Month: March 2015

by Gerald Durrell

The book starts abruptly, without much introduction or explanation. It was the early 1950\’s, when Durrell (looks to be in his twenties, from a photo in the book) and a few companions set off for Guiana, on a trip to collect wild animals for zoos. (He seems already experienced at this venture- I wonder as I read more of his books, if I\’d find one that describes his initial attempts. I bet that\’s hilarious). The title comes from a phrase referencing the tickets bought, with end destination a small village called Adventure. Through scenery strikingly reminiscent of the last book I read (but much briefer!) they travel into South America and visit a number of small villages and settlements, seeking a variety of specimens to take home. Sometimes he made short forays into the forest with his companions, but more often than not they simply asked the locals to show them animals- purchasing those the natives kept as pets or animals that hunters caught for them. He mentions quite a few curious creatures. Snakes, monkeys, lizards and caiman were common. More interesting to me was reading about the capybara, agouti, tree porcupine and an anteater they tried to catch by chasing it down on horseback and lassoing it! I was surprised at the final count: he had more than five hundred animals (of a variety of species) collected when it was time to board ship and home. Then describes the difficulties in keeping the animals clean and fed, and the inevitable losses (but doesn\’t say how many- I wonder how high the toll really was). The author\’s admiration for wildlife really shines through the pages, in spite of the fact that he was pulling them out of their native habitat to cart home for display and scientific study. It really seems he did the best he could by them. As well as delight in reading about the animals, there are lots of different characters here in the people met on their travels. One in particular that kept me laughing was a man eager to guide them, who continually had to impress and \”one-up\” with a better story, every time something happened. There are also lots of amusingly awkward incidents when animals nearly get away, and misunderstandings when communication was difficult.

It was sometimes a puzzle to read and try to picture the wildlife- they did not have the same common names I know, as Durrell often referred to them by local names- \”pimpla hog\” was a tree porcupine, \”pipa toad\” the surinam toad (I myself only first heard of this animal a year ago!), \”sakiwinki\” were the squirrel monkeys, and so on. The \”crab dog\” a type of raccoon- it amused me that this was such a strange animal to Durrell, until I remembered he was from England (raccoons are so familiar to me, but then they\’re native to the Americas. In his time perhaps he had never seen one before). I kept forgetting that \”uwarie\” was a possum- despised by the locals because it was a scavenging pest- they were astonished and delighted that Durrell\’s team eagerly bought these animals- I imagine it would be like someone coming here asking around to buy rats or cockroaches for their curiosity.

Rating: 3/5       191 pages, 1954

by H.M. Tomlinson

I didn\’t know what this book was about at first, but I found the cover intriguing- it looks like woodcut panels. (They follow the timeline of the journey in the book, but the two on the back cover are first, chronologically). The first line definitely caught me: Everyone knows that the purpose of a travel book is to make the reader miserably envious of the author. It\’s a travel book unlike any other I\’ve read. It describes the route of a cargo ship, a steamer that in 1909 carried a load of Welsh coal from Swansea to Pará, Brazil and then up the Amazon river and a small tributary to a site near the San Antonio Falls where it sat \”in port\” for a month while inspections were made and cargo unloaded. The return trip went via Barbados, past Jamaica and landed at Tampa, FL from where our narrator caught a train to New York and made his final way home.

I haven\’t spoken of him. He\’s actually not much of a figure in the story itself- mostly an observer. It begins rather abruptly when Tomlinson is on his way to work, feeling bitterly oppressed by the daily grind, and stops to have conversation with a sailor on the street. This man invites him to take passage on the cargo steamer (it being short a few hands) and our narrator pretty much ditches his job, family and responsibilities in an instant to go along. (If you read the forward it becomes apparent the sailor was his brother, but still it seems very impulsive!) From there the book is all about the journey. I liked reading it, but the descriptions can be so dense it\’s hard to keep track of what you\’re reading about sometimes. The author has interesting insights and musing to share about everything he witnesses. The few momentous events seem to occur to other people, and there are a number of tall tales and travel stories told by other people met along the way. Tomlinson went aboard the ship in role of purser, which I understand means his job was to keep track of accounts, so he doesn\’t seem to do much but sit around chatting with people and watching everyone else work. It really does give you a vivid sense of place, the pitch and roll of the ocean, smothering heat inside the belly of the ship, characters of the deckhands (most did not speak English), the changes of weather, the sudden wall of greenery of South American jungle, glimpses of native people, birds and astonishingly gorgeous butterflies (never any wildlife larger than a peccary or anaconda), fears of mosquitoes and disease, and a crazy story about this railroad being built deep in the rain forest headed who knows where.

Certain aspects of the book reminded me vividly of The Lord of the Flies, Mister Johnson by Joyce Cary and State of Wonder but it\’s hard to put my finger on exactly why.

Rating: 3/5     302 pages, 1912

a parody
by Joe Garden, Janet Ginsburg, Chris Pauls, Anita Serwacki, Scott Sherman

Just the kind of light-hearted, amusing read I needed. A book of instructions pitched to dogs themselves, it includes advice on things like how to defend territory from the mailman, drive dinner guests from the house (with great subtlery), select the best shoes for chewing, get out of and destroy stupid costumes and train the owner to feed you when you want. The dogs\’ viewpoint on sharing a household with cats and the inevitability of bathtime (horrible but still vastly preferrable to visiting the groomer) were hilarious. Also pretty amusing were the doggy advice on how to woo a female in heat and why humans disdain the lovely odors of fresh dead carcasses and feces, but won\’t share drinks from their toilet bowl. In between the advice and instructions, there are tidbits on famous dogs in history and literature, most of which I found rather inane. But the one about the dog fighting a toaster was pretty funny.

Rating: 3/5         192 pages, 2007

by Kent Durden

The author tells how he and his father raised and trained a golden eagle. At the time eagles were only protected at the state level, so they were able to obtain a permit to trap and keep a golden eagle for educational purposes. They studied the bird as it grew, keeping a record on film. They created short films depicting the eagle\’s flying skills and intelligence, and later created early nature films for Walt Disney and pieces that were used in the tv show Lassie. That was all pretty interesting, but most I enjoyed reading about the eagle\’s habits, how they interacted with and trained her, how she adjusted to new situations, how she bonded with the author\’s father while viewing the son as pretty much a sworn enemy for life. (Because he had to hold the eagle when his father trimmed its talons, and also was the one to trap the eagle when they re-enacted its capture for a film). It was fascinating to read about how the eagle became a foster parent numerous times- when she laid unfertilized eggs during the breeding season (having no mate) they replaced her eggs with fertile ones from other birds to see how she would raise them. Geese, ducks, owlets and last of all some actual golden eagles. So many interesting moments here, told very well. This book was a surprisingly good read. It made me laugh a good number of times.

Rating: 4/5      160 pages, 1972

by Caroline Crowninshield Bascom

Another old book I picked up at a used sale somewhere, that wasn\’t quite what I expected. It\’s the firsthand account of a woman in the early 1900\’s who kept wild birds in her home, attempting to nurse them back to health. It began when as a young girl she was bedridden for long periods due to illness, and her mother brought in an abandoned baby bird someone had found to amuse her. Soon children in the neighborhood started to bring her birds as well- young ones fallen out of the nest, injured birds caught by cats, etc. Pretty soon she was known locally as the woman with \”the bird hospital\” and had a steady stream of avian patients.

While she was obviously kind-hearted and well-meaning, tenderly caring for her charges, it was also obvious that she was unfortunately ignorant about what the birds needed. This is my guess, because I\’m not an expert myself, but I was surprised to read that she fed many baby birds a steady died of bread or crackers soaked in milk, that she gave birds she assumed had asthma sugar cubes dipped in whiskey, and many other birds got table fare on a regular basis, whatever they seemed to fancy. One bird she didn\’t know the name of but described in detail (I think it was a starling) became ill after eating some roses, was dosed with alcohol and promptly died. They also met with frequent accidents from swallowing string, or being attacked by her cat (which she constantly let into the room, with stern but unheeded verbal reprimands) and many simply died from unknown causes or escaped out windows the first chance they got.

All in all, it seemed from reading between the lines a dismal success rate, though she never lost her enthusiasm and conviction that she was doing well by them. It is fun to read about the birds\’ antics, her attempts at training them to sing along to the piano or come when called by their names. But I couldn\’t help feeling a bit sorry for them all, in spite of her evident fondness for them and desire to help.

Rating: 2/5      190 pages, 1905

by Arnette Heidcamp

Lovely little book written by a wildlife rehabber who specializes in the smallest of birds: the hummers. At first she just fed hummingbirds in her yard, then began tending to injured ones in her open sunroom. She became known as the lady who ran \”Hummingbird 911\” and this book describes a number of hummingbirds she cared for overwinter, so they could be released in spring when they were done healing and recuperating. The birds included a nestling found when a tree was cut down, a bird that was found severely injured after apparently running headlong into a window, one caught by a cat, and several others found wandering off-course when winter began, weakened without the reserves to migrate successfully. In each case the author describes how she fed and tended to the tiny birds- often having to invent new methods to safely handle them, due to their size. For example, one injured bird that could not preen got its feathers individually dried with a sable paintbrush. Another that needed extra protein (hummingbirds eat a surprising number of small insects such as gnats, whitefly and aphids) got fish food crumbled into its nectar solution. I learned a lot from her book about hummingbirds- their needs, biology, behavior and little quirks. I would like to read her other books especially the first one, because she glossed over a lot of details in this one that I bet were explained more thoroughly earlier- such as how she managed to get such sharply detailed photographs.

There was one interesting passage where she talked about the patterns of hummingbird migration, how certain species were being seen outside their usual area, speculating that they were expanding their range. While she couldn\’t help assisting the lost and injured hummers, she also wondered about the effects of humans intervention- rescuing the unfit birds where nature would have weeded them out, making the species as a whole stronger.

Rating: 3/5     204 pages, 1997

by Sir Francis Chichester

Another tale of a singlehander\’s voyage that I had on my shelf. It has some similarities, and many differences, to the previous one. In this case, the adventurer was a very experience sailor. He had a yacht custom-built for his trip, where he planned to circumnavigate the world stopping at only one port (Sydney, Australia) which had never been done before, and to do it faster than anyone ever had in a small vessel. Alone. He pointed out how different sailing is with an able crew, than one person solo. I was astonished that he even put to sea knowing all the things that were wrong beforehand- the boat wasn\’t balanced right, the sail yardage seemed wrong for its size, the keel wasn\’t big enough, it didn\’t steer well etc etc. I don\’t know what all the sailing terms mean, but even so I thought: I would never attempt to cross the oceans in that boat! Plus he had a serious leg injury right before leaving, and refused to see a doctor. Undaunted, he put to sea. And found many more problems along the way- issues with how the boat handled, leaks all over the place, moldy food and so on.

The book is based on his meticulous logs; some of it is about navigation and weather observations, most of it is a retelling of all the things that went awry and how he solved them. Ingenious fix-it-ups when things broke or malfunctioned. I was impressed that he baked his own bread during the voyage, grew cress, bean sprouts, mustard seed and wheatgerm for greens, and even drank seawater (small amounts) when he felt he lacked salt. Also impressed at how arduous it must be to sail alone- constant work to readjust sails and alter the steering whenever the wind and waves changed. Not to mention all the other work! Never any rest. Must be exhausting. I admit I could never face some of the things he did: re-baking moldy bread to eat it anyway, doing dental work on himself when he broke a tooth, going days on end of hard work with fragmented sleep.

And he did all this when he was sixty-five. Breaking several records for fastest-travelling sailing yacht of its size, longest passage without stopping at port, furthest distance travelled by a singlehander, and several others. His trip was followed avidly by newspapers at home, and he was met by adulating crowds and knighted by the Queen when he finally made it back to London (approx 8 months later).

I liked reading about his sightings- he was very interested in the seabirds, mentioned seeing whales or dolphins occasionally, not many fish. In one regard very marked difference with d\’Aboville\’s account of crossing the Pacific in 1991, who remarked upon constantly running into floating plastic trash. Just twenty-five years earlier, Chichester made no mention of finding such pollution. Were the seas so much cleaner then, or perhaps he was too busy to notice it.

Overall, the book gets kind of tedious. It\’s fascinating to see what the experience was like, but I get lost easy in all the terminology. When he mentions doing this and that adjustment to such-and-such a sail to the boat\’s response in this way to that kind of wind, I just imagine things being tugged and swung around, but really have no idea. Probably this book is best appreciated by a sailor. It did give me a few great-sounding titles of other famed seafaring ventures, and cleared up some confusion I had when reading Rockbound. (In that book, the characters constantly groused about a seabird colony on the lighthouse island. They called them \”the careys\” and despised their burrowing habits which ruined the land for crops, and their stink. I couldn\’t figure out what these birds were. Chichester mentions seeing \”Mother Carey\’s chickens\” which he tells me are storm petrels. Ah! That puzzlement cleared up nicely.)

Rating: 3/5        269 pages, 1967

more opinions:
Loud Latin Laughing

The Man Who Braved the Vast Pacific- and Won
by Gerard d\’Aboville

In 1991, this Frenchman d\’Aboville rowed across the Pacific Ocean solo. From Japan to the American coast (his original goal was San Francisco but he landed in the small town of Ilwaco, Washington). It\’s quite an adventure story. Not the most gripping reading- although he describes his preparations, difficulties, encounters with sea life (few and far between), the overpowering emptiness of the ocean, its mood and weather, what it felt like to be so small tossed on the waves- it still did not compare to the fantastic storytelling that was Kon-Tiki, for example. The biggest question when I read this book was- why? why undertake such an arduous, dangerous exploit? D\’Aboville states that a decade earlier, he rowed across the Atlantic- he often compared the two journeys- the Atlantic was calmer, warmer, much more populated with fish and sea traffic, and yet two other men who were attempting to row across at the same time he did, failed to make it. It turns out he just felt compelled to push himself to his limits, to prove he could do it. It definitely sounded like an ordeal. The cold, the wet, the tedious diet (mostly dehydrated meals), the loneliness (even for this is a man who prefers his own company more often than not). He kept accurate notes on his experience, took myriad photographs to document it- even in the midst of a storm or the turmoil that occured when his boat capsized. Which it did many times. It was a twenty-six foot rowboat with storage space fore and cramped sleeping compartment aft under the decks. It was specially designed just for this trip, had an ingenious water-pumping device to allow d\’Aboville to right the boat when it capsized (with him trapped inside), solar panels for limited electricity to power his telex, and a radio among other things. The journey across the ocean took him 134 days. Several times he was passed by ships which invited him on board, and he refused- always determined to finish the crossing by himself.

When I first picked up this book on a whim, I thought from the cover image it was about a man who accidentally was adrift to survive the ocean- shipwrecked or something. Not at all- a deliberately planned venture of bravery and stamina. It\’s funny that one of the amazon listings for this book has a misleading subtitle: The True Story of the Man Who Fought the Sharks, Waves, and Weather of the Pacific and Won. There were no sharks!

It would be nice to read about his first venture crossing the Atlantic, but I couldn\’t find any evidence that he\’d written a book about that.

Rating: 3/5        167 pages, 1992

by Frank Parker Day

On a remote island off the southern shore of Novia Scotia, young David ventures to claim a piece of land that is his by inheritance. It\’s difficult at first to make his livelihood and gain acceptance among the islanders. The community is mostly comprised of two families that are in constant friction- they argue over everything from who will marry whom, to whose task it is to fill a pothole in the common road. The harsh conditions and rough work make tough men, who are proud of their strength and skill. David finds his way among them, proving his worth and standing his ground against the \”island king\”, an old man leader of one group of fishermen who makes all the important decisions. It was really intriguing reading not only the details about how fishermen make their living, but also the politics on the island, the gossiping and vying for power, the prevalence of ghost stories and superstitions. I was a bit surprised at how intent some of the men seemed to be on gaining wealth through their fishing enterprise, when they lived so crudely and seemed to just sit on the money. David\’s friend becomes keeper of the lighthouse on a small, even lonelier island and it was interesting again to read about the work involved in tending the lighthouse and ingeniously fixing it up when things broke and no supply ships could get in because of the weather. There\’s also a love story, acts of forgiveness and revenge, and a picture of how life on the island evolved over time. Machinery replacing some of the work done by cattle, women eventually getting to vote and choose their husbands instead of always being ruled by the men (even in these cases the men always had to save face in some way!) I even liked the details about managing the land- how the barren rock and thin topsoil was turned into rich gardens by composting with sea wrack- that appealed to the gardener in me!

Through it all there\’s the admirable character of David. He takes his hard knocks and comes through it. He survives shipwreck and debilitating injury, he doesn\’t stand in his best friends\’ way when they desire the same future. I thought it a bit far-stretched that this man could start reading Shakespeare\’s The Tempest shortly after learning how to read– but it made a nice allegory in the story. I almost didn\’t get into this book because at first the dialogue written in local slang really threw me off, but before long I was caught up in the narrative. There are some other disjointed parts in the beginning where the author suddenly tells what one character will do years ahead of the present storyline- and then jumps back into the flow- but after that it goes on fairly linear.

The afterword by Gwendolyn Davies is pretty interesting- it tells about the author\’s life and research, how the book was first published and its initially poor reception. Apparently the author had visited the fishing community on an island called Ironbound, to learn about the local culture. The inhabitants were offended when the book was finally published- though called fictional, they said it portrayed them in a bad light as being ignorant and crude. The book met strong disfavor and was out of print for over forty years, finally being reprinted in 1973.

Rating: 3/5       328 pages, 1928

edited by Thomas B. Allen

This book is from the National Geographic Society, part of their natural science library series. The chapters are written by over 20 different authors and scientists on animal behavior. Most of them from work in the field. A few are broad discussion on things like migration, how animals learn and different social orders among the animal kingdom. The majority have a specific focus: the shift of territorial boundaries between hyena clans, social order of bee colonies, echolocation in bats, how bison bulls vie for dominance, whale songs, penguin colonies, the courtship behaviors of fish. Featured animals also include storks, african lions, mountain gorillas, elephants, ants and wildebeest. Although the book is really outdated (for example, at the time it was written bat sonar and whale songs were new discoveries, nobody knew about elephants\’ subsonic communication and how birds navigate was still largely a mystery) I still learned many things and enjoyed the reading overall. For the first time I read the words of George Schaller! Another chapter is written by Dian Fossey (the other authors were unknown to me).

I recognized a number of the photographs- especially the ones of an albino gorilla- from my parents\’ collection of old National Geographic magazines- I used to look through the pictures a lot. Back then I hardly ever read the articles, so I don\’t know if the chapters in this book are just reprints of selected articles, or were written specifically for this volume. The publication data and acknowledgements are unclear on that. I did notice, if they were originally magazine articles, how focused they are on the science and the animals. Whereas I often feel that current articles I read (because I\’m interested to learn about the wildlife) are just as much a travelogue- you get more about the place, its politics and relevant difficulties as information about the science and animals themselves.

Rating: 4/5         422 pages, 1972


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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