Sep 29, 2020

The Tiger's Wife

by Téa Obreht 

     This book was a mix for me. It's several stories woven together, told in patches, that interconnect in surprising ways. Set in some Balkan country recovering from a long period of war. The narrator works in the medical field, is travelling to an orphanage to administer vaccinations to children. At the same time trying to unravel the mystery of her grandfather's death, while he was away from home. And that of some superstitious people who are trying to find a relative buried long ago in someone's vineyard near where she's staying. There's stories from the grandfather's childhood, and then of people he knew, or people who knew of him, in villages around the area. Their suspicious beliefs and rumors that become larger than life. Most interesting to me was the subtle story of the tiger- he escaped from captivity during a bombing and wandered, striking fear into the villagers where he appeared, finally having a connection to a deaf-mute girl who was brutally beaten by her husband (he'd been tricked into marrying her). In fact, there's a lot of brutality in this book, kind of akin to The Painted Bird in my mind (a book I long wanted to forget). There's also beautiful language. I happened to really like the way this author puts words together, very skilled and wonderfully descriptive in a precise way. However there's just too much going on, and I didn't always see the connections. I found the man who would not die tiresome in the end (and he was one of the central characters!) The final sentences about the tiger himself saddened me. I really would have liked to see more from the tiger's viewpoint, but there was far more about the people and their various backstories and how they came to be who they were- all interesting, but too many of them for me to care much about. In all, this book reminds me of One Hundred Years of Solitude, though it's far more accessible to the reader, still not as engaging as I would like. There's constant references to Kipling's The Jungle Book in here, and not just to the well-known story of Mowgli and the wolves but also the minor stories that I remember so well. Narrator's grandfather treasured that book since he was a child, used it as a reference to recognize the tiger when he first saw it roaming (the villages thought it was the devil). It was one of the more vivid parts of the story to me.  Mostly this seems to be about war, the disarray of people's lives in the aftermath, confronting death and grief and loss. About family and stories that get handed around and how they change or change the people who hear them. This is all quite a jumble- but then, that's how I felt about the book. 

Rating: 3/5                   338 pages, 2011

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Sep 28, 2020

Indian Paint

by Glenn Balch
adapted by Ardis E. Burton

     Story of a native american boy, son of the chief, who gets to choose his own horse out of the herd. His father is displeased when the boy picks an unborn horse- he wants the black mare's foal, because he saw her running with a wild horse band earlier and figures the stallion sired her colt. His father advises hin against this, saying the colt will be wild and difficult to train. The boy stands by his choice, although people keep pointing out how long he will have to wait for his horse to be old enough to ride (suggesting he should change his mind and choose a grown horse right now). I kind of liked that he didn't go for the immediate, obvious reward but was willing to wait for something he thought would be better. Anyhow, the tribe travels to hunt bison and after the busy work with the meat and hides (he still has to help the women, not being allowed to hunt yet), the boy goes to check on his recently-born colt in the herd. The black mare and his colt are missing. He gets adults to help him read tracks and find out what happened. A fur-trapper had stolen the mare to carry his load to a trader's rendezvous. They find the trapper and the mare, but the colt is missing. It had been unable to keep up and the trapper just left it behind. By the time the boy finds his colt, it is weak and can barely stand. He stays behind while his adult companions go back to the tribe. Alone he nurses the colt back to health. 

I'm assuming the story is going to wind up with this colt being devoted to the boy who saved his life (like Flicka), proving himself a brave steed, and going on adventures with the boy. I browsed through some of the pictures but couldn't finish reading the book. It has the sense of a good story, but didn't feel like I was reading Glenn Balch. Turning back to the copyright page I realized why. The edition I have is part of the Everyreaders collection "selected from the great literature of the world" which are adapted for "the successful teaching of remedial reading" with "carefully controlled vocabulary and sentence structure [enabling] pupils to read the stories easily . . . " Well. Yeah, I could tell the prose had been greatly simplified and it felt like a lot of detail and nuance was missing. It was dry and dull. I'm disappointed I didn't pay better attention when I snatched up these Glenn Balch books a while back- I have two more unread and I already know one is also a shortened version of the original. I doubt I'll even try it now.

Abandoned                 138 pages, 1962

Sep 25, 2020

Summer World

by Bernd Heinrich

I've been wanting to read this one a long time, ever since I read Winter World by the same author. Somehow, it wasn't quite as good, but still very satisfying. Based mostly on first-hand observations made on his property in the Maine woods (and sometimes in Vermont), he goes into minute detail about how trees and wildlife prepare for and make the best of the warm summer months. The wildlife part really only covers small creatures- birds, frogs and insects- but of those I learned a great deal. Particularly the insects. There were many mentioned in this book that I never even heard of before, much less knew the particulars of how they live. Lovely details on just watching closely what is going on around us in the plant and animal world, and investigating when questions arise: why does this do this? or that the other? (although an answer is not always arrived at or given). Interesting observations on the raids of ants and laments about the loss of bees. In particular a few sentences at the very end of the book filled me with a sense of dread and fear- how warmer winters lately are killing off populations of insects that are the very basis of the food chain- and not in ways I would have expected. Not in ways that are easily overcome or undone, either. I was surprised (although I shouldn't be) at how the book digressed in a few places- there's a chapter that talks about how animals survive the desert heat in other places, and one speculating on the lives of prehistoric humans. I could see how parts of this book got developed later into the full-fledged Why We Run and Life Everlasting, but it made the latter half of Summer World feel a tad unfocused. 

Also, this little detail keeps bugging me, although it has nothing to do with the book itself, really. In the front endpapers, there's the usual collection of quotes praising the book. One by an unnamed writer in the Los Angeles Times says "Bernd Heinrich is one of our greatest living naturalists in the tradition of Gerald Durrell; he's John Muir (without the wandering), Edward Abbey (without the politics), Jacques Cousteau (without the ocean), Ernest Seton (without the talking animals) . . . " This guy got his comparisons wrong. I've read fourteen books by Seton, and there are no talking animals! They show emotions, and the storytelling is lively, but they definitely don't talk.

Rating: 4/5                       253 pages, 2009

Sep 24, 2020

red fox in winter

Another jigsaw done! 1,000 piece Milton Bradley puzzle- an older one.
Don't remember where I acquired this one. I think it was secondhand- some of the pieces are damaged or bent. One had an incomplete cut (see above). My favorite part was doing all the reddish fur texture. The image is a photograph- so the pieces all seem blurry and of nearly the same shade on the table, only when they're fitted together do I start to see distinctions. Which made it rather hard to assemble. I think there were two to three hours' work between each stage, here.

Sep 23, 2020

The Secret Horse

by Marion Holland 

Nice little book about a girl who wants a horse more than anything, but of course her parents say no. They've no place to keep a horse, for starters. She makes friends with a girl who comes to say with her grandmother next door, and does some painting on their rebuilt front porch to earn a little money. Her parents take her to the animal shelter to get a kitten, and while there she sees a thin, neglected-looking horse standing out back by a shed. She immediately makes plans to take this horse home, assuming it's unwanted and will be euthanized. Sneaks out in the middle of the night and leads the horse back, where she and her friend hide it in a derelict stable next door, hidden by overgrown shrubs and poison ivy (on a grand estate owned by an old wealthy man, who only lives there part of the year). Kind of appalling the the kids stole a horse, and took it home without having plans how to feed it or even bring it water, but luckily they figure that out the next day. Their earnings go a little way at a time, and luckily the horse is well-behaved and gentle. But eventually you know they're going to get found out- and then what will happen? I'm glad it had a good ending, although the last two chapters feel rushed, and I was rather surprised the book cuts short right before she tells her parents. I would have liked to see their reaction! I was amused to find the story's setting is very close to where I live- one of the places mentioned is only half an hour from here.

Rating: 3/5                      153 pages, 1959

Sep 19, 2020

Lab Girl

by Hope Jahren 

This was great. It was not what I expected all round- I delighted in reading about experiments on the lives and methods of plants (especially details about tree biology, which read as little independent essays), how Jahren and her fellow scientist Bill came up with their ideas, the meticulous work involved, the scrounging for lab equipment and funding, the long hours and sleepless nights, the road trips and field work . . . What took me by surprise was to find myself also reading about mental illness, the mania and depression of bipolar described very frankly. And to read a birth story when she had her son. It kind of all is one long birth story- the story of how Jahren found her life's work in science, and struggled to grow into the best person she knew to be, doing the best science, hoping it would all get seen someday. Some parts are laugh-out-loud funny, some parts are very tense, and some incredibly insightful. Definitely keeping this one to enjoy and learn from again. Wish I could say more about it but not finding a lot of words right now. It is rather significant the things the author did not tell throughout this memoir, but they didn't really bother me until I read some other reviews and thought about them more. For example: she tells about a nearly-disastrous, ill-planned road trip to  a conference where she's supposed to present a paper, but then there's nothing about the conference and only one comment about the presentation itself. Hm. Well, I liked it regardless. Might read it more closely next time. There will be a next time.

Rating: 4/5             290 pages, 2016

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Sep 16, 2020

The Mockery Bird

by Gerald Durrell 

This is the first Durrell book that has disappointed me. It's about a fictional bird on a fictional island. The tropical island is just starting to work out its independence from British colonialism, it has a native king and two local tribes that are at odds with each other. The British have plans to build a military base which requires a dam to be built to provide electricity, part of the reef to be destroyed to open up the harbor access, and more changes. Some see this as progress, others as environmentally destructive. Then (I didn't get this far, but I read enough synopses to know what was coming) an endemic bird that was presumed extinct, is discovered alive and well in the forest. Planned construction projects will threaten the bird. There was already friction over the airstrip and dam project, but because of the bird tensions quickly escalate.

Unfortunately, I couldn't read this. I struggled thought the first three chapters and then started skimming. I really did not like any of the characters, and the only one who was tolerable (a visiting young man who's supposed to assist the king's political advisor) was also rather uninteresting. The rest were highly eccentric, to the point of being annoying or ludicrous. Presumably these are based on people Durrell met in real life, but I wonder how much he exaggerated their quirks. The made-up pidgin language used as communication between the natives and the Europeans felt cringeworthy, as did the native slurs casually tossed around, in particular wog was used so frequently I got tired of it. (I did see a similarity between the vociferous insults constantly spouted by the king's assistant to all his underlings, and the way Gerald addressed Lucy in Castaway- but although the king's assistant used very creative language in his insults, and G mostly just swear words, that's nothing to recommend this).

Not to mention, something about the prose (or lack of it) was a bit tedious. I found myself impatient wading through tiresome dialog hoping to get to something happening, and then bored. Sigh. Moving on.

Abandoned                      224 pages, 1981

Sep 13, 2020


From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail 
by Cheryl Strayed 

Adventuresome memoir by a woman who felt herself at a loss and at odds when her mother died suddenly of cancer. She freely admits that her life was rather a mess- she cheated on her husband and got into drug use, among other things. Then upon seeing a guidebook for the PCT in an outdoor equipment store, she spontaneously decided to hike it. All the way from the Mojave Desert in southern California to the border of Oregon and Washington - eleven hundred miles. I liked how honest the telling was. From the embarrassment and weight of her inexperience, to the tedium of freeze-dried meals, frequent discomfort and injuries, camaraderie with other hikers, spontaneous generosity of people who gave her lifts, meals, showers and sometimes a bed to sleep in, and the wonder of vistas and sights along the way. A lot of it is musing on her past as she walks- her troubled family, issues with her mother, poor choices... I did see the film a while back, so a lot of this was familiar. In particular I had remembered when a man stopped her on the road for an interview because he was writing an articles on hobo and thought she was a hobo- it made me laugh, and of course the scene where she lost a boot. I found two parts rather shocking- no, not all the stuff about men- I knew that about her personality going into this-  one involved a horse that used to belong to her mother, the other what she did with her mother's remains after cremation...  My older sister hiked the PCT several years ago, so I also enjoyed comparing what she's told me of it, to what I read here. 

Rating: 3/5               315 pages, 2012

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Sep 6, 2020

The Absolute

Animorphs #51 
by K.A. Applegate 

The only part I liked about this one was the ducks. The Animorphs are suspicious of a train that seems to be bringing military force into the state capitol (I think- hard to remember since I had a gap between reading the beginning and end of this book)- so they go to scout it out but have to evade the enemy who now also have morphing power and come after them as birds of prey. They manage to acquire ducks, which have much greater stamina for long-distance flying (and can travel inconspicuously in groups) and bolt for the Governor's mansion, determined to let someone high-up know about the aliens and finally get support. As cockroaches they cling underneath a limo that's taking the Governor to a function, and then morph back to human in front of the Governor and her spouse once they are in a private room. The Governor is a woman, which takes a lot of them by surprise. Not surprising, some of the people around them are Controllers- including one of the Governor's guards- so after the shock of showing themselves and quickly explaining to the Governor, there's a hectic crazy battle that turns into an insane car chase for the rest of the book- them trying to keep this new ally in leadership position, out of the aliens' hands. Includes a yacht of partygoers getting blown up and a bridge collapsing. I kind of blanked out for most of it. A lot did not make sense, or just plain bored me, sigh. Probably didn't help that I felt fatigued and had a headache while reading, blah.

Note: Yesterday our power was out for most of the day, but I tried turning on the e-reader, and it worked perfectly fine. For one day. I was able to finish this book and read 8% of #52. This morning my e-reader turns on, but the screen freezes up again. Well, if it suddenly works again one day, I'll try to finish another of these books in a single sitting. I know that's doable.

Rating: 2/5                  154 pages, 2001

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Sep 2, 2020

A Thousand Miles to Freedom

My Escape from North Korea 
by Eunsun Kim 
with Sebastien Falletti, translated by David Tian 

A simply told memoir about a young woman whose family was starving in North Korea. Her grandparents and father died during a famine, and she literally though she would also starve in their apartment. No food in the city. With her mother and sister, she made several attempts to cross the border into China, then make a difficult journey to South Korea where she hoped to live in freedom. They had to pay enormous sums to smugglers, suffered at the hands of human traffickers in China, and when finally reaching South Korea spent months in detainment as the government interrogated everyone to ensure they weren't spies, then gave them lessons on assimilating into South Korean society and how to live in a capitalist system. Eunsun Kim tells how she nearly died of hunger, was forced as a child to watch public executions, and only gradually realized afterwards that she'd been brainwashed in her homeland, that life was really different elsewhere and the regime in power oppressed the common people. She relates how the trials of attempting to leave North Korea strained her family, and how desperate she felt to reunite with her sister who initially stayed behind in China. How confusing living in a new country with a totally different system was, let alone having to learn a new language. I have nothing but admiration for someone who went through such hard times, and kept trying again even when their first attempt failed, when they barely had any energy, when they had to wait months or even a year for the next step in their journey. And yet the book left me rather unmoved. Whether the plain writing style, or the fact that it's not only co-authored but also translated, it just wasn't very engaging and lacked depth. However there's others on my TBR list now about the same subject: The Girl with Seven Names, Nothing to Envy, In Order to Live or Under the Same Sky.

Rating: 2/5                 228 pages, 2015