Month: October 2008

.Question from Booking Through Thursday:

Are you a spine breaker? Or a dog-earer? Do you expect to keep your books in pristine condition even after you have read them? Does watching other readers bend the cover all the way round make you flinch or squeal in pain?

I try to treat my books nice. Especially because those I add to my collection are ones I want to read again someday. I don\’t expect that they\’ll always stay pristine, and seeing battered books at the public library actually pleases me: that shows they\’ve been read many times! At the same time, spine-breaking, dog-earing pages or laying books down open on their faces is abusive. They really shorten the life of that book. Once a paperback has its spine broken, it\’s all downhill from there. Eventually it\’s just going to fall apart. That\’s why I prefer to get hardbound books, and if I do end up adding a paperback (usually trade size) to my library, I try to treat them gently.

It\’s sometimes hard to teach my family the same respect- my daughter does things like jump on her books (augh!) or use them as construction materials (okay, but at some point the building gets abandoned and then the books end up on the floor in reach of feet). And my husband takes books along on his commute. I love helping him choose titles to read on the train, but sometimes cringe when they come back. Hardbacks are too heavy for him to want to carry about, but paperbacks get jostled around in his bag and re-emerge worse for wear. It\’s terrible, but I\’m often reluctant to loan him one of my own books and prefer he takes along a library copy.

by Gerald Durrell

Gerald Durrell was an animal collector and wildlife conservationist. He began his career working in the Whipsnade Zoo (in England) during the 1940\’s. A Bevy of Beasts tells of his early apprenticeship there. The book mostly describes his experiences working with the animals and amusing incidents which occurred. His fellow keepers were colorful characters to say the least. Most of them had little factual knowledge about the animals, but would make things up to impress the visitors. Some of the more interesting passages include Durrell quoting passages out of old books full of misconceptions about animals, then countering them with his own careful observations. I enjoyed reading this book, it has an easy style which is entertaining and moves quickly. But a few things puzzled me. Like why the zoo had husky dogs on display. Petting-zoo areas with livestock make sense to me, but dogs?

Other parts where he described animals unfamiliar to me, and remarked upon their scarce numbers, saddened me. I looked them up and found out that many are still extremely threatened or exist now only in captivity: the Arabian oryx, borneo rhino, anoa (a small kind of buffalo), white-tailed gnu (or black wildebeest) and Pere David\’s deer among them. I appreciated reading about how while at Whipsnade the author came to realize the role zoos take in conservation efforts, especially with captive breeding programs and education. The last chapter closes with Durrell realizing it is time to move on with his plans and leave the zoo so he can pursue his dream of collecting animals. An epilogue describes in brief that at time of its publication he had in fact established his own zoo, lays out its mission, and asks readers to donate money. This plug at the end of the book annoyed me at first. Then I read in an online biography that Durrell had run out of money because when collecting he treated the animals better than his competitors, which wasn\’t as profitable. He began writing about his experiences in order to gain people\’s interest and sympathy for the plight of wildilfe, and secure more funds.

About halfway through the book it began to feel vaguely familiar to me. Some scenes in particular, like one where a bear fills his pool with hay. When I had to look up an unfamiliar word – mangold– I knew for sure. I instantly recognized the definition, but know I\’ve never encountered that word anywhere else! I must have read A Bevy of Beasts once before and simply forgotten. This is one of those books which changed titles when it crossed the ocean. The copy I have takes its title from the first chapter; its European publication is called Beast in My Belfry, which is the title of the last chapter.

Rating: 3/5 …….. 253 pages, 1973

win a free book
This week I\’m giving away a hardbound copy of Frank Cottrell Boyce\’s Millions. If you\’d like enter, just leave a comment here before tue 11/04/08. The winner will be chosen at random: I\’m going to write all the names on slips of paper, fold them up tight, and my kid will toss them in the air. First name to land on the book gets it. Open to US and Canada.

by Diana Wynne Jones

A story within a story within a story. That’s my broad impression of Fire and Hemlock. I first read this book years ago as a teen, and puzzled through the entire thing. I knew it was a reworked fairy tale, but had no idea which one. This despite the quotes from Thomas the Rymer and the ballad of Tam Lin heading every chapter. I wasn’t familiar with the ballad until later when I read Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin. Now I realize (thanks to some comments at Things Mean A Lot) that Fire and Hemlock is also a retelling of Tam Lin.

The book opens with its main character, Polly, musing over some confusing memories. They began when she was ten years old, dressed up in black for Halloween and accidentally intruded upon a funeral. A kind man named Thomas Lynn helped her sneak out again (but not undetected) and she engaged him in her game of “Let’s Pretend”- creating alternative identities for them both as heroes-in-training. Thus began a lifelong friendship. Lynn was a musician and frequently traveled, but for years they wrote letters back and forth full of invented stories about their hero alter egos, and he constantly sent her books. Polly values Lynn’s friendship- her own father is often absent- but neither her mum or grandmother approve of him. More disturbing, some people from the funeral house are spying on her, and then aspects of the stories she and Lynn have made up begin appearing in the real world. Polly begins to realize something unusual is going on, but she can’t figure out what, and when she finally does, it may just be too late…

The story was definitely less opaque to me this time, although I still don’t quite understand the significance of the hemlock picture (I’ve read that hemlock is poisonous, but does it have some mythical properties too?) and the closing scene is very confusing, even after reading it several times I’m still not sure what happened there. It’s all set in England, and I enjoyed the sense of place and occasional foreign (to me) British words. All of the characters are interesting: Polly’s stern and wise grandmother, suspicious and unhappy mother, bossy extroverted friend Nina, the dignified kindly Lynn himself, and many many others. When reading the part where Polly performs in a pantomime, I immediately recalled a similar scene from another British writer- a little boy’s ballet performance as a cygnet in Thursday’s Children by Rumer Godden. I’ve got to write about her books soon. They’re among some of my favorites too.

Rating: 3/5
341 pages, 1985

More opinions at:
Jenny’s Books 
Book Nut


by Jane Smiley

I like reading about animals. I have fond memories of college. And one of my favorite books, Tam Lin, is set on a college campus. So on those slim associations I picked this book up with curiosity at a recent library sale. I wasn\’t disappointed. Moo is about an agricultural university in the midwest. Although horticulture, animal husbandry and cop sciences are featured, this story is really focused on people. All the different kinds of people who intermingle their lives at the university. Students, professors and groundskeepers. Wives of the professors, workers in the cafeteria and the dean himself. A plethora of very different characters, often ignorant of how they really affect each other. There are secretaries with secret machinations, a farmer with a invention in his barn, a student who eavesdrops on his roommates and works them into his writing assignments, and in the middle of campus, an enormous hog living in an abandoned building- part of someone\’s experiment on the porcine lifespan (reminiscent of The Good Good Pig). The inside look at academia in Moo is full of dry humor and ironic observations. Every few pages or so I burst out laughing- until I got a third way through the book. Then some of the incidents became more sobering. And I really could have done without the explicit details in the chapter about who was sleeping with whom. The way emphasized text was presented in all caps instead of italicized bugged me for a while, too. It was still good, though. Intriguing to the end. I want to read more by this author now, although I\’ve heard that A Thousand Acres is quite different from Moo.

Rating: 3/5                   414 pages, 1995

Real Women Share the Joys, Fears, Thrills, and Anxieties of Pregnancy from Conception to Birth
edited by Cecelia A. Cancellaro

This is a book I read several years ago when expecting my own child. I think I picked it up off a shelf at the library when browsing by subject. It intrigued me because unlike many other pregnancy books, this one isn\’t full of advice and medical information. Instead, it\’s a collection of individual experiences, women sharing what they went through and how they felt about it. The women in Pregnancy Stories come from a wide range of backgrounds. Married, single, working, stay-at-home, first-time mothers and those who\’ve been through it before. Mothers who have an easy delivery, others with medical difficulties. Women who\’ve longed and planned for a baby, others who were surprised at finding themselves pregnant. There are even stories of a lesbian couple, and some from the fathers\’ point of view. All the stories are short, and begin with a paragraph introducing the author. They\’re helpfully arranged chronologically, through conception, pregnancy, birth, and postpartum experiences. Compelling in their honesty and frankness, there\’s something every expectant mother can relate to in these stories. I remember coming away with the thought: it will never be what you expect, so prepare for anything.

Rating: 3/5                     260 pages, 2001

A Novel Based on the Life of the Savage of Aveyron
by Mordicai Gerstein

Victor is an account of the wild boy of Aveyron told in novel form. The story is related from several different viewpoints: of the doctor Itard, the matronly housekeeper, the young household maid, and Victor himself. The most interesting chapters (to me) were those from Victor\’s point of view, expressed in a stream-of-consciousness flow of sensations and impressions, clearly illustrating Victor\’s apparent simplicity, confusion and lack of a sense of self. Itard is portrayed as not only being compassionate and creative in his attempts to teach Victor, but also a bit obsessive and sometimes even unkind when he looses patience. The maid is afraid of Victor, not only due to his strange and often wild behavior, but because when Victor reaches puberty, his awakening feelings of s-xuality are focused upon her. There are several scenes in the book I think are unsuitable for the age group its writing style is aimed at (ages 9-12, the publication info states) so I would recommend it for an older group, or to be read with an adult who can answer the inevitable questions it raises. Like the other books I\’ve read about this feral child, Victor addresses (in a casual format) the education of mentally afflicted children, how society treats them, and questions of what it means to be human.

Reading this book made me think strongly of two others: An Imaginary Life, by David Malouf and Listen to the Silence, by David Elliott, both fiction. The first is about the ancient Roman poet Ovid being exiled to a primitive society where he befriends a feral child, the second about an unfortunate young boy\’s experience inside an insane asylum. I\’ll be writing about these two books sometime in the future.

Rating: 3/5                      272 pages, 1998

by Pamela Dean

This is one of my very favorite books. It’s based on the old Scottish ballad of Tam Lin, retold in a modern setting. The main character is Janet, student at a liberal arts college where her father teaches. Most of this story is simply about college life. Roommates, cafeteria food, picking courses, cramming for exams, mingling with theater students who quote Shakespeare every other sentence- at least, those are the boys Janet and her friends hook up with. The theater guys are elusive, charming, and have their heads absolutely stuffed with poetry and literature. All of Janet’s life has been steeped in literature, so it’s no question she wants to major in English herself… or Classics, perhaps? But the Classics department here is decidedly strange, a bit creepy. In fact, a lot of strange things go on at this college (like a ghost that throws books out of windows, bagpipers that wander the campus at night, traditions involving the bust of Schiller…) though most are simply rumors and odd incidents at the edges of the story- until the end draws near, where events from the ballad get woven more tightly into the story, and Janet herself begins to realize what she’s gotten involved in, and the choice she must make.

There are so many literary references in this book I felt happy companionship at the ones I knew, and wrote down lists of all the others to look up and read some day. On the other hand, I’d never heard of the titular ballad before, but just enjoyed the story of itself and then found the ballad conveniently included at the end of the book. Reading it gave me a bit more insight into the story, and made me want to read the novel all over again! Tam Lin is a delight (especially if you like bookish references and subtle fantasy) full of one young woman’s search for herself in an very ordinary place where mysterious things are happening.

Rating: 5/5
 468 pages, 1991

More reviews at:
Jenny’s Books
Shelf Love

by Bobbie Kalman and Tammy Everts

Ever since watching the Olympics my daughter has been really interested in gymnastics. So we got a few library books on the subject. This one is fairly simple and straightforward. It describes the different events, notes the importance of warming up properly, working safely and eating healthy. In the back is a little \”bio\” page highlighting several of the young gymnasts pictured in the book, and a picture index. The photographs are brightly colored, with bold geometric shapes splashed across the pages which accent them and make it feel more exciting and fun. Some of the photos are rather poor, though, and a lot of them have a rainbow-colored cloth backdrop, which made it difficult to see other parts of the picture, like the equipment the gymnasts were using. My daughter kept asking \”what are they doing?\” and I often couldn\’t answer. Clearer photos and better descriptive captions would have enhanced this book a lot.

Rating: 2/5                    32 pages, 1997

A Novel of American Dreaming
by Alan Cheuse

To Catch the Lightning is a fictional account chronicling the lifework of photographer Edward Curtis: documenting all the Native American tribes. It lays out his inspiration, his dreams, and the staggering scope of his aspiration. Although Curtis\’ work took him all across the American continent and into Alaska, many of the scenes take place in Seattle (my hometown) or in major East Coast cities (near where I now live). I felt some affinity with the places the author described, and loved reading in the opening pages of a climb up Mount Rainier (whose profile was constantly visible on the horizon of my childhood). But I was thrown off by the frequent use of the word \”Seattlean\” at the beginning of the book. If I remember correctly, we always referred to ourselves as \”Seattlites.\” Maybe natives of Seattle called themselves differently in the 1890\’s? I don\’t know. It irked me.

I was eager to read this book, since my father\’s home has several books graced with Edward Curtis\’ photographs. I wanted to read more about things like the equipment he used, how he approached the natives, their reactions to him, the details he learned of the various tribal cultures… There\’s very little of that. Instead, Cheuse gives the reader a behind-the-scenes story of the work and how it affected the personal lives of those involved- especially Curtis\’ constant struggle to secure funds, and the strain his incessant travels put on his family. And all the dreams, desires, goals and yearnings of Curtis and Jimmy Fly-Wing, a native who assisted him for many years. Strangely, the presence of William Myers, Curtis\’ main assistant is very marginal, in spite of the fact that the bulk of the story is narrated from his point of view. (Alternating chapters about Jimmy Fly-Wing are also in first-person, and the voice of Curtis\’ wife interjects from time to time via letters and journal entries). In fact, the parts narrated by Myers tell omnisciently of Curtis- his actions in scenes where Myers is absent, his inner thoughts and feelings. I kept forgetting Myers was even a character in the story, much less its narrator, until sudden I\’d stumble across an \”I said…\” and stop: wait, who\’s this? This confusion of voices put me off balance and distracted me through the entire book.

Two of my favorite parts were reading of Curtis\’ visit to the Havasupai tribe at the bottom of the Grand Canyon- I read about them earlier in People of the Blue Water. And a sudden insight Myers had about the significance of rattlesnakes in a rain dance ceremony when they were filming it- that scene was fascinating. I also liked the parts about Jimmy Fly-Wing before he encountered white men, especially his world view and spiritual communion with animals. His converstaions with insects brought to mind a certain scene from Lord of the Flies

This is the third book I have received from Sourcebooks. I wanted to like it so much more than I did. It was interesting and curious- and strange. I said that once while reading: \”this is such a strange book\” and my husband looked at me and replied: \”you read a lot of strange books.\” Well, yeah.

Rating: 3/5                   502 pages, 2008

Read more reviews at:
Bookfoolery and Babble


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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