Month: February 2009

about my reading challenge
I\’m not doing very well with the next two books I picked up for the 9 for \’09 Challenge. The first one, Kon-Tiki, I\’ve been enjoying very much. But my particular copy has a very bad smell. I usually avoid acquiring (or keeping, if they get into my house) books that have a cigarette or mildew odor, but this one got by me unnoticed. And it\’s different. It wasn\’t until I\’d sat reading for about ten minutes that I had to ask those in the room: does someone have gas? because there was a subtle but awful stink arising. It gave me a headache and nausea. It came out when I fanned the pages (a habit, my hands can\’t sit still while I\’m reading). I thought at first perhaps I felt ill for other reasons (our neighbor just got over the flu, so maybe I\’d caught it?) but just in case I left the book alone until the next day. Then I read it outdoors, at the park. In the open air it took longer (twenty minutes) but the odor still made me feel sick again. Yesterday I didn\’t read it at all- and no headaches, no nausea. So I\’m pretty sure it\’s the book. And this makes me upset, because I was enjoying it very much, and don\’t want to put it down! I guess I\’m going to have to find another copy (it\’s one I want to add to my personal library) or try to build a stinky-book box and read it near the end of the challenge.

So while I was taking a break from Kon-Tiki\’s fumes, I started in on The Grail War. I know this book was a gamble for me, because I felt ambiguous about its predecessor, Parsival, or a Knight\’s Tale. For the first thirty pages the same thing kept me interested in this one- the vivid descriptions of time and place. But although Parsival himself has grown in character, there are still plenty of atrocious deeds done by others in these pages, and I\’m getting tired of reading about them. Especially as the plot feels very meandering and new characters wander in and out without introduction. I just wrote yesterday about a book where a harsh setting and uncivil deeds didn\’t bother me, because they made sense in the context, and I could clearly see and sympathize with the characters\’ motives. But in this book that\’s all very muddled and I\’m starting to feel like it\’s just a showcase for crudeness and brutality. Still, I don\’t want to give up on one of my challenge books, so I think I\’m going to slog through it. Ugh. Maybe I\’ll speed read. Will that still count?

by Jane Yolen

My first exposure to Jane Yolen was her Pit Dragon series, and these books have always remained my favorites of hers. They are set on an imaginary planet which was first seen as uninhabitable and used as a dumping ground for criminals. Some of them survived, and a rough civilization arose out of the extreme desert climate. Very few animals and plants on Austar IV were useful to humans, but the people managed to domesticate large winged lizards they called dragons. The society of Austar IV is based on a system of indentured servitude- masters and bondsmen- and full of gambling, drugs and prostitution. Betting is huge part of the economy, largely based on dragon fights in the \”pits\”.

The main character in Dragon\’s Blood is a teenage boy, Jakkin, who is a bondsman on a large dragon farm. His days are full of drudgery- mucking out dragon stalls, grooming and feeding the beasts. But unlike most of his companions who loathe their occupation, Jakkin likes working with the dragons and wants to train his own. He plans to steal an egg from his master, then raise and train the dragon in secret in the desert, hoping to buy his freedom with money he can earn from pit fights. His plan is fraught with danger and unforseen difficulties, but he finds an unexpected ally in his master\’s daughter, Akki. She\’s one of the stronger characters in the book, which makes up a little bit for the fact that on Austar IV, it\’s an accepted fact that most women are in \”baggeries\” (this aspect of the society is not a major part of the story, but only hinted at).

Even though this book has a very uncouth society, I didn\’t find it objectionable because it fit with the harsh setting and history. And although Jakkin based his gamble for freedom on thievery, I still found his character sympathetic and even admirable at times. I really liked how the dragons were depicted. Like Anne McCaffrey\’s dragons, Yolen\’s are telepathic- but very few people actually communicate with them, and the dragons do not \”speak\” in words and sentences; instead they form mental pictures with colors and shapes. They are quite believable creatures with individual personalities that don\’t reach above their bestial nature. I will always picture them as I saw in the original illustrations, which graced the covers of the first paperbacks I picked up in this series. I\’ve seen many new issues since then with different images, none as good as the first. Does anyone know the artist\’s name? I\’ve been unable to find it (my own copy is a hardback, with a different cover).

Rating: 4/5                    304 pages, 1982

More opinions at:
A Fort Made of Books
Nicole\’s Book Corner
Experiments in Reading

the Unsolved Mystery of Kaspar Hauser
by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson

I came across this book when I was reading others about feral children. Unlike the stories of children abandoned in the forest or presumably raised by animals, Kaspar Hauser\’s neglect was intentionally inflicted upon him. He was a German boy who at the age of four was shut up in a castle dungeon, with very little human contact. When he was about sixteen, Kaspar was suddenly released and found wandering around the streets of Nuremberg, in 1828. At first he could barely speak and people assumed he was mentally impaired, but under the care of tutors Kaspar rapidly made progress and eventually gave his own account of being in the dungeon cell. A mere ten years after being found, he was suddenly murdered. The mystery behind Kaspar Hauser\’s identity, his imprisonment, and his death remained clouded. Lost Prince, a heavy but fascinating book, contains translations into English of an 1832 biography of Kaspar Hauser written by Anselm Ritter von Feuerbach (who investigated his case at the time); an account of the diary kept by Georg Friedrich Daumer, one of Kaspar\’s first tutors; and Masson\’s own essays and articles about the boy. Masson gives some analysis of Kaspar\’s dreams, reconstructs events in his life, compares his case to those of other feral children, and speculates that he was born of German nobility and heir to a throne. It was a bit difficult for me to get through this book- at times it almost felt like a homework assignment- and reading the details of the boy\’s suffering in the dungeon was very unpleasant. But I had never heard of his story before and was intrigued to the end. I looked up on wiki to find out more; apparently the idea that Kaspar was heir to a throne has been refuted, which makes his murder all the more mysterious.

Rating: 4/5                    272 pages, 1996

by Lars Wilsson
translated by Joan Bulman

At the time this book was written, little was known about beavers. I never read about these animals before, so even though the book is rather outdated it was still very interesting to me. My Beaver Colony is based on the work of two men in northern Sweden, who sought to rescue and study a population of beavers on the river near their farm. When the government began regulating water levels in the river via a hydroelectric dam, it disrupted the lives of beavers downstream so much that they were threatened with starvation. Rather than watch all the beavers die, Wilsson and his friend began trapping them, and ended up keeping many in captivity until they found suitable locations to set them free again, where they could study their behavior in a natural habitat. From observing the beavers\’ behavior in terrariums, Wilsson learned for the first time how much of their building work is instinctual. The young beavers who were caught before they had opportunity to observe adult beavers building went through the proper construction actions (even when they had no materials, or those at hand were unsuitable). When the beavers were set free outdoors, they successfully built their lodges and dams on the first try. It was amazing to read how the animals go about their building work, and how well their lodges are engineered- I never knew before how extensive their tunnels under a river bank can be, or that they build the lodge first, before making a dam. Wilsson conducted many experiments to find out exactly what conditions in the river or stream stimulated the beavers to build dams. It was interesting to read his speculations on how natural selection might have shaped the beavers\’ building behavior. Some things which at first I thought showed the animals\’ intelligence turned out to have other possible explanations. For example, when he first described how the back side of the lodge closest to the bank was left unplastered with mud, allowing airflow to ventilate the lodge and underground tunnels, I thought: wow, those animals are smart! But it turns out that carrying loads of mud across the shore to plaster the back of the lodge would expose the beavers to predators, so they probably avoid fnishing that side of the lodge just because it is too risky.

This is the first book I\’ve finished reading for the 9 for 09 Challenge. It fit under the category of \”book with the ugliest cover\”. Well, it\’s not terrible, but I thought it really tacky and there were some better photographs inside the book (although not in color).

Rating: 3/5                         154 pages, 1964

Has anyone else read this book? I\’ll post a link to your blog review here.

new words!
I\’ve recently enjoyed reading other bloggers\’ vocabulary discoveries with Wondrous Words Wednesdays, so I thought I\’d share a new word I came across while reading My Beaver Colony:

Gimcrack– \”The Indians had sold their daily bread and their souls for fire water and gimcracks.\” (I cringed a little reading the section that told about beavers in history).
Definition: a cheap and showy object of little or no use

I think I\’m going to participate in Wondrous Words Wednesdays from now on, if I find enough new words per week to make a post about it.

by C.S. Lewis

I read Lewis\’ Narnia books over and over when I was young. It was years before I realized the stories were based on Christian theology, and I didn\’t read any of his nonfiction works until I was in college. This was the first one I opened. The Screwtape Letters is a collection of imagined epistles that a senior devil writes to his younger nephew, Wormwood. The letters include lots and lots of advice, but not from the usual perspective- in this case, Screwtape is coaching his nephew in the craft of tempting human souls into evil. Lewis has plenty to say about good and evil, flaws in human nature, and various moral issues. What makes it all so interesting is to examine this from such a backwards perspective, one that in encouraging evil, proposes to show the reader how to guard against it. There\’s also a sort of portrait of one ordinary man that Wormwood is focusing his efforts on. Through the young devil\’s appeals for advice and Screwtape\’s criticism of his technique, an vague picture is formed of this one man\’s life- how his soul alternately wavers and progresses in his journey through life. There really isn\’t much plot in this book, although I was surprised at how humorous it could be, and the two devils do develop a certain amount of character. I would say its main interest is in the theology, and the wry examination of human nature.

Rating: 3/5                       209 pages, 1942

More opinions at:
It\’s All About Books
Black Sheep Books
The Wardrobe
The Church of No People
Music of the Night(engale)

the True Story of the Greatest Elephant that Ever Lived
by Ralph Helfer

This is the story of a lifelong bond- between a boy and an elephant. Bram, son of an elephant trainer and Modoc, an asian elephant, were born on the same day in German circus. They grew up as constant companions. When the circus was sold and the animals shipped off to America, Bram went along as a stowaway. During the ocean crossing, Bram and half a dozen other people survived a shipwreck by clinging to the elephant, and washed ashore in India. Bram tried to hide Modoc so she wouldn\’t be taken away from him, and spent several years in India dodging revolutionaries and learning elephant wisdom from the forest mahouts. But eventually Modoc\’s American owner learned of their whereabouts, and Bram and his elephant ended up in New York. There Modoc eventually became a star performer, but sadly, this did not mean she was well-treated. The elephant suffered abuse from a drunken handler for years until she was sold again, this time separated from Bram. Helfer, an animal trainer in Hollywood, acquired her and was astonished at her range of performing skills. He nursed her back to health, while Bram and his friends continued searching for their \”lost\” elephant, hoping against all odds to be reunited again.

Modoc: the True Story of the Greatest Elephant that Ever Lived is a story that amazed me- simply because it is based on true events. It was very touching to read of all the hardships and adventures Bram and his elephant went through, to be together. The writing is very plain, and sometimes it gets melodramatic, but I enjoyed the story. I did like Helfer\’s book about the lion Zamba better. Perhaps because Helfer was writing from his own direct experience in that book, whereas in this one he only knew the elephant at the end of her life, and although the bulk of the story is based on fact, he had to fill in a lot of details with fictional conversations and such. If you liked Water for Elephants, you might enjoy Modoc as well. It gives a different perspective on circus life.

Rating: 3/5                    325 pages, 1997

More opinions at: Under the Dresser

anyone else?

I\’m also signing up for the 2009 TBR Challenge! For this one, you pick twelve books to read before 12/27/09, with twelve \”alternates\” in case one of the first ones just doesn\’t work for you. Here\’s my first list:

Adventures of a Zoologist by Victor Scheffer
Clay Walls by Kim Ronyoung
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
Dolphin Chronicles by Carol Howard
The Edge of Day by Laurie Lee
Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
My Orphans of the Wild by Rosemary Collett
A Paddling of Ducks by Dillon Ripley
Reindeer Moon by Elizabaeth Marshall Thomas
Sandy by Dayton O. Hyde
Say You\’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan
Vet on the Wild Side by David Taylor

My alternate list:

Anya by Susan F. Schaeffer
The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon
Dust Bowl Diary by Ann Marie Low
An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden
The Horse\’s Mouth by Joyce Cary
Ice Bound by Jerri Nielsen
No Room in the Ark by Alan Moorehead
Maggie-Now by Betty Smith
Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
The Peacock Spring by Rumer Godden
Psycho Kitty by Pam Johnson-Bennett
And Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

The best thing about all this? My husband saw me making my 9 for \’09 list and he was intrigued by the categories. He decided to participate, too! He doesn\’t have a blog, but I\’ll post his list, and maybe he\’ll do guest review posts of his books here, as well.

I\’m joining a few challenges to help me get through my piles of books. Thanks for all the suggestions you made! Even though I\’m a little late starting, I\’m going to do the 9 for \’09 Challenge hosted by Isabel who writes Books and Other Stuff. I\’ve never done a reading challenge before, but this one looks like fun because you have to pick books off your shelf that fit into nine categories. Here are my choices:

1. Long- Quicksliver, by Neal Stephenson. This book has 944 pages. I haven\’t read anything that long since Moby Dick, which was ten years ago!

2. Free- Chalice, by Robin McKinley. I won this book from a giveaway at Presenting Lenore.

3. Dusty- Letters from a Nut by Ted Nancy. I\’ve had this book since I was in college, at least five years.

4. Used- The Grail War by Richard Monaco. I bought this one at Hole in the Wall Books.

5. Letter- The Sheep Dog, by Tim Longton. This one a whole word matches my blog title!

6. Strange- Emma, by Jane Austen. I know reading Austen is not strange to many of you, but I\’ve never read one of her books, and I keep looking at this one and feeling uneasy (afraid I won\’t like it).

7. Cover- My Beaver Colony by Lars Wilsson. This book definitely has the worst cover.

8. Live or Dead- Sand by Will James. Will James passed away in 1942. He won the Newbery Medal for children\’s literature in 1927

9. Distance- Kon-Tiki, by Thor Heyerdahl. The author was born in Norway- 3,880 miles from me. The book opens in Peru- 3,500 miles from me, and I think it ends in the Cook Islands- 6,780 miles from me. Quite a distance!

I\’m also going to do the 2009 TBR Challenge, but I haven\’t yet decided on my list, so I\’ll post about that soon.


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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