Month: February 2010

An Illustrated Garden Primer
by C.Z. Guest

This is a book that didn\’t quite live up to the expectations, for me. I got it through a swap site, thinking it looked like a good little gardening book. With a forward by Truman Capote (who was a friend of the author) and line drawings illustrating the pages by one Cecil Beaton. It\’s a friendly book, charming in its own way. It presents a simple introduction to gardening with some basic instructions on everything from roses, vegetables, fruit trees, bulbs and houseplants to lawns (the recommendation here being just to leave it alone, no-one has a perfect lawn!) The diagrams on how to plant shrubs, prune roses and espalier fruit trees look very useful, but as I am not growing those plants yet I can\’t put them into practice. For the rest, it didn\’t really give me any new information and I found most of the sections too brief to be helpful- encouraging for a new beginner but without the useful tips on problems or engaging humor and descriptive flair I\’ve enjoyed in other gardening books. And the drawings, while lovely, are a bit too large for the pages- they felt almost crude at that size, and I wished for some more delicate line work, or at least a bit of color. O well. First Garden just isn\’t quite the book for me. I read through it in one sitting, and that\’s about it.

Rating: 2/5 …….. 127 pages, 1976

Everyone in this house is getting the nasty cold, one after another. I\’m surprised the cats aren\’t coughing and sneezing! So, no posts for a while, but maybe by the time I get better I\’ll have finished that chunkster Arctic Dreams

by William Saroyan

A delightful book of short stories based on the author\’s childhood, that tell of his boyish exploits and adventures among a large Armenian immigrant family living in small-town southern California. Each story focuses on a certain event or person, but they all have a common thread of family and community, of the boy\’s troublemaking and what he learns from his relatives about life and the larger world. In one chapter, Aram and his cousin borrow a neighbor\’s horse (without asking permission) and ride around fantasizing great adventures. In another, he helps his uncle make plans (largely unrealistic) to turn part of the desert into an orchard of pomegranate trees. Aram watches his family members bicker, argue and support each other. He listens in on their discussions about religion, and gets exposed to people of many different backgrounds- making friends with Native Americans, meeting immigrants from other countries (one chapter is about an Arab man who stays for dinner, subjected to Aram\’s endless questions) and mixing with traveling circus people. In a way, Aram\’s character reminds me a lot of Tom Sawyer, and like Twain\’s stories, often had me laughing out loud. My Name Is Aram is a fun and thoughtful portrait of American life, seen through the eyes of the boy of an immigrant family, with a mixture of culture, humor and outright joy of life.

Granted, all this is based on my fond memories of the book, as I don\’t have a copy in front of me. I used to own one, picked up at a rummage sale somewhere, but sadly it got left behind in our last move (several years past).

Rating: 3/5 …….. 391 pages, 1983

by Adolph Murie

When this book was written, people were still routinely controlling predators by killing them off. Coyotes had filled the gap left when wolves were gone from national parks, but they were also considered vermin and people made every effort to exterminate them as well. Murie conducted one of the very first studies of coyotes in the wild. No-one used radio collars then, so a lot of the data was painstakingly gathered. He examined the contents of their scat, remains of animals they had killed, and other signs that gave him information on population densities and a complete picture of how coyotes interacted with other species. Piecing together these signs with what he learned from directly observing coyote behavior, Murie concluded that coyotes were not decimating the numbers of prey animals (deer and elk) that men wanted to hunt themselves and in fact, were probably beneficial to their numbers. His book was pretty controversial at the time; most people didn\’t believe or didn\’t want to hear that predators were good for keeping populations of prey animals in balance and healthy. Some if it is dry reading, but I liked reading about the coyote behavior, especially how they interacted with ravens. An interesting book, if you can find it! I read this copy in the San Francisco public library quite a number of years ago; if I remember rightly it was one of those books you could request from the page desk, but not check out. I think I might have gone back a few days in a row just to finish it.

Rating: 3/5 …….. 206 pages, 1940

and Other Adventures among Bats, Penguins, Crocodiles and whales
by Diane Ackerman

In this delightful book, the author describes her travels to observe wildlife up close with some bat naturalists, alligator researchers, whale enthusiasts, and penguin biologists. She steps into bat caves, helps tie up alligators on muddy riverbanks (so the researchers can take blood samples) and stands awestruck in a protected cover where mother whales nurse their babies. I thought at first the penguin chapter would be a little disappointing, as it starts out in a penguin nursery at Sea World in San Diego but after the first few pages Ackerman takes the reader along on a cruise ship to view wildlife in Antarctica- not only penguins but also sea lions, leopard seals and myriads of birds. Every chapter is replete with personal experiences as well as interesting facts on the animals. The writing is lyrical and wonderfully descriptive; I felt sometimes like I was actually there, squatting among the penguin colonies, touching the textured alligator\’s skin, feeling the whale\’s breath on my face. I learned more about bats and alligators in this one book of essays than I ever did reading America\’s Neighborhood Bats or Alligators and Crocodiles– perhaps because the personal writing made the information more accessible to my brain- it sticks better when I\’m enjoying it more. If you like nature writing, or are interested in any of the four animals highlighted here, I highly recommend this book. It doesn\’t get much better than The Moon by Whale Light.

I acquired my copy from a library sale.

Rating: 4/5 …….. 249 pages, 1991

by H.L.V. Fletcher

I almost didn\’t read this faded, yellowed book because I thought its dreary cover promised little. I should have known better than to judge it so! Popular Flowering Plants covers dozens of well-known annuals and perennials found in the garden, arranged more or less by families. The friendly discussion looks at all sorts of different varieties with tips on how to grow them, mostly through stories from the author\’s own gardening experiences. Most interesting was to read about the origins of the flowers and their sometimes confusing nomenclature, as well as their historical culinary and medicinal uses, their occurrence in legends, folklore, and even superstition. For example, Fletcher tells me that carnations were once used to flavor wine, and columbines in jelly; crushed delphinium seeds were used to treat lice in childrens\’ hair, foxglove leaves for heart conditions, and swiss mountaineers chewed the roots of primrose to dispel vertigo! In this vein, the book reminded me of Weeds in My Garden, and kept sparking my curiosity. Most of the plants mentioned I recognized: roses, lilies, sweet peas, daffodils, sunflowers, tulips, begonias, etc. But there were also a few unfamiliar ones. It\’s a shame that a book describing all the beautiful colors of flowers only had black and white photographs. But it is old enough that perhaps (judging by the cover) that was the best option, and it still helps some in identifying the plants and their growing habits. A nice little book, useful if you\’d like to know more about the particularities and past history of some favored garden plants.

Rating: 3/5…….. 158 pages, 1972

Well, here it is halfway into February and so far I\’ve read three books for my own Dogeared challenge (to read used, old or worn-out books). The first tattered book I read was The Road, a copy I borrowed from my neighbor, who is none too gentle on his books. It had a lot of fanning, dogeared pages, the cover curled from being folding back around the book, the spine cracked and leaning. Animal Orphanage, a used copy retired from a library, had stamps all over the insides, the remains of a card pocket inside the back cover, and its dust jacket very faded and yellowed, with a shelf label half-torn off. Making Things Grow, another used copy, was in pretty good shape but had a lot of tears in the dust jacket (more than 1\”).

Anyone else read some worn-out books for this challenge?

the Rehabilitation of Laboratory Primates
by Linda Koebner

This book is about how animals are treated in labs, particularly chimpanzees. It discusses why animals are used in experiments, the deplorable conditions they live in, how their capture from the wild depletes wild populations, and some (new at the time) programs attempting to give them better living conditions which would encourage them to reproduce, thus replenishing their numbers for science (taking pressure off wild populations).

I had two problems with this book, although one is not really its fault. First of all, the writing style is very dry and factual, a bit dull to take in. Except for a few refreshing chapters which suddenly describe what the animals might be feeling. They\’re easier to read, but subjective and feel a bit out of place compared to the rest of the text. Secondly, the information itself is outdated. I\’m sure the treatment of animals in laboratory science and captive breeding have come a long way since the 1980\’s. This book predicted that at the end of its decade, chimps would be extinct in the wild. Though they are still critically endangered, they\’re certainly not gone yet. I can\’t imagine a child (it\’s juvenile non-fiction) reading this book- either they would be bored stiff, or upset by some of the unpleasant descriptions. Also, most of the individual people and chimpanzees mentioned in the book I\’ve actually read about in other books, in far greater depth, back when I had a reading craze about great apes. So there just really wasn\’t much here for me. This is one case where I can see why it was culled (I got the book at a library sale). There\’s just better, more up-to-date material out there.

There was one point made near the end which got me thinking. The author talks about the importance of breeding programs collaborating with other facilities and zoos, so as to have the widest gene pool possible. At the same time, she says, the more docile chimps are most likely to be used for breeding, as they\’re easier to handle. Could we inadvertently, by only using the docile animals, be breeding a tamer or even domesticated chimpanzee? Thinking of all the books I\’ve read recently on how dogs and cats became domesticated, this doesn\’t seem like such a wild surmise. But I feel fairly certain that\’s not happening.

Rating: 2/5 …….. 116 pages, 1984

by Harry Tomlinson

I think the title is misleading. This is not a book of useful tips, not in the sense that a book like Trowel and Error is. Instead, it\’s an overview of the art of growing bonsai, arranged in very short numbered statements (I really don\’t understand why it was arranged this way). For someone like me, entirely new to the art, Bonsai: 101 Essential Tips gave me a rough idea of what growing bonsai can entail, but without the detailed instructions or troubleshooting help that would really get me started. (I\’m still leering of grabbing clippers and engaging in what, to me, appears to be nothing less than plant mutilation and torture! although the results are beautiful) Still, I now have a general idea of what creating and tending bonsai entails, and the photos are simply lovely. I especially liked that the book has a short of gallery of many plants that are suitable for bonsai, with brief description of their particular care. There is also quite a bit of info about the design principles involved in creating an elegant, aesthetically pleasing plant. It is a nice and handy little book, actually- I just think it could have a better title, and do without every little paragraph being numbered inanely.

On a similar note, yesterday I was ecstatic to discover this video clip online, of Thalassa Cruso\’s TV show, an episode about bonsai! It was thrilling to see this woman I\’ve come to admire so much through her books, and her vivid personality, frank no-nonsense attitude and lively humor was just as I had imagined it.

I acquired the bonsai book free through Paperback Swap.

Rating: 2/5 …….. 72 pages, 1996

A Practical Guide for the Indoor Gardener
by Thalassa Cruso

Friendly and informative sums up Thalassa Cruso\’s book about houseplant care and propagation. She starts off with the basics, and I was abashed to learned I\’ve been doing so many things wrong it\’s a wonder all my houseplants haven\’t keeled over! For instance, I never even thought about the difference between using clay and plastic pots, and I had never heard of crocking them to improve the drainage. That\’s just a sample of the very abundant, useful and practical advice in Making Things Grow, everything from how to properly water and feed your plants, to getting rid of pests, repotting, growing new plants from seeds or cuttings, and how to keep them going solo if you\’re on vacation. I now have a nice list of plants that are reliably recommended to do well in my low-lit, evenly heated house, and have learned the identity of many familiar ones that my mother grew or that I\’ve seen around in public buildings, always recognizing their faces but never knowing their names. If you have any houseplants, or want to get started keeping a few, this book is invaluable.

I acquired this book free from the Book Thing. I\’m counting it towards my Dogeared challenge, as it has quite a few tears on the covers.

Rating: 4/5 …….. 257 pages, 1969

More opinions at:
the Tales, Tips and Techniques of Traditional Gardening
anyone else?


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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