Month: December 2008

A Natural History of the Unmentionable
by Nicola Davies
illustrated by Neal Lagton

Over the holidays I read this amusing and very informative little book my sister picked up at the Natural History Museum in DC. It tells all about something you might not want to know much of- poop. Things such as why feces are brown (and other colors too- like pink!) why some animals eat it, how different animals use it to communicate, and what scientists learn from it- not only what animals have been eating but other info like where otters travel and how many insects bats consume per night. Poop also reveals how nature recycles all the excrement animals produce- not only is it utilized by plants as fertilizer and to transport seeds, but some insects and birds use it for building materials as well. There\’s a few really crazy (but true!) stories in this book, and lots of amazing and random facts about feces- the largest, smallest, and most strange. Did you know there\’s a sixty-foot tall monument in Cootaburra, Australia dedicated to the dung beetle? Read this book to find out why!

Rating: 3/5                 61 pages, 2004

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Book Buds

by Cleveland Amory

At home in my mother\’s house, there is a box of books that comes out only at Christmastime. It has lots of lovely picture books like The Polar Express, Tasha Tudor\’s Take Joy! and The Velveteen Rabbit. One of the few \”grown-up\” books is Amory\’s The Cat Who Came for Christmas. When I was a teenager I must have started reading this book every year at least once, and never got very far. The beginning was interesting- a man who runs an animal rescue organization gets a pet for the first time in his life when a stray cat winds up in his home on Christmas eve. The parts describing the bachelor and his new cat getting used to each other I liked, but then the story veers into chapters solely about interesting (but very small) facts about cats in history, or how to name a cat, or famous people\’s cats. Now and then it jumps back to Amory\’s own experiences with his cat, then goes into dealings with his rescue organization again.

I know I made myself read this book all the way through at least once some day in the past, but not this time. Even though I felt really nostalgic about it when I found a paperback copy and brought it home, the dry humor, awkward puns and endless digressions from the story really lost me. It would have been okay if the book was just about his rescue organization and his own cat, or just about his own cat and all the cats he\’s ever heard about (historically, famous and otherwise) but all three together makes for a dull jumble. I skimmed through the rest just to make sure I really had read it all once, and then left it alone about halfway through. The Cat Who Came for Christmas has at least three sequels. I\’m a bit curious to read one, just to find out if it stays more focused, but that will wait for later. There\’s other books on the TBR clamoring to be read.

Abandoned                     240 pages, 1987

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Read it or Weep

by Orson Scott Card

In this reworking of an old fairy tale in a modern setting, Sleeping Beauty runs headlong into some Slavic history and folktales, particularly that of Baba Yaga. The main character of Enchantment is Ivan, a young college student who while visiting the Ukraine to do research discovers a sleeping princess in a forest clearing, frozen in time. Ivan manages to free the princess, but finds himself catapulted back a thousand years to her village, where in order to save Katerina\’s kingdom he must become her betrothed. Only, he\’s already engaged back in his own time. And he finds that in spite of the extensive research he\’s done on Slavic culture, living in Katerina\’s world requires him to rework a lot of assumptions. Further along in the story Ivan and his princess wind up in the present day, where she in turn has to adjust to some serious culture shock. Through it all they struggle to make sense of their relationship and battle the persecution of the witch Baba Yaga.

Years ago when I first read this story I found it captivating. I liked reading about how the assumptions Ivan and Katerina made about each other\’s worlds were continually challenged. I even enjoyed the constant arguments the characters had about language, and the examination of gender roles. The mixture of magic and fantastical events with practical thinking and a modern setting also intrigued me (perhaps more so than in Magic Street). But the second time I tried to read this book it really fell flat for me. The characters felt really one-dimensional. The constant bickering between Ivan and Katerina got on my nerves, and the tangents from the storyline lost me before I made it through fifty pages. It\’s also got quite a bit of violence, which I didn\’t enjoy reading about. Even today, when I picked up a copy from the library to remind myself more of this book, I wasn\’t able to read it again. But it was pretty entertaining the first time around.

Rating: 3/5             390 pages, 1999

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Book Nut
A Striped Armchair
Things Mean a Lot

by Diane Setterfield

I did not expect to like this book so much. Partly because back when I first saw it all over the book blogs, there was some controversy surrounding it, and that kind of put me off. Also, I usually shy away from mysteries and ghost stories, but my assumptions of what makes up those genres were not exactly what I found here.

The Thirteenth Tale revolves around the mystery of a fictional writer\’s past. Vida Winter, a popular and prolific author loved by millions, always gives a different story when she is asked about her past. Not until she is elderly and in failing health does Winter intend to reveal her story, and she is selective about its recorder. Enter Margaret Lea, a young amateur biographer whose father owns an antique bookshop. Margaret has spent her life immersed in books, hiding a secret pain. Arriving at the famous author\’s reclusive estate, Margaret finds that not only is she slowly unraveling the story of Winter\’s origins, (and doing her own research on the side to confirm what she is told) but also coming to grips with a suppressed secret from her own past.

This is a somber story, full of dark family secrets. At one point I almost quit reading, because the implications of what happened long ago in the author\’s family was so distasteful to me. But I was fascinated by the speculation of how closely connected twins can be, and the downward spiral of mental instability passed on through generations, dragging the family into decay. And of course I loved the bookishness of it all, the examination of how stories are told, the interwoven threads of the different characters\’ lives, and the lovely way Setterfield uses language.

The ending of this book took me completely by surprise. I was expecting a revelation that linked all the parts of the story together, but not the one that surfaced! It made me want to go back and read the whole book again in a new light of understanding, and now I really wish another story would be written, from another character\’s point of view…. It\’s curious what other books The Thirteenth Tale reminded me of. The fact that it\’s about a scholarly woman assisting a recluse in an old mansion reminded me of The Fire Rose. The mysteries wrapped around the house and its extensive gardens through which girls wander brought to mind The Secret Garden. And the way the Angelfield estate fell into ruin following the decay of its family made me think of The Picture of Dorian Gray. This is definitely a book I\’m going to read again someday.

Rating: 4/5                406 pages, 2006

More opinions at:
Hooser\’s Blook
SmallWorld Reads
Things Mean A Lot
Melody\’s Reading Corner
Trish\’s Reading Nook
An Adventure in Reading
A Striped Armchair
Musings of a Bookish Kitten
Under the Dresser
Puss Reboots
Read Warbler

by Sylvia Peck

This haunting little book is a modern story based on the myth of selkies, seals who change themselves into people. Its main character is Molly, a young girl spending a vacation on a Maine island with her family. One day Molly hears a baby seal crying, and following the sound finds a horrible scene: a skinned dead seal on the beach. Shortly after, she discovers a strange girl named Meara living with her elderly neighbor. As the girls become acquainted, Meara\’s secret gradually unfolds: she is really a seal, and the dead body on the beach was her mother. Before long Meara and Molly are inseperable, until their friendship is finally tested and Meara must choose to stay on land or return to the sea. Seal Child is a lovely book, well-written and intriguing. It has a few quiet surprises. The secondary characters (the elderly neighbor, Molly\’s little brother, her parents) are not well-developed, but as the narrative is focused on Molly\’s concerns and Meara\’s oddities, this doesn\’t weaken the story much.

Rating: 3/5 …….. 200 pages, 1989

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Good Reads

Chronicles of a Modern Midwife
by Peggy Vincent

I read this book several years ago when expecting my own child. It recounts many of the experiences Peggy Vincent had as a midwife. She began her career as an obstetric nurse, then worked in an alternative birthing center in California before becoming a certified midwife and assisting women to give birth in their own homes. Most of the stories in this book follow the same pattern: Vincent meets the pregnant woman, learns her background story, gets called at an odd hour to rush over when contractions begin, describes the birthing experience with all its drama, mess and emotional glory, presents the baby to its mother, and they all have a feast afterward to celebrate. The families Vincent assisted as midwife were all different: hippies, recovering drug addicts, single teen mothers, couples who allowed their children or pets to be present at the birth. All the stories are rather sensational, and often told with a splash of humor. Baby Catcher has many interesting anecdotes and is very informative regarding the birth process, but it did not convince me that home births are safe or wise. Especially seeing that some of the birthing experiences she tells about did not have good outcomes, and a few of the stories are quite frightening, for an expectant mother. Still, I enjoyed reading this book and felt like I learned a lot from it. It also addresses some of the legal problems midwives run into against the conventional medical establishment, and I found it enlightening to read the factual account of what happened to Vincent, in comparison to the fictional book Midwives (by Bohjalian).

You can visit the author\’s website here.

Rating: 3/5                  336 pages, 2003

Read more opinions at:
Jo\’s Book Reviews
Birds\’ Books
(title in progress)

win a free book and two horse bookmarks
I\’m giving away a book by Rumer Godden called The Dark Horse, along with two bookmarks featuring horses I made from magazine scraps. This particular hardbound edition is an ex-library book. It has a plastic cover over the dustjacket and a torn area on the back endpage where a card pocket was removed. Otherwise, this book is in very nice shape!

Here\’s what the inner flap says:

The dark horse of this touching and exciting novel is Dark Invader, a magnificent thoroughbred sold cheaply and exiled from England to race in Calcutta in the early 1930s. Almost all of the people around him- Leventine, his new millionaire owner; his trainer, Jon Quillan, an ex-cavalry officer… Ted Mullins, the doting middle-aged stable lad who brought him out of England- are, like himself, \”outsiders\” in one way or another.

Overlooking the racecourse is a convent of courageous nuns led by Mother Morag, who… has a sharp eye for both racehorses and miracles. The dark horse becomes a favorite to win the prestigious Viceroy\’s Cup, but then, three days before the race, disaster strikes… A mystery ensues, and it is Mother Morag who holds the key and knows just how to turn it.
With its remarkable cast of characters, its vivid evocation of India in the last days of the Raj, and its simple but powerful story, The Dark Horse is a wonderful short novel- and more: the story is true. It happened in Calcutta some fifty years ago.

This contest is open until Tue Jan 3rd (after Christmas bustle is over) when the winner will be chosen at random and announced here. Open to residents of the US and Canada. Just leave a comment to enter, or blog about my giveaway and link back to this post for a second chance!

by Ruth Sienkiewicz-Mercer and Steven Kaplan

This is the memoir of a woman with cerebral palsy. Ruth was born in 1950. From infancy her body was almost completely paralyzed and she never learned to walk or speak. Eventually home care became too difficult for her family, and at the age of twelve Ruth went to a state institution where she spent the next sixteen years of her life. Although Ruth was mentally sound and quite smart, her communication was very limited, and the minimal facial signals she had used with her family were misunderstood or ignored at the institution. For years she was treated callously like one of the many residents with severe mental handicaps. She suffered from neglect and observed horrific conditions, but in the book mostly describes the people around her and how she struggled with depression and tried to maintain hope for her future.

Eventually Ruth gained companionship when another girl with similar physical disabilities occupied the bed next to her, and together they slowly worked out a repertoire of gestures which allowed them to converse in a limited fashion. Over the years Ruth watched situations at the state facility gradually improve, until there was a better staff-to-resident ratio which allowed staff members to give her more individual attention. Her intelligence was finally recognized, and Ruth was included in the first classes to provide basic education for the residents. She learned rudimentary reading and spelling skills which along with new computerized communication devices, gave her a voice for the first time when she was about twenty years old. Even then, forming sentences and getting her message across was very painstaking.

Reading the first chapter of this book about how Kaplan worked with Ruth to write her life story is astonishing. It took hours of mostly yes-and-no questioning for Kaplan to learn about each incident and opinion Ruth had to share. Then Kaplan would spend more time writing out each passage and read it back to Ruth for her approval or correction. It took about ten years for this book to take shape. I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes is an inspiring story of courage and perseverance. It will forever alter your perception of people with physical disabilities.

You can visit the book\’s website here.

Rating: 3/5 …….. 225 pages, 1989

book blogger secret santa christmas swap
I finally know who my Secret Santa was! The Literary Feline very kindly sent me a lovely Christmas card and a Borders gift card. Thank you, Wendy, that was so sweet. I\’ve ordered for myself two books to complete some fantasy series: Sabriel by Garth Nix and Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper. They might just arrive in time for me to read them over Christmas holidays!

by A.A. Milne

I have been reading The House at Pooh Corner gradually over the past few weeks with my daughter. We enjoyed this second collection of Pooh stories just as much as the first (Winnie the Pooh). The various adventures are full of a childlike wonder and imagination. My favorite stories in the book are where Pooh and Piglet build a house for Eeyore, and another where Tigger gets stuck up a tree. My daughter really liked the one where Owl\’s tree fell down and Piglet saved the day.

I thought a lot this time about the different characters in the book; each seems to represent a different kind of person, some which could be annoying when you meet them in real life: Rabbit the self-important busybody, Owl pretending he knows more than anybody else, Eeyore always finding a reason to be morose and depressed, Pooh well-meaning but bumbling, Kanga forever practical, Piglet shy and self-effacing, and Tigger (perhaps my favorite) always optimistic and quick to save face. Even though the characters often express their dislike of others\’ behavior, sometimes outright (like when Rabbit plans to get Tigger lost because his incessant bouncing is so irritating) they always make efforts to be kind and considerate, to be true friends. It\’s admirable and makes the stories all the more endearing. I\’ve noticed that in the cartoons Tigger is excessively cheerful, to the point of being a serious annoyance, but in the book he\’s not like that at all. I remember when I was a child and my mother read me the story, I felt sorry for Tigger when he first showed up that rainy night, a stranger who doesn\’t seem to even know himself well (they spend the whole chapter trying to figure out what Tigger likes to eat for breakfast). Pooh welcomes him and introduces him to the others, but Tigger seems to feel uncomfortable as a newcomer for quite some time, anxious to make himself look good and find ways to fit in with the close community of the Forest. I felt sympathetic towards him.

The stories are all fun and charming, and the only one I didn\’t recognize from my childhood was the final chapter, where Christopher Robin says goodbye to Pooh in a rather muddled way. It was unclear to us where he was going. Off to school? Simply growing up and not playing with his old toys anymore? This was the only story upon which my daughter shut the book, but as we were already at the end, I didn\’t mind.

Rating: 5/5 ……..180 pages, 1928

Another opinion: Come With Me If You Want to Read


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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