Month: October 2011

by Victor Scheffer

A companion book to The Year of the Whale, Year of the Seal describes the life of an Alaskan fur-seal and its companions. I found it more interesting than the whale book, probably because seals are a bit easier to relate to, but also more disturbing in some ways. Most of the book tells about one female seal, and what she does from day to day in the different seasons; she comes to land to breed and raise a pup, leaves it periodically to go fishing in the ocean, then roams widely through the seas but returns again to land the following year. The story also follows the doings of one of her pups, and a little bit of the adult male or bull seal as well, to show how their habits differ. Interwoven with the seals\’ lives are the activities of men, and this is where it gets troublesome. There are hunters who \”harvest\” the seals\’ skins for their thick warm fur, and biologists who count their numbers and study their behavior. Their main motive for doing so is to determine how many seals can be taken each year without decimating the population. But they also do some studies just (it seems) for knowledge\’ sake. Things like chopping the ears off a hundred seals to mark them and see if they come back the next year to the same spot. Killing a bunch of seals by different methods just to see which is more efficient. The worst, I felt, was when they had caught a few pups for a study and in order to keep them alive, every day would go out to the seal rookery, find a pup that had just been fed by its mother, kill it and feed the milk from its stomach to the captive pup. It seemed such a waste.

Of course, the seals suffered and died of natural causes, too. Orcas and parasitic worms, stormy weather and fights among themselves. The huge bulls often trampled pups that got in their way, or attacked them to vent frustration. Some pups\’ mothers never returned from the sea and these slowly wasted away. It\’s all quite brutal. And yet the seals are full of life, apparently vigorous and healthy, and there are many passages beautifully describing their grace in the water, their speed and agility chasing fish, the quiet and tender moments between mother and pup, etc. All the misery seemed to jump out at me, though. Maybe that\’s why this book has gone unread for so many years (the last time its due date was stamped is 1995).

Still, I liked this one better than the whale book. Bought at a library sale.

rating: 3/5 …….. 205 pages, 1970

by Amy Stewart

Wicked Plants is a little book stuffed full of data on plants that do harm to people. Whether by poisoning, causing rashes and itching, intoxicating or overwhelming the environment- noxious weeds are a real headache! It was curious to see how many plants nowadays considered very dangerous were used in times past as medical remedies (often with very bad results for the patients). And I\’m no longer surprised at how new arrivals in the Americas ages ago were afraid to eat tomatoes; related plants in their family are poisonous (such as deadly nightshade). I was surprised to find how many other plants commonly grown in gardens can be toxic: sweet peas, rhododendrons, azalea, certain kinds of lawn grass, celery! Of course, you\’d have to eat a ton to come to harm, and quite a few I can\’t see why anyone would ingest it at all- azalea leaves, really? but lots of other plants that resemble edibles or have attractive-looking berries it\’s easy to understand why kids put them in their mouths, or even hikers who think they know what plants are safe. There\’s also info in here about mushrooms. And did you know olive trees can cause terrible allergic reactions? even lime peel! I could go on and on but you should just read the book and save me the trouble. Incidentally, the part about Lincoln\’s mother mentioned in the subtitle (The Weed That Killed Lincoln\’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities) doesn\’t appear until near the end, so you have to read the entire book to get to that part. It\’s all worth it, though!

Also this book sent me googling about ten different plants to see what they look like, in spite of the delightful illustrations. Which is always a good sign of how much it triggered my curiosity, sending me online to learn more. Borrowed this one from the public library.

rating: 3/5 …….. 233 pages, 2009

more opinions:
I know a lot of you have read this book but my google reader returns nothing I can pin down and searches online yield so much stuff which aren\’t book reviews that I have no time to wade through. So if you\’re a book blogger and you\’ve read and posted about this book let me know and I\’ll add a link to you here!

by Dereck and Beverly Joubert

I\’ve been eying this book on its display shelf every visit to the library for the past few weeks, and finally I just gave in and brought it home, even though it\’s big and heavy (we were walking). And I\’m glad I did; it was a wonderful book.

Relentless Enemies is one of those large-format coffee-table books full of gorgeous photos of wildlife. It\’s based on three years the authors spent living among lions and buffalo in the Okavango Delta of Botswana, studying their interactions and filming. (I really want to see the film they produced now; I really loved their film Eye of the Leopard so I\’m sure I\’d like this one as well). The unique thing about this area, besides that no people are allowed there (no tourists, nada) is that most of it is swampy. The lions wade and hunt and travel through water day after day. What fascinated me most was to read about how the three lion prides they studied each had their own different strategies of hunting buffalo in the water. While the pictures dominate the book, the writing is beautiful, thoughtful, even poetic and so it was just as much a delight to read through as to enjoy visually.

Rating: 4/5 ……. 175 pages, 2006

by Juliet Eilperin

Sharks, one of the creatures most widely feared and loathed by humanity, kill less people a year than accidents with toasters or chairs! (How someone dies from a toaster encounter I don\’t know). Our fear of sharks has led us to ignore what\’s been happening to them, but as Juliet Eilperin succinctly describes in her book Demon Fish, their numbers are rapidly plummenting. They\’ve been killed because we fear them, killed because they get caught in equipment set to catch other fish, killed because we want to eat them to show off (the shark components of shark\’s-fin soup add nothing to the flavor of the dish) and killed as their habitats are destroyed. Some say: who cares? they eat us. Let them die. But as top predators in the ocean, sharks fill a very important role of keeping other species in check. Not to mention that they are beautiful in their own right, unique creatures we are just beginning to understand.

Some of the amazing things I learned about sharks in this book (I\’d heard of some of these things before, but never read about them in detail)

Sharks are ancient. They predate the dinosaurs!
Shark skin is very tough, made out of the same material as teeth.
Some sharks lay eggs, others give live birth.
A few sharks even give virgin birth. That\’s right: no dad.
Some baby sharks eat their siblings in utero.
There are about five hundred known species of shark.
Most sharks are small, and many of them have beautiful patterns. Look at this one.

So I learned a lot about sharks, what makes them different, how scientists study them, how our actions are pushing many of them towards extinction and why we should care. And of course, take steps to halt their demise.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5 …….. 295 pages, 2011

more opinions:
We Loved DC
All Fins Attached

For the first in a long time, I have been inspired by something I read to make a purchase. Thus the presence of this post, about a food item, on my book blog!

It was from reading Honeybee, which first sparked my interest in local, or monofloral honey. So for the first time ever, I have bought some special honeys, and they do have very different flavors.

The first one I got was an orange-blossom honey from the local supermarket, Wegman\’s. It has a light amber color like clover honey (which is all I\’m used to eating in regards to honey) and tastes a lot similar. It has a definite, sharp citrusy zing, kind of as if the honey had orange zest in it. And a nice tingly aftertaste that seems to linger in the roof of my mouth.

Then just a few days ago we went to a local produce stand at an Amish farm we like to visit, but only go two or three times a season because it\’s quite a bit of distance from us (at least a twenty-minute drive). I usually get eager about their homemade jams and sauces, but this time noticed there was a shelf full of monofloral honey! I got all excited when I saw the tupelo honey, which I read about in Robbing the Bees, and had a hard time deciding which other type to try. They had starthistle honey, blackberry, apple blossom and many others I can\’t remember now. I was intrigued by the avocado one so we got that.

You can see the difference in the colors here. The Tupelo honey is amber too, a bit darker than orange blossom. The avocado honey has a rich, dark almost red-tinted color. We tried just a bit smeared on crackers to compare the flavors.

The tupelo honey is very sweet and astringent. Its flavor reminds me of something else but I haven\’t been able to put my finger on it. The avocado honey has an incredibly rich, heavy flavor like molasses. It left the longest aftertaste on my tongue. I can\’t decide which I like best and have to figure out some special cooking or food combinations to do with these. They are a bit pricey- the tupelo jar cost $10, the others about $6 each, but we are going to savor them. I don\’t know if they\’re exactly local- I think tupelo trees only grow in Florida, for example- but I know our farmer\’s market has honey produced by local hives. Next change I get, I want to try some of theirs, too.

Flemish and Dutch Drawings from the 15th to the 18th Century

by Colin Eisler

Another art book I got from a library sale recently. I picked it up because in thumbing through saw a wonderful drawing of an elephant by Rembrandt, also several awesome lions, and figured there\’d be more. I was right- there was much more. Just a few are of animals: a boar\’s head, a scruffy-looking bull, a donkey, a beautiful little monkey with a chain on his neck, several cows in a group and quite a few horses (mostly with figures). There\’s also a wonderful page full of little studies of garden vegetables which made me wish I could draw plants better, and two that quite made me laugh. One is a drawing called Men Shoveling Chairs. Seriously. I was glancing at the plate titles in the front of the book and my eye wandered down the usual kind of names: Portrait of a Young Man, Virgin and Child, Landscape with a Bridge, etc. then I saw Men Shoveling Chairs. What!? I turned to that page and it was exactly that: four men with long-handled paddle-like shovels thrusting them under piles of three-and-four-legged stools and chairs. I still puzzle over what it means or why the artist drew it, but it makes me laugh nonetheless. The other amusing one is a drawing by Hieronymous Bosch called Tree-Man in a Landscape which reminds me how even centuries ago people would idly sketch fantastic things they just dreamed up: a \”man\” with an egg-shaped body (cut away to show figures around a table inside), his legs are trees and his feet boats, his hat has a jug on top out of which tiny figures climb on a ladder, an owl sits on a branch growing from his back. It\’s entirely fanciful and curiously delightful to peer at.

Of course there are lots of the types of drawings you\’d expect to find: the portraits and madonnas, landscapes and buildings. They all show me something to aspire to, but I was really glad that I found something to smile about, too.

The style of the drawings ranges from very rough, simple line sketches to highly detailed meticulous wash studies and finely hatched pen-and-ink works. Some you can imagine the artist having spent hours working on, others just a few moments. There are lots of amazing studies of folds from the clothing people wore, and a wide variety of faces. The introductory text describing the artwork and its changing styles through the centuries and via different artists wasn\’t nearly as incomprehensible as I feared, actually pretty interesting. But of course, I mostly enjoyed just looking and looking at the pictures.

Rating: 4/5 …….. 140 pages, 1963

by Joseph Bell

This book has been sitting on my shelf a long time, picked up from a library sale who-knows-when. I read it through several bouts of nursing the baby, taking time to look closely at all the pictures. Metropolitan Zoo is a collection of images from the Metropolitan Museum of Art that all feature wild animals. There are paintings, drawings, sculpture, embroideries, jewelry and other forms of art. Each image is described, not only explaining the medium and style, the artist\’s inspiration (whether from life or completely fanciful) and a bit of history, but also something about the animal. In particular, the author points out when the details of the artwork show something factual about the animal\’s life or habits, and when they got it dead wrong! I noticed myself a few small details: in the painted screen of white-handed gibbons (shown on the cover), the male is holding some kind of insect in his clenched fist. In few pages showing lions, I saw that quite a number of them depicted the Barbary lion, now extinct in the wild, whose mane extends along the belly. And one left me with a question: what is the other, un-named animal in the detail of the unicorn tapestry shown? Next to the hyena (which doesn\’t look much like a hyena) is a creature with a striped tail like a raccoon (only skinnier) but the longer neck and finer face of a weasel. A civet? I keep turning to that page, trying to puzzle it out. The artworks feature lions, elephants, rhinos, deer, squirrels and many other mammals. There are also quite a few pieces depicting snakes and other reptiles, and lots of various and beautiful birds. It\’s a book I thoroughly enjoyed looking through, and should be very popular with anyone who loves animals or art (or both, like me!)

I want to get my hands someday on the other edition they\’ve printed featuring cats from the museum\’s artwork.

Rating: 5/5 …….112 pages, 1985

by Jane Goodall 
with Gary McAvoy and Gail Hudson

Concerned about many alarming trends she\’s noticed around the world Jane Goodall wrote this book about \”mindful eating.\” In it she talks about all sorts of things revolving around what we, as humanity eat, and how current practices are destroying our environment and what we can do (on an individual level) to make a difference. Some of the things she talks about in Harvest for Hope include the presence of chemicals and poisons in our food, water shortages, bio-engineered crops, the awful treatment of animals in large-scale operations, overfishing of the oceans and loss of species diversity. Some of the information and predictions for the future are downright scary. On a positive note she talks about the many rich food cultures around the world, organizations that teach schoolchildren how to grow and cook their own produce, farmers that go back to using \”deep organic\” practices in order to heal their land and produce healthier food, the growing numbers of farmer\’s markets and restaurants that use local food, the importance of vegetarianism (in all its forms) for our health, the well-being of animals and the reduction of resources overuse, etc. She hasn\’t quite convinced me to go vegetarian but I am more determined to make an effort to buy local and organic food when I can. Even if it costs more and I can\’t buy as much, eating a bit less can only be good for me!

rating: 3/5 ……. 296 pages, 2005

more opinions at:
Sayin\’ Stuff
She Writes, Right?

Rin Tin Tin by Susan Orlean- seen on Sophisticated Dorkiness
Healing Paradise by Gay Courter- noticed by Superfast Reader
One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-read about on A Work in Progress
The Gardener’s Year by Karel Capek- Captive Reader
Small Wonder by Barbara KingsolverStuff as Dreams Are Made On
The Curious Gardener by Ana Pavord- Captive Reader and Garden Rant
Flower Hunters by Mary Gribbin and John Gribbin- Captive Reader
Sex on Six Legs by Marlene Zuk- A Striped Armchair
Second Nature by Michael Pollan- Stuff As Dreams Are Made On
The Orchard: A Memoir by Theresa Weir
It’s a Long Road to a Tomato by Keith Stewart
The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels by Ree Drummond
those three from Caroline Bookbinder

The Proof of Love by Catherine Hall- Farm Lane Books Blog
A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard- We’ll Always Have Books
Seeing Trees by Nancy Ross Hugo- Commonweeder
Cluck: From Jungle Fowl to City ChicksGarden Rant
Feathers! by Thor Hanson- Sophisticated Dorkiness
Your Farm in the City by Lisa Taylor- Garden Rant 
Night Waking by Sara Moss- Farm Lane Books Blog
Urban Farming by Thomas J Fox- Garden Rant
Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi- Farm Lane Books Blog
Chick Days by Jenna Woginrich – Garden Rant
My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira- Books and Movies
A Lucky Child by Thomas Buergenthal- Diary of an Eccentric
The City Homesteader by Scott Meyer – Garden Rant
Sugar Snaps and Strawberries by Andrea Bellamy- Garden Rant

The Seventh Well by Fred Wander- Diary of an Eccentric
Making It: Radical Home Ec… by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen- Garden Rant
Bending Toward the Sun by Leslie Gilbert Lurie- Diary of An Eccentric

Four Hedges by Clare Leighton
A Countrywoman’s Notes by Rosemary Verey
The Garden in the Clouds by Antony Woodward
The Curious Gardener’s Almanac by Niall Edworthy
all those last four from Captive Reader


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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