How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Barn

by Catherine Friend

I really liked this book. It’s about the author’s forays into farming, with her female partner. A big concern they had starting their farm, was how people in the small town would react to a lesbian couple as neighbors. Nobody batted an eye. Much harder was learning the skills- they’d had grandparents that farmed, but didn’t have any direct experience themselves. The author was a writer, her partner wanted to start a farm and she was supportive, so they dived in together. One of them a bit reluctant to get her hands dirty, prone to anxiety and a tendency to be controlling. The other enthusiastic and brave (lots of dangerous equipment and situations!) about all things farming, but easily angry- at immediate problems, at her partner, at the world in general. The story is just as much about the difficulties their relationship suffers through, and how they work through that, as it is about farming. First they raise chickens, then try their hands at sheep and wine grapes. Trying to do it all with the least negative impact to the land, few pesticides and chemicals, etc (but not strictly organic). With lots of pitfalls and a steep learning curve. And the author’s personal struggles realizing how much the farm work takes away from her writing, and figuring out how to balance that without leaving her partner all the heavy work. I loved how brisk and down-to-earth this book was. Grimacing and laughing at the mishaps, delighting in the new lambs and other joys, the satisfaction of good work done. Very honest about how hard it all is. I could relate far better to this book than Dirty Chick they have a lot in common, but the mindset and personality varies widely.

And then there’s all the animals! In addition to chickens and sheep, they had goats, llamas, ducks and geese. I was a bit baffled and disappointed not to hear more about the dogs. Several dogs from the start that were just pets, but then they got a young border collie. Reported feeling encouraged when he showed “eye” towards the sheep- but then no mention of the dog being used to move sheep, or getting trained- however lots of pages about the difficulties in herding sheep or catching them. I suppose they never found time to train the dog? or it didn’t work out? but there’s no explanation of that at all. I just found that a tad frustrating as a reader, because every time I read about how hard it was to catch an individual sheep or move them, I’d think: where’s that border collie? why isn’t he helping with this job. Would have liked to know.

Other similar books: The Bucolic Plague by Josh Kilmer-Purcell, The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball, Shepherds of Coyote Rocks by Cat Urbigkit, Thoughts While Tending Sheep by W. G. Ilefeldt. I know I’ve read others about keeping sheep, and being new to farming, but these are the ones that came immediately to mind.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
240 pages, 2006

made by Pomegranate ~ artist Franklin Carmichael ~ 1,000 pieces

Another puzzle I did over the holidays. Not enough time to complete it, but I knew that would be the case when I started so didn’t mind. This is just two days’ work, a bunch of short sittings between other activities. I had forgotten to take my camera along on the trip, but tried to do progress shots with my new (old style) flip phone. You might think these photos are terrible, but I’m actually impressed how well most of them turned out. I had the puzzle turned to sit with my back to the window for the best lighting, but that made it awkward to get into the space for taking pictures. There was nothing to stand on to get a good height above the table for a photo, or to prop the board up at an angle on, and it was too heavy to move to the floor (all things I do when taking photos of puzzles in progress at home).

So I took these pictures holding my little flip phone above my head and angling it best guess down at the board on the table (with many I just had to delete). The really awful three just before the last in the series were done at night with the overhead artificial lights. I tried to make adjustments once I had the pictures on the computer, but there’s only so much you can do. I could have puzzled for another hour, but was into all the darker pieces then, it was taking me ten minutes just to fit one piece in. Gave up. The next morning (last sitting, final photo) I put a whole dozen in place while my tea was steeping.

I had some help too. My mother-in-law, my husband’s nephew and niece (she’s five) all sat and joined in at various times. The niece was the most eager. I think she placed three pieces! And it was a tough puzzle. (My father-in-law glanced at it once and said “That’s a terrible puzzle!” I’m not sure if he just didn’t like the picture, or thought the colors were all dull). But I actually liked this one- it reminded me a lot of Jack Pine and Poplar. If I come across it in a thrift store or at a swap, I’ll definitely get it to work again to completion. I wanted to see how the colors would punch once the final dark blue-green trees and shadows were in place, but I left all that hard part for the relatives to finish!

I’ve said a lot about the circumstances around this puzzle, but not the quality- it’s same as Jack Pine. Lovely surface texture, very minimal glare, ribbon cut with standard shape variety. My only complaint is that some of the shape variations (the knobs) are so small I have to look at them very closely. I used this very nice puzzle board that my in-laws have- it’s the kind with a ledge on one side, and four drawers you can pull out, to keep the pieces sorted. So I did a lot of sorting at the beginning. Which was handy, but then found myself moving all the pieces again from each color group, to spread out around the puzzle on the board. I’m so used to working with everything visible to run my eyes over, soon realized I prefer my plain old assortment of boards rather than the fancy drawers/sorting trays- and I have quite a few now for different puzzling situations. My largest and most often used, is a sheet of thin plywood painted white. I also have a smaller sheet of white corrugated plastic (which is lightweight so easier to move around but flexible so also tricky), two panels of pressed chipped cardboard, one of black foamcore, and a set of eight thick cardboard pieces I’m going to someday do a 9,000 piece Hieronymus Bosch on.

Well, here’s the terrible assembly pics. I’ll try to remember and take my actual digital camera along next time I travel, in case of more puzzle opportunities (and family photos, of course).

borrowed from a relative

by Sara Gruen

Sequel to Riding Lessons. Things seem to be in a better place in this book- the main character is in a solid relationship with her boyfriend (but frustrated that it doesn’t seem to be moving towards a marriage proposal), the teenage daughter is showing a keen interest in horses that might help keep her out of trouble, the grandmother is a bit easier to get along with, having more to relate to now that her daughter’s grown and dealing with adult issues. I have to say, she still didn’t always handle them well, but didn’t strike me as quite so wrapped up in herself this time around. The horse that was center of the last book’s drama, is in the background now- he’s only in a few scenes, and then mostly standing in his stall when the woman comes to groom or speak to him for solace. There’s a tense incident near the beginning of the book, when a badly treated horse is rescued from an awful situation, but then he doesn’t feature much in the rest of the story. And another scene where protagonist has to attend a mare giving birth- on her own- and is freaked about about handling it properly- things get dicey but turn out alright. I think that was just to show her character growth, but dang it was the best scene in the book (if you like reading about animals). Teenage daughter gets accepted to a prestigious riding school, and goes off against her mother’s wishes- because she wants to compete as a jumper, and mother is terrified due to her own past accident. Most of the novel is about that- the mother struggling to overcome her fears in seeing daughter progress further in competitive riding. I have to say, I still felt her reactions to things like the rebellious teen going out with boys or getting a small tattoo a bit of overreaction, but I was full on board with how she responded to her daughter’s sometimes risky decisions with the horse.

I was hoping this book would be more about the horses, the difficulties of competition, the skills they worked on- but actually it was more about the family. Two-thirds in, there’s a sudden accident (not on a horse) that brings into sharp focus the need for family, and they drop everything to deal with that. The horses only come back into the picture near the end, and then it’s mainly figuring out: will the daughter still ride? how can she balance the rigors of training with her desire to be closer to family? will the mother finally let go of her reluctance to see her daughter participate in a dangerous sport? It ended well, I just wasn’t quite so keen on reading all the stuff about family tragedy when I thought it was going to be a book about competitive jumping. That’s okay, though. It was still a good story.

Rating: 3/5
371 pages, 2003

More opinions:
Book Addiction
anyone else?

made by TradeOpia ~ artist unknown ~ 243 pieces

My fourth wooden puzzle! It was a birthday present- back in October, and I just got around to doing it over the holiday. These are so much fun. And really stretch the brain- I find myself focusing on shapes in a completely different way. It made me remember the only time I’ve seen an actual chameleon in the wild- because it was pitch dark, the guide showing us with a flashlight this tiny creature on a leaf- it was very hard to see!

I kept trying to figure out the significance of the outside shape- some kind of shield? Then my kid pointed out it looks like a lion or bear head, upside down. We guessed that the manufacturer just reused that cut shape but flipped, instead of making a new leaf outline, or the edge of the chameleon itself . . . 

Unfortunately this puzzle did have a few minor issues- one piece was chipped,

another had scratches

and several were splitting apart

this one completely separated. I had to do a little work with superglue before diving in. A tad disappointing, in a brand-new puzzle!

The reverse side though, was completely clean, no burn marks at all. (I did a cardboard sandwich to flip it over and admire, but didn’t take a photo).

First thing of course, was sorting out and admiring all the “whimsy” pieces- mostly animals

these sea creatures

also leaves, trees, acorn, a flower (or is it an anenome? amoeba? milk splat… ?) and a pawprint.


it was a Gift

by Sara Gruen

I don’t know why, for the longest time I’ve had this title on my TBR list thinking it was a memoir. Nope, it’s fiction. It was a good read, though. Not the best, but kept me turning all the pages to the end, to see what would happen. Some things I saw coming a mile away, and others took me by surprise. The writing was not always smooth, the main character was rather dislikable- very self centered and oblivious to what was really going on around her- and yet kind of sympathetic, too. I can imagine that many in her situation would find themselves blinded to reality, desperate to hold onto something as things familiar fall apart.

The main character has just lost her job, and her husband suddenly leaves her for a younger woman. Struggling through the divorce by mostly ignoring what’s happening, she goes home to stay on her mother’s horse farm, taking along the headstrong teenage daughter she’s having difficulties with. It’s quickly clear that she doesn’t have a good relationship with her parents, and slowly pieces are added to the story. A father who put a lot of pressure on her to succeed in the past, at one particular thing. A devastating accident where she lost her riding partner- a beloved, talented horse of strikingly unusual color. The trauma was so bad she never got on a horse again. But now, someone nearby with a horse rescue stable, brings to their corrall another horse that looks almost exactly like her lost competition mount. There’s only one explanation for how another horse of such uncommon appearance could show up again. She throws all her focus into solving that- even though she’s supposed to be managing the stable and taking care of things for her mother, while her father is dying from an incurable medical condition (another thing she’s ignoring). Things go from bad to worse on all sides- her father’s condition worsens, her daughter gets into even more objectionable activities (although I really thought the protagonist’s reactions here were exaggerated), her mother barely speaks to her, and she’s doing a terrible job at managing the riding stable- in fact, they’re imminently threatened with loosing it altogether. I’m not a business person, and even I could see that she was making one bad decision after another, there.

But she can’t deal with any of that, because she’s so focused on the rescue horse who cannot be handled, and the puzzle about his background which turns into something that threatens her with loss again. Meanwhile there’s this awkward triangle of love interests going on- a man she has history with is their on-call veterinarian, and she’s finding the French riding instructor attractive, but won’t admit it. (I didn’t care much for the romance aspect of this book, although some readers will find it more of a focus that the horse stuff). I really couldn’t see how this story would have any kind of happy ending, as this woman seemed determined to wreck everything she touched (which appallingly, she even recognized). But in the end, it does wrap things up satisfyingly- in a manner I wouldn’t have expected, and it didn’t feel too forced. I’m a tad curious to read the sequel- which I also have- but ready to drop it at any point if it’s boring me . . .

The weird thing is that, for all I disliked the main character, I could feel a smidge of sympathy towards her as well. How many of us have tried again and again, things that we fail at? And you have to keep going with something. She did go back to her family, even though she had bitter memories there. She did attempt to help her mother run the stable, although would have done far better to admit her lack of experience, and her mistakes as she made them, instead of digging herself deeper into a hole. I think that’s really what kept me reading. Because it was so darn realistic, how flawed this woman was, floundering around trying to put her life back together without really knowing how. And it was the horse that saved her, in a way. At least it got her interested in something again.

Rating: 3/5
387 pages, 2004

More opinions:
Book Addiction
anyone else?

Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse

by Nancy Marie Brown

This book is about Icelandic sagas and horses. The author tells how she first became interested in studying the sagas during university years, and took her husband to Iceland to rent out a summerhouse one year, where they would find solitude to work and write. She fell in love with the land, and its distinctive horses. I didn’t know how remarkably difference Icelandic horses are from other breeds (Arabians are too, in different ways). Also very different is how they are raised and trained, and the attitude of people towards them in Iceland. After visiting several times the author, a moderately experienced rider, decided she wanted to buy two Icelandic horses to take home to America. She returned alone specifically for this purpose. Which was made difficult by the fact that after some fifteen years spent studying the language, her conversational skills were still very basic. Her riding skills were above beginner level- but she wasn’t at all trained how to handle an Icelandic horse. She traveled around and rode many different horses to try them out, but couldn’t find one that she really connected with. And in spite of constantly repeating the phrase popular in Iceland that color doesn’t matter (a horse’s personality, willingness, smoothness of gait, etc being far more important in defining its quality) she kept being drawn to horses that had an attractive appearance (but other serious flaws that revealed upon handling). Then there was the tricky social aspect- her host expected her to purchase the mare he recommended (being known as a fine judge of horses) and was offended when she kept looking around. It was all very interesting to read about. The first half of the book was a bit less intriguing for me- having lots of asides about the language, and retelling bits of sagas that related to what the author was experiencing or thinking about. I liked it much better the further she got into testing out the horses, learning about what defined the Icelandic horse, trying to improve her skills in riding them, and so on. More about this was much to my liking. A great book.

Rating: 4/5
230 pages, 2001

made by Cobble Hill ~ artist Geoffrey Tristram ~ 1,000 pieces

I did this puzzle slowly in order to enjoy it more. Just love Cobble Hill puzzles- the unique piece cut, minimal glare, very nice canvas-like surface, sturdy pieces- everything good! I left the cat for last because I thought the fur would be fun- but after the face, it was particularly hard, so took quite a few sittings. The dark background was also tricky- especially that wallpaper with muted birds and flowers. Just the kind of challenge I like, though.

from online swap - Puzzle Exchange Group

Surviving Beyond the Back of Beyond

by Douglas Chadwick

I don’t think I knew there are grizzly bears that live in the harsh, barren desert. There’s not many of them- thirty or forty it seems. The author, a renowed biologist, traveled to the Gobi region in Mongolia multiple times as part of a team studying the population of golden desert bears. Tracking them with difficulty, supplementing their food supply (a difficult adjustment for a scientist who his whole life had followed and urged the rule don’t feed the bears! but he explains why in this case it was okay and even essential), setting live-capture traps to take vital signs. Putting up barbed wire strands in key areas to snag hair for DNA samples. Meeting with local officials to help form laws and regulations protecting the bears and other animals, and with schoolchildren to teach, encouraging appreciation of their wildlife. Lots about the landscape of the desert, the vast sense of place, the cheerful optimism of the people around him, the culture. Made me remember other books I’ve read that take place in Mongolia and surrounding regions. I wish there’d been more about the bears than just glimpses, but the wealth of information they could gather from hair samples, dissecting scat, tracking collars and motion-activated cameras (often destroyed by the startled bears) was impressive and valuable. It’s nice to see this book end on an upnote, with the population remaining steady perhaps even increasing a bit, protections and scope of the study widening, and more people caring about the bears.

When the author mentioned his work on mountain goats, I thought, I have to read that book! and guess what I recalled that I did- several times actually- and it’s still among my very favorites – A Beast the Color of Winter. (I think I like it even better than this one, because it has more detail about the animals’ daily lives and habits, since he could habituate them to his presence and get very close). Chadwick is a great writer, the narrative moves along with vivid and definite prose, clear descriptions of the landscape and the work, warm and thoughtful portraits of his fellow men, and also a good dash of humor throughout. Here’s just a sample sentence: the landscape unfolding before us felt so elemental and ancient that the human habit of parsing time into minutes and then fussing over their loss had begun to seem like a mental disorder.

Another bit I particularly like: In science, being confused is an opportunity to admit that you don’t understand something and to start asking questions. The obstacle is that part of human nature urges us to avoid confusion and stick with the answers we already have, working to make them fit. The more you heed that inner voice, and the more you assume that the answers you have must be right, the lower your chances of learning something new.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
288 pages, 2017

Vol. 6

by Atsushi Okada

This final one took me by surprise. Not all fighting, and it wraps things up nicely. The cats all explain themselves, make amends, find what they were looking for, and come to some realizations that they are living their best lives. In a nutshell: Madara tells why he liked to mess around poking his fingers into everyone else’s business and pitting the street cats against each other. He’d been raised in a cage by some cat hoarder, treated badly, and then didn’t know how to survive as a stray when escaped. Nobody helped him, so he kind of hated all the other cats. He leaves. Ryuusi finally locates the calico tom he was looking for- the guy had been his mentor when he was younger, but deliberately pushed him away at some point, in a bitter altercation (wherein Ryuusi lost that part of his ear). Everyone thought this was Madara’s doing, but really the calico used that as an excuse. He’d been trying to isolate himself because was ill, felt near to dying and wanted to spare the younger cat seeing that. Instead of expiring in the weeds though, he was taken in by a human and got treatment. So the cats also come to understand that some people are good to them (including ones that feed the colonies). Mocchi the exotic shorthair gets reunited with his human and goes back to living in a house. The tabby brothers decide to tone down all the fighting and appreciate the good things in life more- sunshine, companionship, good things to eat, etc. The Bengal and the Sphinx get welcomed into the gang (with the hairless cat now a self-appointed babysitter- all the kittens think he’s cool!) That guy was always just seeking his own, to find where he belonged, too. There’s not so many odd cat poses in this book (as only a few brief fight scenes) until the end, when they all break into pages of dancing! Ugh. Oh WELL.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
216 pages, 2019

Vol. 5

by Atsushi Okada

I haven’t been warning of or trying to avoid spoilers much in writing about this series, because well, I don’t expect any of you will actually read them like I did. This one was almost as boring as the last, but it had one strange moment and a lot of hinted at revelations in what cats shouted at each other in the middle of their fights. In the opening pages, Mocchi the housecat is the only who evaded being locked in the warehouse. He confronts the duo that orchestrated that trap- Madara the brindle and this other tuxedo cat. Protests the cruelty and senselessness of their actions. Madara casually opens the bay door again to find all the cat gang members injured and collapsed on the floor. Ryuusei is barely alive but he rouses himself to fight Madara, stopping him from killing Mocchi. The entire rest of the book is one long fight between Madara and Ryuusei. With some interspersed pages of backstory (again) as Madara explains why Ryuusei has been searching for Gekka, the tom calico. It still didn’t make much sense, but I’m guessing that will be cleared up in the final volume. The weirdest thing about this one, is the scene where Madara reveals his trick to overcome Ryuusei (who is the unbeaten fighter after all). It’s an array of moving cat toys laid out across the floor- so they battle in the middle of that, which distracts Ryuusei, and every time he looks at a toy, that’s when Madara strikes. Really odd. I suppose this was intended to be the funny part, but I just found it baffling. So Ryuusei has to corral his instincts and take control in order to beat his opponent, which is difficult. More very strange cat poses as they leap around during the fight. I did find myself admiring how the artist drew the action, all the lines for blurred motion, I haven’t seen a style like that before. The back pages have some character sketches of the three “exotic” characters (the longhair catnip dude, Bengal fighter and the hairless sphinx).

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5
164 pages, 2019


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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