Month: June 2014

Niko Tinbergen

This is one of those scientific books written by a naturalist that I remember loving vividly, although I haven\’t been able to find a copy to read again. It\’s about a study done on coastal seagulls. Similar to other books of its type, it describes how the scientists approached the animals, using care to get close enough to observe and photograph the wild birds without frightening them away or altering their behavior. Details what they learned about how the gulls live: finding food, courtship, raising their chicks and so on. I remember an experiment where they fashioned a fake bird\’s head with a red dot on the bill, and presented it to newly-hatched chicks to see if they would instinctively beg for food by pecking the spot- or something like that. Not sure why that incident stood out to me. Like the best of animal behavior studies, the book is written in a conversational narrative fashion. It details not only the animals\’ behavior in both anecdotal and scientific fashion (those two might sound conflicting, but I remember they dovetailed nicely here), but also muses on the nature of the animal mind, the naturalists\’ methods and their own experiences while conducting the study. I do want to find this book again, and add it to my permanent shelf. It is strongly paired with A Beast the Color of Winter in my mind; probably because I read them during the same period in my life and they are of similar quality (although the animal subjects could not be more different!).

There\’s an entire article about the red-spot aspect of the study here. I guess there\’s a reason that part of the book stood out to me! Also an interesting tidbit here from a current worker in the field who reflects on Tinbergen\’s words.

Rating: 4/5    255 pages, 1953

by Cornelia Funke

Ben is one wild little boy. All day long he pretends to be a wolf or a monster. He battles dragons, goblins, foxes and other ferocious beasts. Engaging his sister in these exuberant adventures (sometimes a giggling willing participant, other times protesting!) he\’s brave and strong and fearless- at least until darkness falls. When nighttime brings strange noises in the house, suddenly Ben needs his big sister to feel safe. I know a crazy little boy like this, and it\’s nice to remember there\’s a tender side under all the wild activity.

Rating: 3/5     24 pages, 2004

more opinions:
Jessica\’s Children\’s Literature
anyone else?

by Diane Ackerman

This is the story of a zoo in wartime. Warsaw, Poland was bombarded by German attacks, occupied by the enemy, involved in devastating battle with the Uprising, and finally subdued under Soviet rule. Through it all Jan Zabinski and his wife Antonina remained in the zoo grounds, although at times they were forced to abandoned the villa that was their home they always managed to come back to it, trying to save what they could. In the early months of the war many buildings were destroyed by bombs, animals released (intentionally and by accident- this part of the story reminded me of Pride of Baghdad). Dangerous animals were purposefully shot because of fear they would escape, more were removed to zoos in other cities far from the war. The zoo grounds were ripped apart by soldiers as different orders came down from the occupying enemy: turned into a pig farm, established with garden plots to feed civilians and soldiers, stocked with raccoon dogs as a fur farm.

Before long, it seems there weren\’t many animals left and mention goes to how people in the city survived the war, the many underground activities, the horrors of the ghetto, incredible stress and risk people suffered from, and most of all- how the zoo director and his wife saved some three hundred people, hiding them in the villa and outlying buildings of the zoo. I admit I wished for a bit more about the animals, but the detailed picture the book painted of civilian life and all the efforts Jews and other threatened people went through to avoid attracting attention (and thus death) was compelling reading. I learned quite a lot of detail I wasn\’t aware of before. Ackerman is a good writer who knows how to tell a story, and seems to have done very thorough research. It all makes me wish I could read Antonina\’s original diaries and memoirs, or her husband Jan\’s books about the animals, but I don\’t know if any have even been translated. I was full of admiration for everything this couple did to help other people, most of them complete strangers.

One thing that stood out to me was the frequent mention of a sculptor, Magdalena Gross, who visited the zoo to use the animals as subjects for her art. The author often remarked how famous she was, how meticulous with details to accurately capture the poise of the animals. I really wanted to view some of her work but had trouble finding it online- I did come across a site that shows many animal statues from the Warsaw Zoo grounds, but I\’m not sure if those are hers. Does anyone know?

I recently saw the film version of The Book Thief (excellent!) which vividly depicted wartime Germany for me, so it was interesting to read a completely different viewpoint of the same historical timeframe.

Rating: 3/5        368 pages, 2007

more opinions:
Odds & Hens
Rosemary and Reading Glasses
Book Journey

by Carl Best

A girl and her bike. Sally Jean starts out riding behind her mom, then gets a tricycle, and finally her very own real bike. She learns to ride solo (no training wheels) and do some tricks. She loves her bike so much she gives it a name. As she gets bigger, her parents show her how to adjust the seat and handlebars. But eventually Sally Jean outgrows the bike, and her parents can\’t afford to buy a new one for a while. What will Sally Jean do? Other kids offer her rides, but as the Bicycle Queen, she needs her own bike. She tries to earn money, but it\’s not enough. Her final solution really tickled me: Sally Jean finds some used parts and makes her own bike. Then she kindly hands her old bike down to another kid who\’s outgrown his tricycle. Great story, even though I don\’t really care for the illustrations (very loose, sketchy style).

Rating: 3/5        32 pages, 2006

more opinions:
Enjoy and Embrace Learning
Read These Please!

I have, for many years now, been slowly working through several goals in relation to my reading. The foremost of course are to read all the books that I own, read most of the books on my written TBR list, and to write about all the books I can remember having read. This last I\’ve been slowly making progress on- I have a few compiled lists from the years before I began blogging, and whenever I write a past reads posts, it catches up some on that.

But I\’ve been thinking lately about yet another goal.

I would like to take one year, and only read books off my permanent shelf. I wonder if I could make it through them all- it would be about seven hundred books, far beyond the usual amount I read in a year- but then, they would all be re-reads, so maybe I\’d go through them faster. I think much of it would be enjoyable, delightful in fact, as I\’ve kept these books because I loved them. But I\’m also afraid at meeting some serious disappointments- many I have not read in a decade or more, they might not stand up to a re-read. Especially those I haven\’t read since my childhood, or teen years.

So… am I crazy? I\’m wondering if I\’ll ever do this at all. But definitely feel the need to meet one of my other goals first. Getting through all the books on the TBR shelves, at the very least.

by Leslie Connor

Miss Bridie\’s story begins as she steps off a ship into a new land, carrying a shovel. She doesn\’t bring with her a chiming clock or pretty porcelain figure into the new world, but a useful, utilitarian object. And throughout her life, the shovel serves her well. She uses it to plant gardens, dig fence posts, clear snow for ice skating. The shovel digs wheels out of the mud and puts fuel into her kitchen stove. When a fire levels her barn, she finds the shovel blade and makes a new handle, continuing on. I did not expect to find this quiet, unassuming story so moving, but suppressed a tear when she used to shovel to bury her beloved husband, and plant a tree on his grave. The book closes with the shovel still in use, clearing snow for her grandchildren to skate now. Illustrated with a lovely woodcut style.

Rating: 4/5     30 pages, 2004
more opinions:

by Ken Thompson

This is one of those books that kind of hurt my brain to read, but I appreciate because it revealed so much to me. It\’s about invasive species. It addresses such topics as: what makes some species invasive (successful) in new environments and others not? are introduced species actually harmful? what should we do about them- or are they better left alone? Most of the answers that Thompson arrived at actually surprised me. It seems that the furor about invasive species is either based on very little science, or none at all. Turns out it is quite natural for species to move around the planet and end up in different places than the originated in- if you go back not that far in time, anywhere on earth would be unrecognizable to us. So what gives humans the right to decide that a certain collection of plants and animals in one place is the ideal one, to be protected at all costs? In most cases, invasive species are not to blame for the decline of \”natives\”; looked at more closely it is often the fault of human changes to environments, or other factors altogether. And the cost of attempts to remove or eradicate alien species (almost always unsuccessful in the end) usually outweighs by far the cost of original \”damage\”. While it still disturbs and alarms me to see news of a certain species disappearing, especially when it is the victim of human alterations to the Earth, I feel like I should in some degree accept that this is just the way of things. The world changes. Some things will die, others will arise. Yes, we are making this happen faster than before- but it would still happen regardless… I still like the idea of having a garden comprised of all native plants, but Thompson has overturned my thinking: I will no longer feel so guilty about planting Dutch flowers in my garden.

Rating: 4/5      262 pages, 2014

more opinions:
Now Appearing

the Language of Friendship
by Isabella and Craig Hatkoff with Dr. Paula Kahumbu

In 2004, a young hippo was found in trouble after a tsunami struck Southeast Asia with widespread aftermath. The hippo was rescued and taken to a wildlife park in Kenya. To everyone\’s surprise, the hippo named Owen befriended a 130-year-old male tortoise, Mzee. The animals became inseparable, with Owen following the Mzee around and copying what the tortoise ate. The two became protective of each other. Even more remarkable, they seemed to develop some basic communication, using sounds that tortoises and hippos normally don\’t make. But eventually the park managers faced a difficult decision: would Owen and Mzee need to be separated? Owen was adopting habits and a diet not usual for hippos, and when he grew larger could probably injure Mzee. He needed to learn that he was a hippo. The book closes with change looming at hand: with another young hippo elsewhere needing a companion, plans were in the works to move Owen.

I wish I could give this book a higher rating, it certainly is an incredible story. But for some reason it all falls a bit short with me. The writing style is aimed at younger readers and rather simple. (I am sure having three authors doesn\’t help, I\’m always a bit standoffish to books with more than one author for some reason). The part about their interspecies communication, which I was most intrigued by, was actually very brief. There is not much meat here; I am actually wondering what this book includes that the first one didn\’t. I am sure there will be a third installment, but I\’d really rather wait until someone writes a book ten years down the road that tells the entire story in more detail. The part I actually liked most was reading in the end about how Dr. Haller (who established the wildlife park the two animals lived in) works to rehabilitate old abandoned limestone quarries, restoring the forest at those sites so wildlife can live there again. I\’d like to read more about that.

The story of Owen and Mzee has definitely caught the attention of many. There are already three books illustrated with photographs by Isabella and her father, plus two picture books by different authors.

Rating: 3/5      36 pages, 2007

more opinions:
Esther\’s Roost
Bottom Shelf Books

by Mac Barnett

While I was away, my mother took the children to the library several times, as evidenced by piles of unfamiliar picture books in my apartment. I\’ve been enjoying reading them with my three-year-old. My favorite has to be Extra Yarn. The sparse, expressive illustrations by Jon Klassen are delightful, and the story even more so.

It starts like this: a girl named Annabel who lives in a cold, gray town, finds a box filled with colorful yarn. She knits a sweater for herself and her dog. Then for her friends, her classmates, teacher, eventually all the pets and people in town (even a guy who doesn\’t want a sweater- he wears shorts in the snow- gets something: she makes him a hat). Every time she finishes knitting, there is still yarn left in the box. So she knits sweaters for things that don\’t usually need them- trees, houses, etc. The town becomes very colorful! Now Annabel becomes famous, people come to see the knitting and the marvelous box and a rich duke who loves clothes wants to buy it. Annabel won\’t sell, for any ridiculous price. He steals the box of yarn, but of course it all turns out well in the end. I love the way the pictures tell the story, and the final message. Lovely.

Rating: 4/5        40 pages, 2012

more opinions:
Story Seekers
Children\’s Book Almanac

I\’ve been away; just updated my blog with the books read on plane flights and in occasional quiet moments during the trip. Had an unexpected stop in an airport bookstore, stopover in Johannesburg. I don\’t usually expect much of interest in airport bookstores, but when I hesitated outside my boyfriend pointed out a copy of The Elephant Whisperer on the display table. There was an entire section on nature inside; it didn\’t take long for a stack to pile up in my arms. I only brought home two: Where Do Camels Belong? by Ken Thompson and Nest: The Art of Birds by Janine Burke. But I stole a few moments in front of the shelf to scribble down on the back of a receipt all the others I wanted to read, so I can perhaps find them later (at the library, hopefully).

Fifty Plants That Changed the Course of History by Bill Laws
The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony
The Last Rhinos by Lawrence Anthony
Whatever You Do, Don\’t Run by Peter Allison

The Lion and the Lamb by Mike Hardwich
The Rhino and the Rat by Mike Hardwich
A Hippo Love Story by Karen Paolillo
Bush Vet by Clay Wilson
Back to the Bush by James Hendry


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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