Month: July 2008

Observations on Some Misunderstood Plants
by Charles Heiser

This book is mostly about the virtues of weeds. I picked it up because I\’m struggling to rid my yard of weeds- I\’ve identified over fourteen of them! Our house was empty some six or eight months before we bought it, so the yard is completely overrun with undesired plants. And I want to learn more about them.

The author of Weeds in My Garden is a botany professor from Indiana University. His \”garden\” is basically a field full of weeds (over a hundred!) which were used for study- some were planted, others grew there of their own accord. The book is basically a list of all these plants by family- each with a brief description and explanation of its value to humans. Many have present or historical medicinal uses, others have attractive flowers, or are relatives of crop plants. A few are not weeds at all, but included \”for it is a most interesting plant and I wanted to write about it.\” I particularly enjoyed reading the quotes by John Gerard, an English herbalist from the 1500\’s, whose quaint spelling (from a time when there were no rules for such) takes some puzzling to understand; and the history of origins for common names of the plants (in most cases this was a brief paragraph, but for Queen Anne\’s lace he went on for two whole pages, then suggested someone write a thesis paper on it, particularly a student majoring in botany with minors in history and linguistics!)

My only complaints are that the book could be rather boring- it put me to sleep several times, and thus made a perfect read-in-bed book! and the lack of illustrations. There are many included by Gerard, but I wish there were more. Heiser explains his reason for not illustrating all the plants, but I am not a botany student and have trouble picturing them without help. All in all, quite an interesting book. I came away with a pageful of notes- mostly things like what does kudzu look like? and do I have quickweed in my yard? but also a list of \”weeds\” to consider planting next year, things like daisy, aster and jerusalem artichoke (a type of sunflower with a funny name) for their flowers and sweet yellow clover to improve the soil.

Rating: 3/5                          247 pages, 2003

Understanding How Your Children See the World
by Barbara F. Meltz

Drawing on a wide range of resources- psychologists, teachers, pediatricians, parents, researchers, etc- this book offers advice on a multitude of parenting issues. It looks at each problem from the child\’s point of view, promoting better understanding of why kids do certain things and how they feel about them (especially useful when children can\’t or won\’t talk about it). Including imaginary friends, keeping secrets, stealing, running away, media influences, school problems, and much much more. Many of the issues are addressed as developmental milestones, with indications of when they actually become serious problems. This book gave me lots to think about. Most of the issues discussed don\’t really apply- my child isn\’t school-age yet- but the concepts and strategies do. I did get a bit tired after a while of how the advice seemed to always come down to a recommended sentence (if you child does this, say this, not this) where I think it could have been more flexible. But overall, Put Yourself in Their Shoes is a good resource, one I\’m considering adding to my shelf someday.

Rating: 4/5                       418 pages, 1999

by Truman Capote

I always feel either guilty or stupid when I don\’t like a well-written book that everyone else says is great. And that some terrible consequence will come of giving it a low rating! Well, here goes- I don\’t like Truman Capote\’s writing. After seeing the film Capote, I was really curious about the book In Cold Blood. I tried to read it, I really did. I couldn\’t. Not even fifty pages. I guess crime fiction really isn\’t my thing. (I thought this would be better because it\’s about a true incident). But I still felt like I ought to appreciate this author, so I picked up the collection of his short stories- The Complete Stories of Truman Capote. I forced myself to finish it, because I so wanted to find something to like or admire. The stories all left me totally unmoved. By the time I finished the book, I couldn\’t remember what most of them were even about. Pathetic, isn\’t it? Even now, flipping through the pages to try and write something decent here, the only story that rings a bell at all is \”Children on Their Birthdays\”. So maybe I liked that one better than the others, or could relate to it a little bit, or it made me feel sad. But I still can\’t tell you what it\’s about. I don\’t remember. I\’m hoping there\’s another reader out there who shares my sentiments here, but if not, I welcome the barrage! go ahead, cut me down for being unappreciative of a great writer (so he\’s lauded), or better yet, convince me I should try again. (You\’ll have to be really convincing).

Rating: 2/5                      300 pages, 2004

gardening books
This is what happens when I go to the public library all by myself with a subject of interest in mind. A leisurely pause in front of the gardening shelf resulted in this pile coming home! (click on the picture if you want to read the titles) Most are general gardening books, a few are specific: there\’s two about weeds, one on creating gardens that attract butterflies, one on organic gardening and cooking, another about pretty groundcover plants. A few are novelistic, and the two spiral-bound volumes on top of the pile I was particularly delighted to find. They\’re compilations of tips from a local gardening publication, organized by season and full of charming illustrations that look like woodcuts from the 1800\’s.

So for a few weeks now I\’m going to be reading mostly gardening books. But never fear! In between myriad books of other subjects and genres will be reviewed. I\’m now going through my log of books read in 2004 and 2005. Lots of variety there. So you won\’t quite get bored silly by all the blab about plants and gardening (as my poor husband already is- although he likes to eat the fresh produce that comes out of our backyard dirt, no complaints there!)

An Eater's Manifesto

by Michael Pollan

I read this book all in one day, because it’s due back at the library and someone else has dibs on it there. I certainly got what I wanted. It is crammed with facts (where The Botany of Desire felt more like a storytelling of plants’ natural history). In Defense of Food contains journalist Michael Pollan’s “eater’s manifesto” that we should: eat food in its natural state- not processed food products, eat less of it, and eat mostly green plants- cutting back on meats and seeds (flour, corn products, etc). He goes into great detail explaining why and how. The first part of the book talks about nutritionism- particularly how faulty the science behind it is. (This part really made my head swim. I almost got lost in the threads of logic a few times). Then he discusses how the “Western diet” of refined foods and food products originated, why it’s become so widespread, and how it affects us. In the final chapters Pollan outlines his plan for healthier eating, giving guidelines that don’t tell you what to eat in particular, but just how to choose good, healthy food. The strongest impression I came away with after reading this book was: less is more (you feel more satiated eating better quality food), and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (additives will never make up for what processing has removed from foods). These are rules of design I learned in art school, but they apply to food as well! This book has really solidified my desire to feed my family from the backyard garden and shop more at local farmer’s markets or at least stores like Trader Joe’s (my daughter loves to go there because they give out free balloons!)

Rating: 4/5
144 pages, 2008

A Plant\’s-Eye View of the World
by Michael Pollan

Speaking of plants as having consciousness really stretches the imagination. I think Pollan carries his metaphors in The Botany of Desire a bit too far. And he talked about Apollo and Dionysus way too much. But overall, this book about how four common plants evolved traits that gratify the human senses- sweetness for the apple, beauty for the tulip, intoxication for the cannabis and what? control for the potato? he kinda lost me there- is pretty interesting and taught me quite a number of things. I learned about the Irish potato famine, and how organic potato growers differ from commercial ones. I learned that modern apple trees are all clones (pretty bad for genetic diversity- see Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang for an idea of what cloning might do to humans). The chapter about marijuana was rather confusing and really began to loose my attention- the only frame of reference I have for that plant is a sickly sweet smell in high school bathrooms and more recently, watching episodes of Weeds. And having read Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister not very long ago, a book which places the Cinderella story in the middle of the 1600\’s Dutch tulip craze, I appreciated learning more details about that phenomenon. One little paragraph particularly caught my attention, where Pollan briefly mentions \”one theory of the origins of agriculture [which] holds that domesticated plants first emerged on dump heaps\”. A few years ago I read in a book called Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution by Raymond Coppinger of the idea that domestic dogs are descended from wolves that were attracted to rubbish heaps- who began the taming process themselves, in a way. It was curious to think that domestic plants may have also had roots in our anciently discarded trash. But rubbish this book is not. It was entertaining, if a bit tedious, confusing and contradictory at times. Not terribly scientific, but for someone like me who doesn\’t know much about the natural history of plants, quite readable and very interesting.

Rating: 4/5                      271 pages, 2001

Lezlie from Books n’ Border Collies so kindly nominated me for the Brillante Weblog award yesterday! I was so surprised and pleased. I’ve been thinking all day who to pass the award on to:

books i done read- This blog is absolutely hilarious! If you’ve never been there, go now. I guarantee you’ll be laughing in minutes. It’s one of the few blogs where I actually read every single post, even if it’s about a book of a genre I strongly avoid- her blunt, frank, to-the-point reviews are just like what I always think about books, but never have the gall to write.

Book Puddle– On days he’s not reviewing a book (or film), Cipriano shares quotes from a wide range of bookish material. I always enjoy reading the quote of the day- usually accompanied by a photo or illustration as well. Refreshingly different. He also shares his own poetry, and it’s quite good!

Chain-Reading- I like this blog because the reviews are short and sweet. Sometimes so short they’re posted as “four-word” reviews. When I’m tired and have over a hundred entries piled up in google reader, I always read the ones that keep things in a nutshell. Chain-Reading also uses vacillating font sizes, which makes things jump out at me. I like that. Oh, and there used to be some beautiful music there, too.

Maw Books- An awesome blog. I was already enjoying the thoughtful reviews and then she went and set up this staggering database of book blogs. Maw Books has my outspoken admiration for that. When I want to know what someone else thinks of a book I just finished, I head over and check out who’s on her list. It’s a great way to find new blogs, as well!

Things Mean a Lot- I always look forward to visiting this blog. Nymeth reviews a lot of fantasy books that really appeal to me- she’s probably responsible for adding to my TBR pile more than most! And her blog is so pretty. I love the Rackham fairies.

Both Eyes Book Blog– I just recently discovered this blog. So far I’ve been enjoying every post. They\’re not too wordy, but always very thoughtful. And I have to say, I love the story behind the name of this blog!

Hooser’s Blook– Lauren and Dana were among the first book bloggers to welcome me and comment when I first began book blogging. They’ve always got something interesting to say about books I’ve never heard of (more for the TBR!).

My book blogging friends, you are all so wonderful! I could have named (literally) dozens of other blogs. If you’ve been nominated here and want to pass the Brilliante along, here’s the “rules”: Put the logo on your blog. Add a link to the person who awarded you. Nominate at least seven other blogs. Add links to those blogs on your blog. Leave a message for your nominees on their blog.

Thanks again to Lezlie!

the Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901
by Nancy E. Turner

Life on the early frontier told through the experiences of a determined and resourceful (or \”headstrong\”) woman. The book opens when she is a teenager, and unfolds twenty more years in the Arizona Territories. What Sarah wants more than anything as a young woman is to gain some education. The book begins with awkward syntax and poor grammar (hence the title) then gradually becomes more polished as the protagonist herself learns and grows (rather like Flowers for Algernon, in that sense). I loved the scene where she had a wagon full of books she couldn\’t yet read, and argued their worth with a man who would trade her two horses for two books, so she could pull the wagon home. He saw no value in the books themselves, but instantly realized she did, and held onto them for years. This man was a calvary officer she later fell in love with, while married to a man she did not love… These Is My Words is a pretty good story, and I enjoyed it, even while suffering constant mockery- my husband made fun of the title every time he saw the book. I have just discovered there are two sequels, Sarah\’s Quilt, and The Star Garden. All the novels in the Sarah Prine series are based on journals written by the author\’s great-grandmother. For a similar book, take a look at Faith and Betrayal by Sally Denton, also based on the diary of a pioneer ancestor, but written as a factual account.

Rating: 3/5 …….. 384 pages, 1998

more opinions at:
It\’s All About Books

by Scott O\’Dell

In Sing Down the Moon, Scott O\’Dell recounts some of the events during a time of persecution against Native Americans, through the eyes of a young Navajo girl. She\’s out tending sheep one day with a friend on the mesa when the Spaniards capture them for slaves. Immediately they plan to escape and return home to their canyon in Arizona. But home will never be the same again. One of the key events of the book was the Long Walk, but most of the story is about their escape and attempts to evade soldiers and enemy tribes. Even though the events are suspenseful, I failed to feel anything but lukewarm about the book. The characters had such stoic, calm personalities, it was difficult for me to envision them as real people. The understated descriptions and stiff dialect felt awkward. I read this book because it was another one of A\’s childhood favorites. I like O\’Dell\’s Island of the Blue Dolphins much better. I\’ve also read Zia by the same author, but it was so forgettable I can\’t even remember enough to give it a blip here.

Rating: 3/5 …….. 120 pages, 1970

Visions of Hope and Survival
by Carl Safina

I\’m not really keen on birds, but this book took my breath away. Carl Safina takes us to a small group of islands near Hawaii, where the albatross gathers to breed. There he joins a group of scientists not only studying nesting seabirds, but also sea turtles and sharks. In eloquent language Safina paints a living picture of these birds\’ lives and the delicate ecosystem of the oceans they depend upon. Even in these far-flung islands uninhabited by man, there are grave indications of mankind\’s influence upon the environment: ocean pollution, birds and mammals choking on plastics, the pervasive presence of a weed unwittingly introduced by a visitor to the island. The bird colony was so vividly portrayed at times I felt I was sitting there myself among the screaming thousands- in a place beautiful, harsh and remote. Even if you think, like me, that birds are a rather alien species, I would recommend Eye of the Albatross. It is an incredible book.

Rating: 5/5 …….. 377 pages, 2002

More opinions at:
A Striped Armchair


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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