A Dog and His People

by Rick Bragg

By the same author as All Over But the Shoutin’. Which I had forgotten about, but reminded myself of via my own review, and now I feel this one rounds the other out nicely. It’s kind of a memoir, mostly focused on the dog. The author lived with his mother and brother on a small farm, in his older age. Struggling with some health issues, just getting through each day and keeping the place more or less running. They took in a stray dog that had lots of problems. Half blind, loved to chase everything, always getting into all kinds of trouble. Author would tell everyone what a bad dog he was, worst dog he’d ever have. Never minded unless he had his own reasons too, that dog. At the beginning you get a sense they wondered why they bothered to keep him around. Then they started to tolerate his ways, quit expecting him to change (though he did mellow some after finally being neutered). And at the end, you get a sense that this phrase “he’s a bad dog” was said with pride, and even fondness. The dog really behaved awfully, but he needed a home after living rough for who-knows how long, and when he saw it was good here, he stuck by his people. Just sitting companionably on the porch when someone was too unwell to do much more than sit and gaze down the driveway. He spent hours in the house (though usually preferred being outside) being near his elderly mother, an ear to all her stories when she lost family during Covid. When folks needed him, the dog was there. I didn’t realize how recent this book was, how current to times, until I read about their fears of Covid, struggles with lockdown, grief that went unattenuated- no funerals or family gatherings to honor someone’s passing. That made it very much more real to me, but also kind of eerie, as I don’t often read books that echo so soon something I’ve gone through. (I didn’t loose any family members during Covid, but other aspects of that story, I could relate to).

It’s not all sad though, not by a long shot. There’s wry commentary and quiet moments and lots of humor, especially at the dog’s misbehavior. I think my favorite part was when the dog tried to herd kittens in the barn- the episode included a large paper sack- and I was laughing so hard. This author is a really good storyteller. I ought to read more of his work.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
238 pages, 2021

Especially Retold for Young Readers

by Robert Hill

original author Johann Wyss, original publication date 1812
While reading Parasite Rex, I need a mental break once in a while, so in between chapters I read this for something quick, easy, and totally different. Then we had a power outage, so I wrote my thoughts about the book on paper, which got set aside. The week got busy, and I read other things that were more interesting, and completely forgot to post my review here! Ha. Shows you how memorable this was. I know I once tried to read a different version of Swiss Family Robinson, and didn’t get far because some details were just so unbelievable. Now I’m wondering if even that book was a retelling, because apparently this story has been rewritten and added to over and over, there are many different versions. This one of course, is much abbreviated and simplified, so much that it was for the most part boring. Even though it’s an adventure and survival story.   — SPOILERS GALORE
It’s about a family- parents and four boys- who get shipwrecked on an unnamed island. (Wikipedia tells me it was in the East Indies, but the animal life doesn’t seem to match that so who knows). The story opens very abruptly, with the family belowdecks during a storm at sea- there’s never any mention of why they’re even on a ship, or where they’re going. Just there’s a storm, and the captain and crew have already got into lifeboats, leaving this family behind. They survive the storm (never seeing the crew again) and make it to the island, along with some animals off the ship. Two dogs, and later they rescue and bring ashore geese, chickens, pigeons, a cow, goat, donkey and sheep. And I think there was a pig too. Very convenient! They take especially good care of the cow, because of the milk it provides.
The family is very industrious and resourceful and they all get along amazingly well (no arguments or whining from these kids) and don’t flinch at any of the challenges or hardships about surviving on the island. They quickly set up a tent from a piece of sail, take stock of their provisions, bring ammunition and weapons ashore, and go back to the ship several days in a row to salvage more supplies, plus broken wood for building materials. The father even at one point decides to cause an explosion on the wreckage so that it will break up and wash ashore more wood and other pieces they can use.
Soon they move from their tent to a tree with wide, thick horizontal branches that they build a treehouse in. They make a bridge over a stream nearby. They build stairs up inside the hollow tree (after relocating a wild bee nest and keeping some honey). It’s all very cleverly done, with the parents having an astonishing amount of knowledge how to do and make things. From using mathematics and angles on the ground to measure the height of certain points in the tree, to knowing how to process flax to make cloth, how to tan animal hides, how to smoke and salt fish, and so on. They have some food from the ship- and grow grain in an open field, and they also find pineapples, wild potatoes, flax and cotton, a plant (it must have been bayberry) that has waxy berries they use to make candles- just a wide array of very useful plants and of course they know how to harvest, utilize and process everything.
I remember now why I rolled my eyes at the original story – which was written in a response to the overwhelming popularity of Robinson Crusoe (this family isn’t even named Robinson, it’s just alluding to that other survival story). Apparently the author wrote it to inspire young people with the idea that God would always provide for them, no matter what circumstance or where they ended up. But you have to admit this family had a lot of very specialized knowledge (or did everyone in the 1800’s just know how to build a spiral staircase, skin animals and cure the hide, grow grain and cut and thresh it, etc?) and a lot of lucky fortune- all the stuff on the ship they were able to salvage, all the plants growing nearby that just happened to be so useful.
What threw me off, with the other more complete version I read, likewise this one, was all the wild animals that lived on this island where they probably wouldn’t exist together in nature. If I recall in the other book they were at one point looking on a scene that included kangaroos and penguins among other species, and I just started laughing (except now I realize maybe I shouldn’t have- Australia does have penguins!) This book doesn’t have any kangaroos. They find an onager that hangs around their donkey, so is then caught and tamed. They catch an ostrich and likewise tame it for one of the young boys to ride (not something anyone should do, btw). They also encounter bears, agouti, sharks and salmon. Some other animals I remember from before aren’t mentioned. But- they think they’ve landed in the Americas. Well, South America has agouti, but not ostriches or onagers. Maybe it was rhea, not ostrich that they saw. If it was the East Indies, onagers and bears could be possible, but not the agouti. It just irritates my brain trying to make sense of all this. I want it to fit together realistically, when really I should just enjoy the story. I suppose the original author just threw together a bunch of wildlife he didn’t know much about but they sounded exotic and a place with all of them together would be fantastic!
At the end, an English ship passes by the island, is alerted by gunshots, and lands to assist them. Two of the sons decide to leave and return to civilization, but the parents and other two kids, stay on the island! Even though during the story they had wondered many times if they’d ever see other human faces again, now with the chance in front of them, the adults decided they were so used to life on the island they’d prefer to remain. Well it did sound like paradise. But I’m sorry, it was a very boring read. Maybe in part because of how formal and polite the dialog was- especially the kids towards their parents- even if people used to talk like that, it sounded so stiff and unbelievable. Oh well.
Rating: 1/5
96 pages, 1973

by Charlie Mackesy

This one is hard to give a rating to. I feel kind of bad about it, but honestly I don’t think it would be honest of it me to give it a 3. It’s very sweet and I really like the sketchy drawings, but it’s also- insubstantial. There’s no storyline- which is okay- but there’s not much to replace it. If you still want to be surprised by reading this the first time yourself, go no further- SPOILERS- because otherwise I will have nothing to talk about.

A boy taking a walk encounters a mole he befriends. The mole likes cake and often comments on this. Simple pleasures (reminding me of Winnie the Pooh). They discuss friendship, love, forgiveness and other things. Gently encouraging each other. They come across a fox in a snare, who would eat the mole if he could, but the mole chews him free. They walk on together. At a body of water the mole falls in, the fox rescues him. They meet a horse. Talk more about companionship, what it means to be brave, unconditional love, etc. They walk into a forest and out again. Face a storm and come through it. And that’s it. It’s mostly heart-warming and uplifting sayings, alongside the drawings. My favorite lines:

the biggest waste of time [is] comparing yourself to others.”

One of our greatest freedoms is how we react to things.”

Most of the old moles I know wish they had listened less to their fears and more to their dreams.”

Sometimes just getting up and carrying on is brave and magnificent.”

It all reminds me very much of The Little Prince, but I liked that a whole lot better. (Even though I kind of disparaged it when I wrote about it here years ago).

Oh, and the text is all in a scrawly inked handwriting. Which is lovely in its own way, and my eyes got used to reading it, but I can understand that many readers would have a difficult time with it.

Borrowed from the public library. I read it in one sitting, in a library chair.

Rating: 3/5
128 pages, 2019

The Physics of Animal Life

by Matin Durrani and Liz Kalaugher

Animals and science. This one was a bit slow for me to get through. I enjoyed all the things I learned about exactly how animals do things (though some details are still undiscovered, or at least at the time of this publication), but I didn’t always grasp the explanations, even though I could tell the author was simplifying matters for the general reader. In a nice way. And when equations came into the mix, my focus would start to slide. Mathematics and physics not really my thing. But I’m game to try and comprehend.

This book delves into heat conduction and energy transfer, Newton’s laws of motion, the properties of fluids and what that means for animals that move through it, on top of it, or simply want to avoid turbulence (in water or air); sound vibrations and how animals use or exploit them, likewise with electricity and magnetism, curious properties of how light travels, and quantum physics. I admit I got lost a few times. But the main subject- the animals- kept drawing my curiosity back to continue.

Some of the things I learned: some garter snakes pretend to be female to steal heat from others. Ground squirrels fight rattlesnakes by bluffing with their tails- about their size- via heat conductivity. Dwarf seahorses are super sneaky. Bees find flowers and detect if other bees have already visited them, via perception of electric fields. Oriental hornets can absorb sunlight and save it as energy using a pigment called xanthopterin! Ants navigate by polarized light- so they can find their way even on cloudy days. And there’s so much more, from how archerfish hit their targets in spite of light refraction through water, to why giant squids have such huge eyes and how geckos manage to walk on the ceiling, to the ways many other animals’ bodies work within and exploit the laws of physics- from harlequin mantis shrimp, bats, sea turtles, cuckoo chicks, elephants, bees, spiny lobsters and peacocks (shivering their tail feather display to create sounds outside the range of human hearing- but apparently very alluring to peahens), komodo dragons and mosquitoes, to your ordinary cats and dogs. Fascinating stuff, if also a bit tiresome. (It was a good go-to-sleep-at-night book).

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
304 pages, 2016

Inside the Bizzare World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures

by Carl Zimmer

You’d think from the cover and subtitle that this is mostly about how creepy and icky and scary parasites are. And they are. But it’s also about how amazingly adaptive they can be, how influential on other animals (and plants) including humans, even how beautiful they are when viewed up close by someone appreciative (the author). Some parts of this book get really detailed about microbiology at the cellular level, which made me have to read every page a few times over because I just didn’t get it. Most is easily understandable and fascinating. Especially all the interconnections that I was never aware of. Parasites are complicated. Many of them still not very well understood, or even identified. Lots are very specific to their host, so if that host animal goes extinct, so do the numerous parasite species that live within it. I’d heard of the parasites that can control the actions of insects, or make rats unafraid of cats, in order to facilitate getting into their next host to continue their lifecycle. I had never before read about how parasites can make male crabs act like pregnant females, or do any other number of things that hold sway over the rise and fall of various animal populations. I loved the story about how an entomologist solved the problem of the cassava mealybug in Africa, that threatened to destroy the main food crop of 200 million people in the 1970’s. He thwarted that by introducing a very specific parasite, and the details of that were a great read. Unfortunately, there’s lots of other mentions on attempts to control pest species by introducing a parasite that went wrong. This book certainly made me feel creeped out and itchy at times, I’d have to put it aside for a bit. But it was also captivating. One I’ll probably want to read again someday.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
306 pages, 2000

made by Bits and Pieces ~ artist Jan Patrik ~ 1,000 pieces

This puzzle was fun. Lots of different colors and visual patterns. Nice, sturdy pieces- a bit too much glare for my taste, but it wasn’t terrible. The random piece cut was full of unique shapes. Plenty that pretended to be edges, but weren’t (not a single one of these is actually an edge piece, though I had them all sorted out for that) but that just adds to the challenge! (And there was one piece on the bottom edge that should have been obvious to pick out from the others, but eluded me until I was a good way into the puzzle)

Some very skinny ones too.

Also challenging was that the whole picture had this subtle wavy texture. It looks to me like a digital painting that had the texture applied over everything- and that made it tricky to discern between pieces of similar colors, because the texture looked the same whether it was lion fur, pale grass, or elephant hide!

Some details- leopard


and this one that really confused me: why are there canada geese in a picture of African animals? My first thought was well, maybe they migrate there but I looked it up and no, they don’t. There’s plenty other types of geese and waterfowl in Africa that could be alongside giraffes, zebra and lions- but not this species. It kind of annoyed me.


The Insects Who Rule the World and the People Obsessed With Them

by David MacNeal

I liked the subject matter, but not the delivery. I tried for fifty pages and then kept thinking about other books I’d rather be reading instead. Looked at some other reviews online to see if it might get better, or was it my own lack of focus, but a lot of people agreed with me: this book is scattered and jumpy. It’s full of jokes and odd asides and pop culture references (which usually don’t do much for me). The jokes would be fine, except they’re crammed in there, every few sentences it felt like, so I’d forget what I was actually supposed to be reading about. The footnotes sometimes add useful or interesting information, but just as often they are more attempts at humor. Which reminded me too much of Mud Season, and that’s not a good thing. It’s when I saw another reader compare this author’s writing style to Mary Roach that I realized my hunch was right: ditch this one. There’s much better books on insects out there, if I really want to learn something. Also, it seems to be more focused on the oddities of people who study insects, than the curiosities and marvels of the insects themselves. Not for me.

What I did glean from those fifty pages: the efficiency of ant colonies mapping out pathways, inspired some computer algorithms for internet connections to avoid congestion and slowdowns. Insects are sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic field (it wasn’t explained what they do with that, but I assume it’s for navigation). An insect’s brain may be the size of a pinhead, but it’s complex and packed with so many neurophils that it took a team of arthropod neuroscientists twenty-five meetings over almost ten years, to map out the separate regions. Disappointing, all the tiresome bits I wasn’t interested in, to read through to the good stuff. I wish I had the patience for that, but I don’t right now.

Borrowed from the public library. Back it goes!

Rating: Abandoned
308 pages, 2017

Living with the Mule Deer of Deadman Gulch

by Joe Hutto

I knew about this guy because I watched his documentary film about living with wild turkeys a few years ago- and have really been wanting to read his book about that experience (Illumination in the Flatwoods) ever since. I should have known he worked with more species, not just turkeys. His list of close contact wildlife studies includes bighorn sheep, wood ducks, elk, gray foxes and many others. I hoped for more books on those, but can’t find any (though I assume he’s written reports).

Touching the Wild is about his study on a mule deer herd in Wyoming. The deer had their winter range on part of his ranch, so he and his wife easily observed them up close. And then one day, a single doe started hanging out in his yard near the house, showing little fear of humans. She was there so often they gave her a name, and she soon accepted food they offered. The other deer saw that she was unharmed and started to come closer to the house too, so before long they could recognize many individuals. They gave them all names, and started keeping track of how the deer were related to each other, which one had new fawns, who got injured or sick, which had dominant status, and so on. All that is chronicled in the bulk of this book- a saga of the deer through seven years. Their personalities are distinct, and their stories are individual. Some seem to meet with bad luck from the start- loose their mother as a fawn, struggle with hunger and illness, loose their own fawns as an adult, meet with terrible injury from barbed wire or mountain lion attacks, and on and on. A lot of suffering detailed. But also very close and tender moments, as some of the deer became so trusting they would allow the author to groom them with his hands, or sit near them while they were in labor! Other individuals remained suspicious and would never let him approach (and he always respected that). This man had been a hunter, but now after knowing the deer as individuals he found their deaths hard to take and tried to protect them, feeding orphaned fawns even though he knew fewer than half would survive, supplementing winter feed when the deer had a difficult time, etc. He never intervened to patch up injuries or administer medications though.

I liked this book but also felt a little disappointed in it. It has a lot of effusive writing- not flowery per se, but full of descriptions with long words- example-  ” Learning and transmitting knowledge from one generation to the next is a fundamental tenet of culture and is distinguished from those social systems that are defined by the instinctive obligations of genetically defined social behavior”  – and expressing over and over a very emotional connection to the deer. He kept saying how much he learned from the deer, how they revealed the secrets of their lives to him, but I never got a good sense of what that was. What secrets of their behavior did he uncover? It wasn’t until the final chapters that there was actual information about the mule deer lives outside of their social interactions in his yard- how they compete with other cervid species for habitat, how many predators threaten them, how their physiology and behavior is so different from the white-tail. Honestly I found this section more interesting, that I was actually learning something from it- and there wasn’t enough of that.

Most telling was all his explanations of mule deer population declines, and his theories on the underlying causes. The prevalence of predators again (wolves and mountain lions), the number of human hunters (allowed to take does and fawns as well as bucks), the low ratio of female fawns (which no one can really explain), and for some reason the deer seem to be having trouble getting enough nutrition from their summer range. I had never heard of the effects of acid rain on plant life in mountain regions- but I went to read more about it after this book, and yes it seems to be a real problem- it’s complicated but basically it changes the chemical composition of the soil which binds up selenium so the wildlife ends up with deficiencies which leads to disease. It’s troubling that I looked up more about mule deer in Wyoming, and it seems their numbers are still in decline. And yet hunters are still allowed to buy permits to take does and fawns- the main thing this author argued against.

A mule deer is a creature that is wide awake on this planet, and I feel safe in saying that the human organism by comparison is a creature asleep at the wheel. The human brain is developed around a highly complex, language-based representational system, and we are proficient at collecting and organizing large quantities of information, but there appears to be little correlation between the acquisition and accumulation of these vast amounts of information and the achievement and expression of a corresponding wisdom. It must be bound up in the complexity of the human brain, but, ironically, we are creatures who find it exceedingly difficult to simply pay attention.

Borrowed from the public library. The book has many good photographs. I’m now inclined to look for the corresponding documentary film.

Rating: 3/5
313 pages, 2014

made by C. Harrison Conroy Co. ~ photographer unknown ~ 750 pieces

This was one of the more difficult 750-piece puzzles I’ve done. All those pink azaleas in the background was very reminiscent of Quite Fetching! Not to mention that it’s a photograph. An altered one though, I think. The butterflies looked a bit off- the way they were posed, so many so close together- and peering very close, you can see the tiny legs don’t quite sit on the flowers in a natural way. I really think only the dark-winged one on the upper left side (that’s facing to the left) was part of the original photograph, and the others were all pasted in. Pretty good job, but still! The butterflies were fun to do, and a tad easy. It was all the pink flowers that gave me a headache. Very standard ribbon cut, with the one extra variation of some wavy edges instead of knobs / holes. It didn’t get easy again until I was down to the last twenty pieces, and could more readily pick out shape matches. Three missing pieces. I made replacements to patch in. My first attempt with colored pencil on white cardstock wasn’t bold enough, couldn’t get the background dark to blend in. Used markers on thin cardboard instead (three layers) and that was a much better match.

Husband picked out the replacements right away (but he’d seen where I was working on them). Turns out two are a tad too dark now, and the layer of tape I added made them a bit too shiny- but from a distance or at a glance you don’t really notice them, so I’m satisfied enough. I left this one out on the table for a day just to admire my handiwork.

Funny thing, when I first spread out the pieces on the table, I found a surprise- someone else’s handmade cardboard puzzle piece! Much larger, and roughly made. Of course I’m curious about that, but I’ll never know.

a thrift store find

by Rainbow Rowell

This book has been so popular, I feel like everything’s been said about it already! But here goes: it’s about two kids who don’t fit in at school, and seem to be complete opposites, who find each other. Park is half Korean, into comic books and alternative music (this is the eighties- wow, it took me back remembering some of those songs- and lots were mentioned that I didn’t know at all!) His family is fairly well-to-do, pretty comfortable home life, but he feels like he can never please his father. Eleanor is totally different- she’s large, with bright red hair and odd clothing choices- so kids tease, mock and bully her at school. She thinks of herself as overweight and disgusting, so doesn’t expect anyone to ever like her (whereas, for the reader that becomes something to question- by the end of it, I started to think she was just very ample and curvy). Her home life is a disaster- there’s never enough money, she shares a room with four younger siblings, her stepfather is mean-tempered to say the least. She doesn’t let anybody else know what goes on at home. Least of all Park. He can’t even imagine. They meet on the bus when all the other kids taunt Eleanor by denying her a seat, and Park finally slides over and lets her sit by him. At first they just ignore each other. Then Park realizes she’s reading his comic books over his shoulder. So they find a connection via comics- and then music- and start to become friends- and then it quickly slides into something more.

It’s a lovely, tender and sweet story of first love, but not without some jagged edges, misunderstandings and completely different takes on what’s going on- because you read this story from both viewpoints. For example, Eleanor’s clothes. He thinks she dresses oddly as a statement: look how different I am. I thought at first she wore old clothes because she simply had nothing else. But by the end of the story you realize there might be another reason altogether: to make herself unattractive . . .  It takes Park a very long time to realize how awful the home situation is that Eleanor’s hiding, whereas for her part, it takes a long time to get up the courage to visit Park’s home, to accept his parents’ hospitality (his mother doesn’t like her at first) and then to open up about some of the realities she’s been hiding. And when her home life finally becomes intolerable, what will they do. Eleanor can’t stay there, but it breaks your heart to see these two who have found so much in each other, forced apart because one of them has to find a safe place.

There’s so much to like about this book. The ease of the flowing prose. The funny, realistic, snappy dialog. The gradual blooming friendship. The surprises- especially how one of the mean girls at school turns out to be not quite so bad. Dismay at how ineffectually adults at school deal with the bullying Eleanor suffers- that felt very real too, unfortunately. I really don’t get why this book has been banned- because of the swearing? it made me cringe a few times, but I was able to gloss over most of it (even though the f-word is among those that bothers me most). How it addresses abuse and sexuality probably is an issue for some people too- though I appreciated that, just like in her other book, the intimacy is portrayed mostly off page, you get more of what the characters think and feel about each other, than what they’re actually doing.

I waffled between giving this book three or four stars. It’s really really good- one you want to just sit and read all day– and I stayed up far too late two nights in a row to finish. Not quite stellar for me, though. Maybe because I’m no longer a teenager? Or because some of the back-and-forth between viewpoints felt a little choppy- it alternates between chapters, which become just pages, and then sometimes every other line or so for several pages in a row. Glad it’s easily marked, but a bit heady switching back and forth so quick.

Borrowed from the public library. The edition I read has fan art on the endpapers, and I really like the pieces by Simini Blocker and Mark Lauren Blado.

Rating: 3/5
336 pages, 2013


All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it


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