Month: December 2015

by Frans de Waal

As you can tell from the title, this book is about religion, morality and humanism. Particularly, what we can learn or speculate about the evolution and nature of our own moral codes, from how our closest animal relatives behave. While I was expecting it to be mostly about bonobos, it uses a lot of examples from other animals- mostly chimpanzees, some old-world monkeys, elephants and dogs. Its author is a very well-known biologist specializing in the study of bonobos but now I wish I\’d read one of his earlier books, as this one lost me. (I don\’t know if they would have been any better, but there are nine prior titles listed to his name, which seem to be about bonobos or chimpanzees. My guess is they might be more concrete and less meandering, being written earlier in his career?) This book quickly goes into philosophical and religious debates, straying frequently from what seemed to be the topic at hand. Maybe there was a relevant point tied up in it all, but I could not always follow it. I ended up skimming through the entire book, reading the passages that had examples of animals displaying a sense of fairness, ethics, compassion, guilt, etc including what those observations implied, but allowing my eyes to glaze over when it started diving into the tangle of arguments between religious thought and atheism. The book has a lot of acclaim in online reviews at the biggest seller\’s site, but I can\’t find it mentioned on any other book blogs.

Abandoned        289 pages, 2013

by Vanessa Woods

The bonobo is very similar to a chimpanzee, but with significant differences. They stand upright and have smaller heads, with more humanlike proportions. They live relatively peacefully, don\’t engage in warfare between groups or commit infanticide. The author\’s new husband was studying bonobos in the Congo (the only place in the world where they exist in the wild) and she went along to help with the research. The studies, which examined the extent of the bonobos\’ ability to cooperate, tolerance levels and their hormonal response to the presence of strangers, were conducted at a rescue center that took in young bonobos orphaned by the bushmeat trade and illegal wildlife trafficking. Though her story was just as much about a time and place (heavy on details of local politics and ugly warfare) as it was about the bonobos, I still learned quite a lot about the wild apes. Compared to them, chimpanzees appear brutal and outright vicious. I\’m now curious to learn more about them, and have found a few more titles (there are not many published).

This book is definitely not for the squeamish: the author describes horrific atrocities that took place in the Congo, devastating things to live through for humans and bonobos alike. Yet she describes it all in a rather detached, casual manner (with a fair sprinkling of expletives) that sometimes almost made me loose interest in reading. The profanity obviously bothered a reader before me, who marked up the library copy I had with a ballpoint pen, crossing out phrases they apparently found objectionable, and writing in other words in their place. Oh, and there are a number of descriptions of the bonobos engaging in sexual activity. That\’s another significant characteristic they have- they use sex to diffuse tension. Frequently. Although after carefully observing when, why, and between whom these acts occurred, the author came up with her own ideas for why the bonobos are so free with sex compared to other apes (even youngsters who had never observed adult behavior- being orphaned very abruptly- engaged in what looked like sexual behavior). Surprisingly, my fellow reader with the blue pen didn\’t mark out or comment on these passages!

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5        278 pages, 2010

more opinions:
My Books My Life

by Fanny Britt

I saw this book on Things Mean a Lot, and looked for it at my library when getting piles of picture books for my kid. It’s a story of friendship, loneliness and self-image. Helene struggles in school because her friends have inexplicably shunned her. They whisper rumors and giggle behind her back and write nasty notes on the bathroom wall about her weight and body odor. Untrue things, but Helene believes them and retreats into silence, loneliness and books. She’s reading Jane Eyre, and finds a lot of comfort in the story of this plain, ordinary woman from a difficult background who overcame the odds to become someone admired and loved. (That’s what Helene gets out of it, I myself haven’t read Jane Eyre in a very long time….) But she can’t always escape into her reading. There’s a class trip to a camp, and Helene dreads having to wear a bathing suit in front of the other girls, having to endure the taunts and ridicule. When she gets publicly humiliated by another girl, she feels her life is ruined. But a momentary encounter with a wild fox lifts her spirits, and then another girl, surprisingly sympathetic, joins the “outcast cabin”. Helene finally makes a new friend. She also discovers during a regular visit to the doctor, that her weight is perfectly normal. I really like the message of this book. The difficulties of navigating school days and crowds of kids who can be so unreasonably cruel with their ostracizing cliques balanced out by the solace of books, nature walks (something visually depicted in the book) and finding a person who sympathizes. It did seem to end rather suddenly, and I wished for a bit more depth, but I think the length and detail is just right for the age group. The illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault are very nice. I like the sketchy quality of the pencil drawings (especially their use of value and negative space), which is brightened by watercolor washes on certain pages, reflecting Helene’s varying emotions.

I offered the library copy to my eleven-year-old, but she shrugged: “I have lots of books to read already.” It’s true, she does have a hefty stack on her bedside table. A good problem to have! I’m going to suggest this one to her again someday, I think she’s at just the right place to benefit from it.

Rating: 4/5
104 pages, 2012

by Douglas Chadwick

This book is based on the author\’s work as part of a grizzly team. Well, really he tagged along as an informed observer. The team\’s job was to \”educate\” grizzly bears that had begun to associate people\’s homes with food- dogfood, grain for livestock, and you\’d be surprised at how many bears love to eat birdseed. Not only did they constantly chase grizzlies away from habitated areas, using bear dogs, rubber bullets and a ton of noise, but also tried to educate local people about how to avoid attracting bears into their neighborhoods (whether it was inadvertent or on purpose, as in the case of a wildlife photographer who regularly put out food and was pleased when bears came by). They also personally removed tons of tempting items- including apples fallen off of trees and roadkill or dead livestock on ranches. In some cases the bears were starved from bad years of natural berry crops and the like, so the bear team would relocate carcasses or loads of apples, to give the bears something to eat in an area away from people. This because during their work tracking, collaring, catching and relocating bears they discovered that in most cases, moving a bear -no matter how far away- didn\’t work. The bear would simply come back to where it knew it could find food. So their job involved a lot of grizzle bear PR and attempts to give bears a negative association with populated areas.

Most interesting though, were the insights into grizzly behavior, and the stories of individual bears\’ lives that slowly unfolded through the bits of information learned in brief encounters or tracking data. Bears have very individual temperaments, each its own unique fishing style at salmon rivers, its own response to certain situations. This makes for pretty good reading. I felt bad for the many bears who simply couldn\’t find room to live in, without running into people. Or the bear that started hanging out at a zoo, interacting with a captive bear there. It came back so many times the zoo finally just put it in a cage.

Rating: 3/5        176 pages, 2003

by Carson Ellis

This lovely picture book shows a wide variety of places that people call home. Each page is a detailed illustration of a different kind of home- a city apartment, country home, thatched stone house on a mountainside. Some are really fanciful- the old woman’s shoe from a nursery rhyme, an underground sea lair (my favorite, with the writhing octopus tentacles and wavy aquatic plants), a diminutive woodland house- for a fairy or elf, you must imagine. There are so many particular details, you can imagine what kind of person lives in each home and the sort of activities they do. The page showing the artist’s own home is fun, as you can find objects, paintings and sketches in the room from most of the other illustrations in the book. Also there’s a visual thread running through the entire thing- which I didn’t notice until the second time I read this to my kid- of a mourning dove. The bird is present somewhere in each picture. Most of all, I loved the details of plants in the pictures- the variety of shapes, the fronds of sea plants and ferns- just lovely.

Note: I did not really think about how prevalent old, negative stereotypes are in this book -in the way it depicts the homes and lifestyles of non-European cultures- until I read the review in the third link below. Now it feels like a slap in the face. My four-year-old definitely wasn’t astute enough to pick up on this either, but that’s exactly the problem- the book will just define for her what other places and lives are like, if all she knows about Inuits are “that they live in igloos” for example. Sigh.

Rating: 4/5
40 pages, 2015

As usual, I’ve looked them up and the titles listed in the first section are found at my local library. All the rest maybe I will find them by chance someday. Thanks to the bloggers below, for bringing to my attention yet more books I want to read! (Other titles were found via books themselves).

An Appetite for Wonder by Richard Dawkins- Read Warbler
Carry On by Rainbow Rowell – Reading the End
Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels by Ian Morris- So Many Books
The Republic of the Imagination by Azar Nafisi- So Many Books
Living with Wolves by Jim and Jamie Dutcher
Browsings by Michael Dirda- So Many Books
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman from Shelf Love

Leaf by Daishu Ma- So Many Books
Understanding Roots by Robert Kourik- Garden Rant
The Beach of Falesa by Robert Louis Stevenson- James Reads Books
The Mountain and the Valley by Ernest Buckler- Farm Lane Books Blog
Heart and Blood Living with Deer in America by Richard Nelson
Of Sorrow and Such by Angela Slatter- Things Mean a Lot
Maverick Cats by Ellen Perry Berkeley
Community Cats by Anne E. Beall
Heirloom Harvest by Amy Goldman- Vegetable Gardener
A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins from Caroline Bookbinder
The Natural History of a Yard by Leonard Dubkin – Caroline Bookbinder
The Indestructible Houseplant by Tovah Martin- Garden Rant
The White Lions of Timbavati by Chris McBride
No Room for Bears by Frank Dufresne
Earth Stopped, or Mr Marx’s Sporting Tour by T.H. White
Gone to Ground by T.H. White
A Cuckoo in the House by Maxwell Knight
Urban Tails by Sara Neeley

I have been perusing the references listed in the back of books about wolves, lately. Lots of interesting-looking material. I may have already read the last four titles here, but it’s been so long I’m not certain and would like to read them again…

Arctic Wolf: Living with the Pack by David Mech
The Way of the Wolf by David Mech
Out Among the Wolves edited by J.A. Murray
Dance of the Wolves by Roger Peters
The Wolves of Minong by Allen Durward
The Ninemile Wolves by Rick Bass
The Decade of the Wolf by Douglas Smith
Brother Wolf: A Forgotten Promise by Jim Brandenburg
Soul of the Wolf by Michael Fox
Cry Wild by R.D. Lawrence
Wolfer by Carter Niemeyer
Praise of Wolves by R.D. Lawrence
Wolves by R.D. Lawrence
Trail of the Wolf by R.D. Lawrence
Secret Go the Wolves by R.D. Lawrence
The Ghost Walker by R.D. Lawrence
The North Runner by R.D. Lawrence
White Wolf: Living with An Arctic Legend by Jim Brandenburg

by Shaun Tan

I love Shaun Tan’s artwork, but found this one a bit underwhelming at first. It depicts the summer activities of two brothers- not at all in the way you might expect. The landscape can be strange, feeling desolate and empty or just downright weird. You see the kids doing things like inspecting small critters on the sidewalk, playing invented games with racket and ball on a bizarre court, marching in a fantastical parade of windup creatures. Each page is a broad spread of a beautiful, textural painting paired with a short sentence of the “rule” the boy learned during his summer- never leave the back door open overnight or never forget the password. You have to imagine by yourself what the story behind each incident is, but it slowly becomes clear that this book is depicting the rules of a relationship, younger and older brother, through their wildly creative games and explorations. I had to sit down and read it several times, it really started to grow on me after the third perusal. Gradually the kids’ camaraderie dissolves as one breaks or forgets some arbitrary rule the other has made up, and then there is a period of isolation, loneliness and dismay, which must finally be alleviated by forgiveness and rescue. It is heartwarming. Ok, I need to read it again right now. The images really are incredibly striking. They evoke a lot of wonder and imagination.

I really do like Shaun Tan. The Arrival is my favorite so far. I found mention of The Bird King: an Artist’s Notebook on the flyleaf and now I hunger for that book. I think I’d love it. I just found out my library has The Red Tree as part of a three-in-one volume, which is why I never found its title in the database before! So waiting for that one.

Rating: 3/5
52 pages, 2013

more opinions:
Waking Brain Cells
anyone else?

by Valerius Geist

I have not read much about deer, aside from a few like Bambi or The Hidden Life of Deer. So I expected to find this book interesting, and it really was. The author explains the lifestyle and success of whitetail deer in relation to their evolutionary history. In fact, it seemed that over half the book was about how deer evolved, from small dwellers of the forest floor right after dinosaurs disappeared, into the first recognizable deer some thirty million years ago. It did feel a bit repetitive, and for all the reiteration, some things were not quite explained well. But I did gain some surprising understanding into why deer have a certain type of body language and why they are so incredibly numerous nowadays. Whitetail deer in particular thrive at the edges of things, where disturbed habitat creates a lot of new, lush growth. Places such as river edges or newly cleared land. It\’s very clear that they will continue to do well alongside man, being one of the wildlife species that easily adapt and take advantage of changes we make to the environment. Reminding me of another book that called certain adaptive species \”weed animals\”! The author of Whitetail Tracks predicted that eventually whitetail deer would spread their range up through the Yukon into Alaska, and since he wrote it over a decade ago, I checked. Yes, whitetail are present in the Yukon now although apparently not in great numbers. Reports of whitetail sightings in Alaksa spark arguments on hunting forums. I suspect that as northern regions continue to get warmer, whitetails will keep moving too. They definitely are survivors and opportunists.

Another part that was really interesting discussed trophy bucks- why large males with nicely proportioned antlers are so rare in the wild, and how game farms condition bucks to grow large antlers. It was completely the opposite of what I would have assumed, and the historic aspects of this (gamekeepers protecting deer for feudal lords in the sixteenth century) was new info for me.

I borrowed this book from the public library.

Rating: 3/5        176 pages, 2001

by Edward Eager

I thought I was done with Edward Eager, but had missed one that was waiting on library hold for a long time. It just came in a few weeks ago. So this one comes just before The Well-Wishers and of course as I imagined, it explains all the character relations neatly. I did like the dynamic introduced when the kids meet Gordy- a well-meaning but bumbling kind of kid, son of unpleasantly wealthy parents, lonely and not much liked by anybody. The main characters are nice to him because they try to be decent, but there are all kinds of awkward moments when they really wish he wasn\’t there, or try to avoid his company without hurting his feelings, but in the end they find out he isn\’t so bad after all, and appreciate Gordy on his own merits. That was a nice touch.

But I\’m rather getting ahead of myself. The story is that two kids move to the country and there\’s a well in their yard. They think it\’s a wishing well and intend to have magical adventures, along with a few other kids in the neighborhood they meet. The aloof granddaughter of an elderly artistic eccentric, and a friendly boy from across the street as well as Gordy, who shows up later. The magic doesn\’t quite work out at first, and they get the idea that it only works when they\’re using it to help others. So they go about looking for people to do good deeds for. This results in some misunderstandings, as when they find a little boy alone in a shop, decide he\’s lost, take him along looking for home, and get distracted exploring a river in the meantime! It\’s certainly a book written from other times- horse-drawn vehicles are not uncommon, cars are fancy new inventions, some speech patterns are different (I even had to look up a few words) and the children are pretty much left unsupervised. Being encouraged by adults to play in an abandoned mine shaft, and taking an old boat on a river running into rapids and having to climb around a waterfall, does not really seem safe to me! Even when the kids get minor injuries the adults don\’t seem very alarmed…

I liked the story well enough, but was a bit disappointed to find in the end it was all a setup, a kind of elaborate prank by some neighbors at first, which the children themselves built upon and kept the pretense going on their own. Ghosts and long-lost secrets and mysteries to solve are not really my thing. This did not crop up until nearly the last chapter, or it probably would have caused me to abandon the book, simply from disinterest. The rest of it is pretty good, though.

I\’m a bit puzzled now, because I vaguely remember a book I read from my elementary school library, about a boy who found some magic object that turned him into a cat? I was expecting to run into that story among these; I thought it was an Edward Eager book but I suppose not.  Oh well.

Rating: 3/5         197 pages, 1959

by Jim and Jamie Dutcher

This beautiful book describes the social lives of wolves. It\’s based on six years the authors spent living alongside a wolf pack in Idaho, to study their behavior and social interactions. The insights they gained prove that wolves are caring, family-orientated animals with strong social needs. That they appear to mourn the loss of packmates, use playtime to alleviate aggression across dominance roles and teach each other new skills. It is not related as a storyline, but instead a detailed description of what was learned. The book skips a lot of the basic information that I\’ve seen covered so often lately, and goes more into current issues. It discusses the implications of wolf re-introduction, in this case describing what was done in Idaho, occasionally mentioning the work with wolves in Yellowstone as well. There are a lot of recommendations on how wolves and humans can manage to co-exist, and their ideas on dealing with wolves preying on livestock takes the opposite approach most ranchers and wildlife officials seem to use. In brief: their findings show that removing \’problem\’ wolves and breaking up pack structure does not help- because young wolves lacking leadership will gravitate to easy prey, and newcomers drifting in to fill gaps will experiment with livestock predation as well. The longer term solution, the Dutchers suggest, is to teach resident wolves that livestock do not make good prey targets, because of the presence of dogs and people. If one pack learns to avoid livestock, it will teach its young that lesson, which can last through generations of wolves. The other big thing I learned from this book was the broad positive impact wolf re-introduction has had on many ecosystems. As this apex predator began preying on elk herds, the numbers of elk did not actually drop but their overall health improved and their behavior changed, which had a ripple effect everywhere. Improving the growth and diversity of plants and smaller animals in more ways than I had realized. What really makes this book a great read though, is not all the lovely writing but the beautiful photographs. It is very much a photo essay, a very striking and informative one.

I borrowed this book from the public library.

Rating; 4/5        215 pages, 2013


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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