- until the other pieces around them are fitted in. This on an edge!
So that made it rather fun. Here's the assmembly sequence. (Click to view larger)

Jul 12, 2020

Look Me in the Eye

My Life with Asperger's
by John Elder Robison

I found another book on my shelf written by someone on the autism spectrum. It's the brother of Augusten Burroughs, who wrote Running with Scissors (which I tried to read once but failed to find it interesting). Look Me in the Eye tells about growing up in a dysfunctional family- his mother had mental illness and his father was an alcoholic. As a young kid, John Elder wanted to play with other children but didn't know how- his odd way of talking earned him labels of being weird and difficult, and for his inability to make eye contact he was called "shifty" and "up to no good". He more or less got pigeonholed as a bad kid. This was in the sixties, Asperger's wasn't a known diagnosis back then.

Actually, I found a lot of the book kind of hard to get through at first, because I was expecting to read about what it's like to live with Asperger's, and instead I was reading about all these crazy incidents as John Elder dropped out of school, left home and started travelling with bands- he had a genius for designing things with electronics and made special effects with sound, lights and smoke bombs for several different bands including Pink Floyd and Kiss. Hard to put down, but also really far from my usual reading interests! The author was really good at what he did, and enjoyed the creativity, but had difficulty handling the close personal interactions living in close quarters with the road crew on tour. Eventually he left that scene and started working for Milton Bradley, making the first electronic toys that used motion and sound. That was also a creative environment and it's fascinating to read how he and the other electronic engineers came up with solutions to problems, within tight constraints. But promotions placed him in positions where he was managing a team, not doing the creative work himself, which he didn't like. So he left that line of work and started his own business rebuilding specialty cars- had interest in vehicles, fixing and rebuilding engines from a young age. That is still operational.

It was only in his forties that a close friend showed the author a book which described Asperger's symptoms, and he realized for the first time why he was different from other people. He relates how reading Born on a Blue Day and books by Temple Grandin helped him recognize and understand himself. I found the last part of the memoir more interesting, where the author describes his thought process, looks back on his childhood with new comprehension, talks with his estranged parents about certain things, relates how he parented his own son (who isn't on the autism spectrum but has some of the traits) and tells how he is continually working on social skills and "emotional intelligence" but that has changed his ability to do the amazingly creative electronics work that highlighted his youth. In fact, he looks back on designs he made when he did sound effects for bands, and says he could think those things up nowadays, but not execute them, because he's a different person now and has lost that laser focus on one area of expertise. He's happy with it though. Fascinating. I wasn't sure at first, but I think this one's staying on my shelf.

Rating: 3/5             288 pages, 2007

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Jul 9, 2020

Born on a Blue Day

Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant
by Daniel Tammet

Daniel is a very high-functioning autistic person with savant syndrome- he has an extraordinary ability to recall and compute large numbers- due in large part to his unique way of visualizing them as distinct shapes and colors. He has synesthesia with both numbers and words. And he suffered from epilepsy as a child. This memoir describes how he grew up, isolated in many ways yet enjoying his own sensations and obsessions (especially collecting things) and only when he was older having a desire to interact with peers learning to navigate social interactions and tasks like shopping or finding his way on bus routes. He describes difficulties in school, living in a large family (nine siblings!) and how he calms himself in stressful situations. How he volunteered to work overseas teaching English as a second language, how his aptitude for learning languages works, how he once memorized and recited 22,000 digits of the number pi to break a world record! (It took five hours to make the recitation). And finally, how he discovered that he's gay, fell in love, and moved in with his partner, living independently and successfully started a business creating a website to help people learn foreign languages. It's astounding. Most of all to me, the very different way in which he visualizes and understands the world. Last year I watched a documentary made about him and I was just blown away. Even the mental games he tells of playing as a child, with numbers, I can't really comprehend. Although the writing style is a bit dry, he recalls incidents with a lot of detail- even from a young age. Some of them sad, to see how peers at first shunned him, and teachers misunderstood. His story of overcoming challenges living with autism and finding his way in the world, to living independently with someone he loves and even finding religion, is very inspiring.

Rating: 3/5               226 pages, 2006

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Jul 3, 2020

The Reason I Jump

The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism
by Naoki Higashida
translated by K.A. Yoshida and David Mitchell

This book was written by a Japanese boy who has autism. He couldn't speak, but learned to use an alphabet board and later a computer- touching one character at a time- to write out his thoughts and responses to people's questions. It's clear that in spite of his difficulty with speech and sensory input, he's quite intelligent and perceptive. His body just doesn't do what he wants it to, most of the time. I didn't expect the format though- it's not written as a narrative (except for a few very short stories) here and there- but instead a series of question-and-answer: things like why do you echo questions back at the asker?  or why do you write letters in the air? or Do you have a sense of time? and of course What's the reason you jump? This was interesting- very intriguing to learn some of the reasons for what seem odd behaviors to most of us, and others were honestly surprising to me. There were a few things he simply couldn't explain, but he was honest about it. It's mostly about the difference in perceptions, in how his brain processes things. It's also a huge plea for understanding and patience: he says more than once in the book- I know I do this over and over again, but please don't give up on me. Please remember that I'm human. He speaks for himself in particular, and for autistic people in general- noting clearly the cases in which he feels differently than other autistic people. I was reminded strongly of a book I read years ago called I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes- in that both are about a person who is unable to communicate until they have a tool which gives them a voice.

The introduction written by David Mitchell is particularly thoughtful. (There's a very good article by Mitchell here (his son also has autism) including some excerpts from this book). I got nearly as much out of that as from the body of text itself. I also really like the illustrations by Kai and Sunny. This book was written over a decade ago, so I was immediately curious to see what else Higashida may have written since: Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8 sounds like this is more about his actual experiences so I really want to read it too.

Borrowed from a family member.

Rating: 3/5                 161 pages, 2007

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