Feb 28, 2021


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Feb 23, 2021

Backyard Giants

The Passionate, Heartbreaking and Glorious Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever

by Susan Warren

I should have guessed that in the world of competitive vegetable growing, there's people whose goal is to produce the biggest pumpkin ever. When this book was written, men aimed to break the record with a pumpkin that weighed over 1,500 pounds (now the world record is 2,624 pounds). This story focuses on a group of giant pumpkin growers in a Rhode Island club, telling the ups and downs that several of them face through one season. The opening and closing chapters, which are mostly about the individuals and their competitiveness, the history of record-breaking giant pumpkins, and the weigh-in that closes the 2006 season, were not that great for me. The writing style tries a little too hard to be enthusiastic and felt awkward in some parts. Nearly stopped reading after chapter three. However the bulk of the book, about how the pumpkins are actually grown and tended, was more to my interest- I can relate as a gardener. Careful selection of seed, testing and prepping the soil, germinating and tending the young plants, setting them out then protecting them anxiously from rough spring weather, pruning and feeding and spraying against pests all summer, fretting over disease and disaster (hungry wildlife, cracked skins, even in one case a suspected fellow grower who jealously poisoned someone's plants!) I'm not a competitive person myself so I don't really understand the fire that makes them work for huge fruit with so much effort- forcing the plants to strain to the max without cracking, rotting or collapsing. I'd rather have something beautiful, useful, or good to eat, than just a right to brag about "mine's the biggest"! But if I ever go to an agricultural fair I'll be sure to stare at prize-winning pumpkins with different eyes now, knowing all that went into getting them that huge size. They do look rather obscene, though.

Rating: 3/5                256 pages, 2007

Feb 20, 2021

Living with Bugs

Least-toxic Solutions to Everyday Bug Problems 
by Jack DeAngelis 

     This book is very straightforward: an entomologist who worked for the Oregon State University Extension Service for some twenty years, wrote it to inform the general public about bugs. The book identifies the creepy crawlies that are commonly found in homes in the States and tells a little about their life cycles noting which ones are problems to be concerned about, and which you can just ignore because they don't really harm anything. Also noting how they all have a useful role in natural ecosystems and so we shouldn't just wipe them out en masse because we don't like them. When insect infestations are a problem, there's information on how to control numbers or eliminate them from the home, with non-toxic methods recommended first and insecticides or poisons used as last resort. In most cases, the advice was simply to keep things clean! Moths in the pantry? throw out the infested flour, clean up spills and seal the food properly. Bedbugs making you itch at night? wash your sheets every week. Holes in the favorite sweaters you only wear in the coldest month of the year? make sure they're laundered before going back into storage, and kept in a tight plastic container. And so on. I actually found the little details about the small creatures pretty interesting, although seeing closeup photos of cockroaches and lice and engorged ticks is really unpleasant. I learned some interesting things, such as that silverfish can jump (by flipping their bodies), boxelder bugs feed on maple tree leaves (which is why I have lots in my yard every summer), and the wasps that make a paper nest with open cells are predators useful in the garden that rarely sting people, while the yellowjackets that make large roundish paper nests without visible cells, are the ones that might attack people who disturb it, and should be removed.

In all, I found this book useful and informative- but there is one little aggravation which I must remedy someday. My copy is missing pages 33-64! Not torn or cut out, the book was bound very neatly without them. So I didn't get to read about lice, ticks, mosquitoes, carpenter ants, termites, powderpost beetles, horntail wood wasps or carpenter bees. Some of which I have personally encountered so it would have been nice to have this author's take on them. Curious how many other copies of this book out there are missing several signatures, I looked for other reviews online. Found just a few- none of them mention absent pages, and one says that the section I'm missing is the best part of the book! That's a bit disappointing. I did acquire my copy used- now I know why someone else discarded it. Maybe I'll find another someday, and this time scan the pages thoroughly before bringing it home.

Rating: 3/5                 176 pages, 2009

Feb 18, 2021

The Exotic Garden

Designing with Tropical Plants in Almost Any Climate 
by Richard R. Iversen

     This book is about growing tropical plants in a temperate climate. It has information on design- including how to artfully combine the varied textures, colors and growth habits of different plants to best effect. It tells how to cultivate them, including keeping in pots or setting out into beds, and overwintering- which consists of either bringing plants inside, keeping seed, rhizomes or tubers to grow from next year, or taking cuttings. Some plants sounds like it's easier or more economical to just buy new plants in the spring- as once it is warm enough outside, if properly fed and watered, tropical plants can grow very fast. While much of the information in here is repetitive to me, the specifics on tropicals in my kind of climate was very useful. The author is really enthusiastic about tropical plants and his delight in them is infectious. I thought at first well, my choices are limited- I don't have a lot of space indoors to overwinter plants with bright light- nor can i afford to buy tons of basically disposable plants every spring (though I do try to add some perennials to my yard every year). Then I realized hey wait a minute- I already do some of this: I grow and take coleus cuttings every year. I bring my bay laurel, potted figs and geraniums indoors for the winter, set them out again in spring. The book taught me that I could do a few things differently- such as saving the tubers of my decorative sweet potato vine dried and stored in a small box, instead of keeping cuttings growing in pots. This would save space, giving me room for a different plant, and also maybe curtail my problem with whitefly and/or tiny leaf hoppers every winter, which tend to come in on my plants especially the sweet potato vine, even though I take measures against them. So! the book encouraged me. I started taking notes- jotting down names of all the plants that caught my eye in photos as being particularly striking or pretty, and then writing down species I liked the sound of from the some hundred plants in the detailed glossary. Sticking to only those I think I could handle their overwintering needs and mature size, I still ended up with a list of forty plants. It's like my never-ending TBR, the lists I make of plants I'd like to try and grow- after learning more about them and hoping I can actually find a specimen to bring home someday. Now more eager for spring and a new growing season to try my hand at a few new things!

Rating: 4/5           170 pages, 1999

Feb 16, 2021

new shelves!

A while ago I said to my husband, why don't we put shelves behind the bed? where there's empty space between the headboard that leans back, and the air duct that juts out. I looked for a long time and couldn't find any ready-made bookcase that would fit at just 9" deep. So he finally built some for me:
I held things up, moved cords for the drill around, painted. Took us about two days. Then spent a few hours rearranging my library to make use of it! Which was the fun part. These are all TBR books. First row in:
and the rest:
(And it's only half-I have eight other shelves of TBR). Happily this got them all off the floor, and allowed me to rearrange the permanent books so none are double-stacked or horizontally wedged in. As you can see in before and after pics below, of another wall in my bedroom. The stack on the floor in the corner is mostly books I read since the pandemic started. I had no place left to shelve them into the permanent collection.
Now there's space and then some! It's so nice they all have a bit of breathing room too.

Feb 13, 2021

You Grow Girl

by Gayla Trail

     When I started reading this book, I thought it wouldn't teach me much new. I could not have been more wrong. Yes, it covers the basics of gardening, keeping things simple and small-scale whether you just have a balcony space or a patch of backyard. Includes explanations on things like mixing potting soil, making compost, cleaning tools, reading plant labels, thwarting pests, mulching, starting seed, saving the harvest and so much more. There's also lots of crafts such as making a planter box, sewing a gardener's apron with pockets, creating plant labels and seed packets, building a trellis, and custom stepping stones. There's directions for many things I've never tried before such as candied flower petals, floral-infused vinagers and homemade hand salve. I already have ideas to try a few new things, or grow several plants I never considered before, due to her enthusiastic recommendation. Sunchokes and calendula are now on my list. It's all presented in a very cheerful, friendly style, telling you up front what to be concerned about and what to shrug off. This book really made me feel interested in picking things up for the garden again- I had been feeling quite blah about the cold weather lately but it is halfway through february after all, so before turning the last page I went and started seventeen trays of seed for my spring garden. Oh, and I finally found the name of the 'scat plant' I grew one year! This book tells me it's coleus canina, also known as 'scaredy cat plant' (which info I had before but somehow missed the correct ID looking that up). Kinda odd because it's not in the coleus family? so I'm still a bit confused about this one but now I know how to find it again. Very happy to have that little mystery in my head solved.

Rating: 4/5                    208 pages, 2005

Feb 12, 2021

Saving Dove

by C.S. Adler

     I read this book in a hot bath, just under two hours. It's a horse story where the whole narrative arc is about how to procure treatment for an injured horse. It has a lot of difficult things going on: Jan's father has recently died in an accident, she and her mother are still grieving. They had to give up their large ranch house to live in the small "casita" that used to be for hired hands. Her mother still makes a living boarding and caring for other's horses, and taking guests on trail rides, while their original house has been converted into an assisted living home for the elderly. When Jan's horse goes lame it turns out to be more serious than just a bruise or sprain- he needs an operation. Jan's mother takes a second job but it still isn't enough for the cost. The girl is desperate to find a way to save her horse but can't think of anything. She's more distracted than usual from school, and can't relate to the other kids who don't seem to have any of the same worries (though one girl is nice to her and that might turn into a friendship). One day she's outside with her horse and meets two old ladies from the assisted living home, out for a walk. Mattie commiserates with Jan over the horse's condition, says she used to have a horse when she was young, and invites Jan to the house to see photos. Reluctantly Jan complies and to her surprise finds she rather likes the older woman. She visits her now and then, while still trying to figure out what to do: can she get a job herself? could she lease a "share" of her horse to someone who wants to ride and doesn't own one? It turns out that Mattie might have an answer to her problem, but then she worries about the morality of accepting the offer. This story surprised me with its depth, for such a short book it sure hits some serious issues. And I didn't even mention all of them! Have to leave the reader something to find out. There was only one conversation near the end of the book that struck me as awkward, the rest felt very real and easy to read.

Rating: 3/5

Feb 11, 2021

missing migrants

Pomegranate Artpiece puzzle- 1,000 pieces. Nice sturdy jigsaw, though a bit difficult- there's all that blue and the variations between pieces are definite but also very subtle. Honestly I thought at first I wouldn't really like doing this one- it's very abstract with a lot of similar, flat colors. I had to do a lot more looking back and forth between closely at the provided image to figure out where pieces went, than I'm used to. Running my eye over the image so continually, this had an odd visual effect of making it seem like the bird wings were actually flickering, in my mind's eye. Then I read more about the piece online, and suddenly realized its significance. 

In Charley Harper's own words about the artwork, the forty-five birds depicted are among the neotropical migrants that have "shuttled between winter homes in the tropical rainforest and nesting sites in our woodlands. Now their populations are plummeting. Why? Habitat destruction . . . Is your favorite songster in this flock? . . . Are silent springs forthcoming?" It's sobering. I look at them and try to recognize the species (without reading their names and numbers- there's a key on the back of the box to their identities) and think if I know that bird, and did I see it last year, and will I see it the next. . . 

Feb 10, 2021

The Rapture of Canaan

by Sheri Reynolds

     I was skeptical about reading this book because I thought it would have a strong religious bent, but found that once I started it, I simply couldn't put it down. It is about religion, but not the way I had guessed. It reminded me a lot of Witch Child- by the tone, and how it's about a young girl who doesn't quite fit into a secluded community.

Ninah belongs to the Church of Fire and Brimstone and God's Almighty Baptizing Wind- invented by her grandfather who gathered his family members, their spouses, offspring and cousins as his followers. There's about eighty people in the congregation and they live together on a communal farm. (They raise tobacco as a cash crop and the leader divides the profits among the members, but seems to keep most for himself). In this group, strict obedience is required, it seems like any kind of pleasure is forbidden, and harsh punishments are meted out. Infractions such as talking back to elders, drinking alcohol, or women cutting their hair are met with punishments like wearing barbed wire under your shirt, sleeping on nettles and thorns in the bed, having to lie in a freshly-dug open grave all night, or being locked in the cellar for weeks. The followers are taught that they must be pious, constantly pray and wait for the rapture when the righteous will be lifted up to heaven. They speak in tongues during some wild-sounding church meetings, really unlike anything I've read about before. It was something to see- how the author wrote this character made me finally comprehend (a little bit) how a person could get caught up in that kind of belief system.

Ninah isn't sure she believes, though. She's afraid of the punishments and wants to feel close to God but also questions some things and finds herself growing attracted to James, her prayer partner. She's allowed to have private prayer sessions with James because the older folks see them as making a good match someday, and counsel the young people to seek out their hearts in prayer together. This goes in another direction, when Ninah and James convince themselves that their growing feelings for each other are a manifestation of God's love, so thus it can't be a sin when they express those feelings. Ninah ends up pregnant. The community does not react positively, to say the least. What follows is not at all what I expected, and I was gripped to the last page to find out what would happen to Ninah and the baby. Some parts of this story made me scratch my head, or roll my eyes- it's really weird in a few parts- and I wasn't too taken by the weaving metaphor- but the voice is lively, and the story compelling, of this young girl trying to find her way and lift her voice above all the strictures she lives with. (Especially as she sees how other kids are different, because she attends public school). The ending felt rather abrupt, but not enough to make me actively dislike the book. I would have liked to know more about how things worked out, but at least the community was starting to turn in a different direction by then.

Rating: 3/5                        320 pages, 1995

Feb 8, 2021

All My Patients Have Tales

Favorite Stories from a Vet's Practice 
by Jeff Wells, DVM

     A nice read from a veterinarian who worked in mixed animal practice, first in South Dakota, then in Colorado. Part memoir, mostly stories about the animals he treated, with a broad dash of humor. He tells about going through vet school, first days on the job, attempts to prove his knowledge and skills to the clients, and most of all about the animals in need. Funny or interesting case studies and the outcomes. Similar to James Herriot, if not quite the same quality (sometimes the humor got a tad tedious in my opinion). Most of the stories are about pet dogs and cats, though there are also cattle, potbellied pigs, and even a yak. Note: he doesn't shy away from telling how unpleasant some aspects of the job can be- in particular how much feces and other bodily fluids can get all over the place (quite literally). And while most of the stories have positive outcomes, not all the animals make it. Just a sampling of the stories: a supposed tomcat that surprised its family by having kittens, a puppy that ate too many grasshoppers, horses with injuries on their legs or faces, cows that need help birthing, dogs that repeatedly tackled porcupines, a cat that swallowed a fishhook, a hound that ate rat poison, an elderly cat that became diabetic. There's also an errant bison that escaped its field and needed to be sedated for re-capture before it bred all the neighbor's prized cows. I found that Wells wrote a second book titled All My Patients Kick and Bite, which I think I'd also enjoy. 

Rating: 3/5                    226 pages, 2006

Feb 6, 2021

The Rhino with Glue-On Shoes

and other surprising true stories of zoo vets and their patients 
edited by Lucy Spelman and Ted Mashima

     I like reading about veterinary work. This collection about wildlife vet care is light reading (ie: not the highest writing quality) with brief, intriguing chapters. The twenty-eight stories are each related by a different veterinarian, with a preface by the editor team to each of the five sections they're arranged into. Most, but not all, of the stories have happy endings. In a few the medical mystery presented by an ill animal was never solved. Among them are the titular rhioncerous with chronically sore feet who got a custom set of aluminum shoes, a panda with digestive issues, dung beetles infested with red mites, stranded dolphins, a hippo with an infected tooth, polar bear with a hernia, tiny poison dart frog with an injured eye, a young giraffe that needs a leg brace, elephant injured by a poacher's snare, a malnourished bear cub with weak bones, a goldfish with a tumor and weedy sea dragons that suffered "the bends" after an airline flight from Australia to Florida. I think my favorite though, was the story about a moray eel donated by a bartender to a public aquarium when it outgrew its home tank. The eel hid in the rocks of its new home and refused to eat for weeks on end. The aquarium staff finally called the original owner to ask what might tempt the eel to eat. He came to visit the aquarium and when the eel saw him, it came out of hiding and swam up and down the tank glass in front of the man, finally taking food when he offered it. That story warmed my heart. 

Rating: 3/5                310 pages, 2008

Feb 3, 2021

The Flight of the Horse

by Larry Niven

     I think I got this book at a library discard sale or thrift shop- where I recall snatching it up immediately. I recognized it was book I'd read decades ago as a teenager. It's a collection of short stories by sci-fi writer Niven, in which he diverges more into fantasy (I've never read any of his sci-fi). The first part of the book was very familiar on this re-read, the second half not. (I don't know whether that means this was originally a DNF for me).

It has seven short stories. The first five are about a time-traveller named Svetz who goes from the distant future into the past to collect animals for his employer, at the capricious whims of an all-powerful idiotic ruler. By some odd shift, the time machine keeps sending him into alternate versions of the past, where fantastical beasts exist. In Svetz' time, animals of any kind have long been extinct and he only has a few old illustrations to base his search on. In the first story he brings back a unicorn, thinking it's a horse. This tale also had a fun quirk of suggesting that Svetz' appearance to some locals he ran into might have caused them to think he was an angel, from the light bouncing off the 'balloon' that holds breathable air around his head (because the future has such a polluted environment humanity evolved to, that now he can't breathe the cleaner air of the past) or that a girl he met would start the idea of witches on broomsticks when he left his 'flight stick' behind and mused if she would try to use it. Also, he attempts to retrieve a gila monster in another trip, and brings back a fire-breathing dragon for the menagerie

In the second story he is looking for a whale, finds and struggles with a vast sea serpent, and in the end retrieves Moby Dick, sporting injuries and broken spears. In the third story (my least favorite because its premise was so absurd I couldn't suspend disbelief at all), Svetz gets an ostrich from the past. A scientist presumes the ostrich is a neonatal form of a different, much larger bird- and does something to this individual ostrich to make its genetics change so that it literally grows into a giant roc. The fourth story has Svetz collecting an arctic wolf that turns out to be a werewolf. In that journey he also meets men who evolved from wolves, who keep primitive humanoids as pets and guard animals (they're very good at throwing rocks). In the fifth he encounters the character of Death, as a ghostly skeletal figure that grapples with him in the time machine and argues about things. He has to regain control to return safely. (This was my least favorite of the time travel stories).

In all of these I rather enjoyed the humor, how inept Svetz seems when at the same time he usually manages to survive these wild creatures attacking him and actually bring them back to his future time intact. He grumbles about his employer's unreasonable demands and has difficulty with changing technology which isn't explained to him (as the time machine gets updates and new features). The feel of it reminded me of 1960's Star Trek episodes, and all the time-travel jargon brought to mind Doomsday Book.

At the end of the book are two novellas, Flash Crowd and What Good Is a Glass Dagger? I am pretty sure that when I was a teen Flash Crowd was completely over my head- but as an adult I found it an interesting premise, if a bit dull as a storyline. It posits a future where vehicles are obsolete (except for small airplanes and motorbikes used for fun) because teleportation has been developed. All over the world people can literally go anywhere instantly by stepping into a glass booth and dialing a number. It's narrated by a news reporter who comments on not only how cityscapes have changed (he remembers when cars still existed in his childhood) but how the instantaneous travel has affected human society as a whole. It all revolves around a riot he witnesses at a mall- and is blamed for instigating with his hasty reporting. Refusing to accept that, he claims the 'displacement booths' are the main problem- because they enable people to instantly converge on a scene in huge numbers. Another part of the story demonstrates how this also affects the environment when it draws people in sudden hordes to see a natural phenomenon, or to swarm exotic retreats that once were difficult to access. Mostly though it's the reporter investigating what's behind the manufacturing of 'displacement booths' and how they actually work. A lot of those details I didn't really follow, but since I couldn't judge if the science behind teleportation would be plausible as described, I was able to go along with it and just enjoy the story.

The final novella, What Good Is a Glass Dagger? is a setup for a world the author details in other novels, which I'm not familiar with. It has a werewolf pitched into a thirty-year struggle with a wizard who placed a glass dagger in his heart when he was caught attempting thievery. The werewolf guy then spends years travelling trying to find someone who can remove the dagger, but he's hampered by having to avoid areas where magic won't work- and the wizard has a device that can drain magic out of the world- imperiling all the magical creatures. I don't know if it was my mood or what by the time I reached this story, but although many readers state this was their favorite piece in the collection, it didn't really hold my interest. I skimmed a lot of it. I might read it again at a later date; keeping this one on my shelf.

Rating: 3/5              212 pages, 1973

Feb 2, 2021

The Heart of the Continent

A Novel of Australia 
by Nancy Cato 

Story of two women, mother and daughter, who worked as nurses in the far Outback during the late 1800's and early 1900's. The first woman, Alix MacFarlane, was eager to study nursing even though her well-to-do parents frowned on it- nursing wasn't considered a proper occupation for a lady then. She worked where she was needed in a few different remote areas, until fell in love and married. Then went to live with her husband's family on the father-in-law's cattle station. Where the livestock did poorly because of harsh conditions but the old man never wanted to give up. Still very much invested in nursing even though she didn't have a post, Alix started holding a clinic for the Aborignal people who lived or worked around the station- especially the children- which her mother-in-law really disapproved of. The second half of the book is mostly about Alix's daughter Caro (short for Caroline) who grows up on the cattle station then goes away to school and also becomes a nurse. And a pilot, when planes were new, relatively fragile things and women weren't expected to do such dangerous jobs. She becomes part of the Flying Doctor service, travelling back and forth across Australia to get medical care to injured and sick people living remotely. Reading about all that, and the medical cases (although they were very briefly detailed) was interesting. I also learned quite a bit about Australia and its landscape, how badly Aboriginal peoples were treated, and the country's involvement in wartime. The story overlaps both World Wars- affecting the characters very personally. This novel has a lot- medical crises, wartime, some romance, plane crashes, adventures, and just plain living. I was surprised at how common it seemed in this book for married couples to live apart- doctors living away from their wives for years on end, or how Alix traveled from the cattle station to a proper town when it was time for Caro to be born (so the father first saw his baby when it was several months old). I liked this book- and yet I just didn't care much about the characters. Some were nice decent people, others quirky or interesting, but the writing was just rather plain- lots of tell instead of show- so even when on occasion someone in the book died, I felt very little reaction. I'm glad I read it but don't think it will merit a repeat.

Rating: 3/5              478 pages, 1989