Month: April 2011

by Dale Peterson

Not so long ago, people thought that animals were merely some kind of animated \”machine\”, merely responding to external stimuli in predictable patterns. Nowadays most people have accepted the fact that animals can indeed think and reason to some degree, and that they have feelings too. Haven\’t you ever seen your dog look guilty when you catch him in the middle of a chewed-up mess, or the blissful expression on a sleeping cat\’s face? In The Moral Lives of Animals Dale Peterson takes this idea even further, positing that animals not only have feelings, but a sense of morals as well. Ones that we can not only recognize, but also learn from.

You might think that the animals featured in this book are all of species known to be highly intelligent- chimpanzees that deliberately deceive each other, elephants that grieve for dead family members, blue jays that hide their food a second time when they think another bird might steal it. But there are also a lot of other \”lesser\” creatures mentioned, such as a bat who was observed to assist another in giving birth, or mere insects that play tricks on each other. And I\’m just barely scratching the surface here. The Moral Lives of Animals is rather heavy reading, thick with insights into animal and human behavior. A lot of it is looking into the question of why we have certain social rules, why humans (and animals) have evolved to feel certain emotions. It\’s very interesting. Often the author takes his time with a detailed introduction to a concept, but it\’s worth getting through the parts you might think aren\’t related, to see what his point is. And woven through the entire book is the motif of Moby Dick, as he contrasts two main characters\’ viewpoints on the mind of the great whale: Ahab who feels nearly guilty for pursuing it and views the creature as holding malicious intent, and Starbuck, who sees it merely as an animal to be captured for profit. These different attitudes say more about us as a species than about the whale (but whales get their own spotlight here, too). I appreciated the fact that Peterson pointed out more than once that the minds of animals should not necessarily be considered less complex or advanced as ours, but merely as other, as alien. Animals have their own different ways of thinking and perceiving the world, which is also reflected in their versions of morality…

I\’m not quite sure what else to say about this book, as quite a lot of it I\’m still mulling over in my mind to understand better. It\’s quite the read, one you want to go through at a leisurely pace, and I enjoyed it much.

I received a review copy of this book from Blue Dot Literary. It has not affected my opinion. Thanks, Tony, for giving me the chance to read this book!

Rating: 4/5 …….. 342 pages, 2011

More opinions at:
Dad of Divas\’ Reviews

by Paul Fleischman

This is a lovely little book I read in nearly one sitting, prompted to find it by a review at Stuff as Dreams are Made On. Told in a series of vignettes, the voices of about a dozen different characters describe how a community garden spontaeously arises from a junk-filled vacant lot in an inner-city neighborhood. It starts when a Vietnamese girl plants a handful of lima beans in memory of her father. A few neighbors overlooking the lot are at first suspicious of her activities, but when they see what she\’s trying to do they feel differently. One lady even comes to water her plants when the girl doesn\’t show up for a few days. Gradually other people are inspired to grow something as well, scratching out a bare spot in the dirt. A young man who\’s always seen himself as tough plants tomatoes to woo his girlfriend. A woman plants goldenrod, remembering how her grandmother used it as medicine. A taxi-driver plants lettuce intending to sell it to nearby restaurants. They all have different motives for growing stuff: nostalgia, beauty, food for the table; but end up helping each other out and building a community connected by the garden. I loved how a little girl solved the problem of providing easily-accessible water for the garden. One guy even beats on doors of public officials until he gets the city to come clear the lot of trash and rubble. People start looking out for each other in more ways that just giving advice on growing vegetables, and overcoming their racial differences and language barriers in the act of sharing their produce and flowers. Seedfolks is a wonderful story that I enjoyed very much.

Rating: 3/5          69 pages, 1997

All these books look so interesting, I just had to add them to the TBR!

Making the Rounds with Oscar by Dr. David Dosa-The Black Sheep Dances
The Great Starvation Experiment by Todd Tucker- Shelf Love
Little Princes by Conor Grennan- At Home with Books
The Tapestry of Love by Rosy Thornton from Life is Short, Read Fast
Wasp Farm by Howard Ensign Evans- Bookwyrm\’s Lair
The Mountain People by Colin Turnbull- Farm Lane Books Blog
Pink Boots and a Machete by Mireya Mayor- The Book Lady\’s Blog
The Secret Lives of Babi Segi\’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin- Savidge Reads
Pox by Michael Willrich- Sophisticated Dorkiness
Rose in a Storm by Jon Katz- Caribousmom
This Life is in Your Hands by Melissa Coleman- Sophisticated Dorkiness

by Kathryn Stockett

Set in the early 1960’s, The Help is a story of several well-to-do white ladies and their black maids. It’s narrated in turn by Skeeter- a young lady recently returned from college and constantly pestered by her mother to find a husband, Aibileen- a black maid devoted to the white children she raises, and her sassy friend Minny who just lost her job for talking back to her boss and now works for a reclusive woman on the edge of town. Skeeter is not quite like her friends; she wants more out of life than just spending her days shopping or attending bridge club. She wants to be a writer. Coming home to find that the maid Constantine who raised her is gone (and no one will tell her what happened), she starts asking questions of her friends’ maids and starts to see the injustice in the relationships between the black and white women. She gets the idea to interview the maids and write their stories into a book. At first no one will talk openly to her; all the maids are terrified of the repercussions if they actually admit to what goes on behind closed doors. But one by one they start to come forward and share their stories…

This was a really good read. I’ve seen tons of reviews about it all over the place (don’t feel like I really have much to add) but it wasn’t until a friend put a copy into my hand that I thought to read it myself. I was a bit speculative (as I often am of wildly-popular books) but once I got through the first chapter I couldn’t stop reading. The depiction of how these women’s lives intertwined is riveting. Some are kind, some shallow, some downright mean. I admit I didn’t really feel attached to too many of the characters; none of them felt very well-rounded, but I was more intrigued by the storyline and seeing what was going to happen. From the very beginning several large secrets started looming through the story and I was waiting for their revelations, ticking them off mentally when they appeared: so that’s what happened to her, now what about this other bit? and then after all the secrets came out I was curious for the outcome. The ending was pretty satisfying. I was glad of how things worked out. And the one I felt most sorry for was the little girl Mae Mobley, poor child, whose mother hardly noticed at all what she was doing.

Rating: 3/5
451 pages, 2009

by F. Gordon Foster

I\’ve always thought ferns were so pretty, and wanted to have some as houseplants. Now I\’m thinking I could even use them as landscaping in my yard. For the past few years I\’ve been looking a lot at what grows in other yards in my neighborhood, seeing which plants are the most vigorous or nice-looking. I don\’t see anyone growing ferns, though. My guess is it\’s hard to get them through our hot summers with constant moisture. But this book taught me there are some even native to my area, so it might be possible…

Ferns to Know and Grow is a pretty comprehensive plant book. It describes the structure and life-cycle of ferns, how they grow and how to care for them indoors or out. They are very curious plants! I always had assumed that the spores under the leaves were like seeds, and new ferns grew wherever they landed in a favorable spot. But that\’s not so at all. Ferns actually go through three stages. The spores grow into microscopic plants called prothallia which develop male and female reproductive organs. They make sperm which have to swim through a drop of moisture to an egg cell. Only after the egg is fertilized does a mature fern plant grow, the leaves with which we are more familiar. Isn\’t that crazy? I didn\’t know there were any plants that used sperm and eggs to reproduce! Some ferns can also grow a new plant from where the end of a frond touches the ground, others (called \”mother ferns\”) grow new baby plants on top of their leaves. But they all use spores and prothallia as well. When I read this part of the book to my husband he said \”maybe those are the plants that animals evolved from.\” It\’s quite a thought- ferns are older than the dinosaurs!

Anyway, the bulk of the book is actually about identifying ferns. There\’s a section on ferns that grow well in landscaping, with brief instructions on their horticulture. Another section is all about \”tender\” ferns that do well as houseplants, and the last part is about rare and wild ferns, that don\’t survive outside their natural climate and so are presented here to enable the reader to identify them in the wild.

A most interesting book, if you like plants! My only criticism is on the illustrations. There are very few color photographs, most of the images black-and-white. While the drawings  and descriptions are quite thorough enough I feel I could identify any fern I came across, it would still be nice to have some updated photos. Especially to see how they look in the garden.

Rating: 4/5 …….. 258 pages, 1971

How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed

by Carl Honore

Journalist Carl Honore believes that the modern world moves at much too rapid a pace. People spend too many hours on the job, eat their meals too quickly, cram their schedules, drive too fast, etc. etc. In Praise of Slowness looks at how our lives have come to be so hectic, and what many people in countries all over the world are doing to counteract that. It’s not just about freeing up your schedule a bit and finding time to relax. It’s about rejuvenating your mental capacities, finding creativity, making time for your family, eating healthier and so much more. I’ve heard about the Slow Food movement before, but I didn’t know there was also a Slow Cities movement- where small towns are being designed to encourage people to walk more, for example. I expected to read about people finding ways to get away from the rat race, but was surprised by a chapter about slower ways of doing exercise- promoting tai chi, yoga and SuperSlow (weightlifting) over fast aerobics or jogging, for example. There’s also a section on taking your time with intimacy, on doctors spending more time with patients (which looks at both the traditional medical establishment and alternative medicine) and even one about music. I was totally unaware there’s a movement centered on the idea that most classical music is played twice as fast (or more) than it was originally intended to be. Concerts now perform well-known classical pieces at a much slower pace, and people get an entirely different impression of them. Full of curiosity, I visited the site for Longplayer, a piece of music played on Tibetan 234 singing bowls- the performance began on Dec 31st 1999 and is supposed to take until the year 2999 to complete. I’ve been listening to an audiostream of the performance while writing this. It’s quite hauntingly beautiful.

So, a bit more about the book- I also appreciated the chapter on allowing kids to have more free time, not jamming their lives full of lessons and schedules to keep up with everyone else (reminded me of a lot of things in Confessions of a Slacker Mom). Overall the broad impression I came away with was the idea that by taking things at a more reasonable pace (even slowing down your very thought process) and doing less, we can achieve more, and have a better quality of life. It’s about having more focus, and less drive to just get things done done done. I like that message.

I don’t remember how this book first got on my TBR. I borrowed a copy from the public library.

Rating: 3/5 …….. 310 pages, 2004

by Southern Living Books

Another old, outdated gardening book. I think I picked this one up at a garage sale once. I thought at first when flipping through it that it wouldn\’t be much use to me, but I was wrong. In spite of the recommendation of lots of (again, unfamiliar) chemicals, and some very dated-looking photos, this book actually has a lot going for it. In the first place, it specifically focuses on my locale. I don\’t usually think of myself as living in the South, but Virginia is a Southern state, and this book is all about how to grow vegetables successfully in that region. In the back it even has a chart for each state showing when to plant all the different veggies and what varieties do best in which areas (quite a few of the names I even recognized- I grow Detroit beets and Fordhook Giant chard, so those strains are still around!)

Other useful sections include a chart showing how much to plant if you just want to eat stuff in season, and how much extra if you want to store food for the winter (canning, freezing, etc) for an average-size family. There are instructions on how to most efficiently layout the garden, how to garden in small spaces (including building your own strawberry barrel), how to start plants early or grow them through the winter in a hotbed, coldframe or greenhouse (with some instructions on building those things yourself) and even how to grow plants without soil! (although the hydroponic method sounds terribly tedious).

One chapter of the book describes each vegetable with specific growing instructions, another is dedicated to berries and vines, and a third to herbs. I found the black-and-white line drawings here quite charming. I especially appreciated the herb section, although it made me laugh that the book says of coriander \”Although the dried seed have a pleasant flavor, the fresh foliage and seed of this plant have a disagreeable odor.\” It even recommends planting coriander in an out-of-the-way place in your garden so you don\’t have to smell it! Nothing is mentioned of using the leaves. I know this plant by the name cilantro, and we grow it mainly to use the leaves in salsas. I do dry some seed to use as coriander in pho soup, but not much. And I happen to like the scent of it in the garden.

Another very useful section is where the book identifies beneficial insects, and also has a photo gallery to help you identify pests and diseases. For the first time I now know what the bug that ate my broccoli is! So, even though the book feels dated in some parts, it\’s certainly already been useful to me and I\’m keeping it around.

Rating: 2/5 …….. 172 pages, 1971

 by Dr. Rey Aronson

Aronson is a wildlife vet, and in Tales of an African Vet he shares various stories of memorable experiences he\’s had working with wild animals. These aren\’t animals held in zoos, but ones roaming free out in the bush. So in order to treat the animals he often had to spend hours searching for them, successfully get them darted so they could be safely handled while asleep, and then monitor them until they woke up again (so they wouldn\’t get attacked by another predator). Quite an undertaking. Some might say why bother treating a wild lion with an injured eye, or rescuing a baby elephant stuck in the mud? isn\’t it better to let nature take its course, and allow the hyenas to eat the injured baby rhino (no mother in sight)? But Aronson felt that since the lives of these animals had been altered by humans (they all resided in game parks, their habitat restricted by fences, and often infected by disease or afflicted by stress due to human presence as well) it was only right that he help them out when possible. In some cases it was pretty obvious that humans were to blame for the animals\’ suffering, as when he tried to treat a lioness with a wire snare around her neck, or a gemsbok ill from the shock of improper handling during transportation from one game farm to another.

I must make a correction. Not all the stories are of creatures roaming wild and free. There are also various animals brought into his vet practice: a pet squirrel monkey, a snake injured by a dog, a hedgehog likewise suffering from a dog bite. He also tells of visiting a crocodile farm, and a fish farm with valued koi suffering from the bends! The stories in Tales of an African Vet are all good reads, engaging and very intriguing, especially when they get into issues of animal conservation. Some of them are sobering- it was dismaying to read about how close cheetahs are coming to extinction for example, and (inevitably) there are a few cases where the animals don\’t survive treatment. But a lot of them have good outcomes, and positive outlook for the future (he says that wild areas in South African are actually increasing as more and more people who own land privately turn it into game parks or reserves with habitat suitable for wild animals). It\’s easy to tell which animals are the author\’s favorites; he gives a lot more description about the elephants and crocodiles than the lions, for example. I enjoyed reading about them all.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher.
Rating: 3/5 …….. 227 pages, 2011

more opinions at:
Page 247
A Library is a Hospital for the Mind

books for the want-to-read list:

My Abandonment by Peter Rock- thanks to Opinions of a Wolf
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks- You’ve GOTTA Read This!
Free Range Learning by Laura Weldon- Books and Movies
The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson- Sophisticated Dorkiness
The House of Thirty Cats by Mary Calhoun- Literary Wombat
What I Don\’t Know About Animals by Jenny Diski- Things Mean a Lot
A High Wind in Jamacia by Richard Hughes from Ready When You Are, C.B.
The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maartin Troost- Reading Through Life
Bones Would Rain from the Sky by Suzanne Clothier- A Striped Armchair
The Hedgehog\’s Dilemma by Hugh Warwick- from Eva again
The Invisible Sex by J.M. Adovasio- ditto

Thanks all you wonderful bloggers, for adding yet again to my pile!

It was no contest, really. Literary Wombat was the only reader who entered for my last giveaway, and thus is the unquestionable winner! Wombat, if you\’d just let me know where to send your book set (jeanenevarez [at] gmail[dot] com) I\’ll happily mail it out to you!


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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