Month: January 2017

by J.K. Rowling

In the Harry Potter series (which I have not read in over a decade now- wow, it feels like a long time ago) most young witches and wizards are familiar with the tales of Beedle the Bard- moralistic fairy tales of the magical world. I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed this little book. It adds something to the backstory and worldbuilding. The short stories feel like authentic fairy tales, and the \”commentary\” by Albus Dumbledore adds another level of meaning. Sure I would have picked up on those subtle lessons about magic/nonmagical relations, greed, kindness, common sense, etc but it\’s fun to read the extra explanations. Particularly amusing were the many instances Dumbledore pointed out how the stories fictionalized magical abilities, or how non-magical people would misunderstand them. Gave historical context from the wizarding world, and tied them into \”current\” politics and events, with some side notes remarking on his contemporaries, students, and a particular witch who \’dumbed down\’ the stories to make them more palatable (ie saccharine) for wizard children. Some of it has to be taken in context with the Potter stories, but a lot is standalone.

I guess I ought to tell you what the stories are! Everyone who\’s read the series (or seen the films) will recognize the final tale of three brothers who try to cheat Death. There\’s also a story about an unpleasant young wizard who is forcibly taught lessons of compassion by a magical pot his father leaves him, a tale of three witches and an awkward knight who strive to reach a magical fountain- overcoming obstacles reflective of their true characters along the way. A wizard who scorns women at a young age and uses magic to safeguard his heart, but his plan backfires. This story has shockingly gruesome ending- it reminds you of how unpleasant and brutal the original Grimm\’s and Perrault fairy tales are. Not a pretty story… I think the one that amused me most was the tale of Babbity Rabbity- it\’s about a foolish king who wants to learn magic and a charlatan pretends to teach him- trying to blackmail a local witch who is a washerwoman into helping when things go awry- but she has the last laugh in the end.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5      112 pages, 2007

more opinions:
Book Maven\’s Blog
The Literary Omnivore
Books, Time and Silence
Write Meg

Yesterday the library branch next town over had its annual sale. The two branches closer to me raised their prices the last sale I went to, but this one still had hardbacks at $2 and softcovers $1 each. I don\’t mind spending when it supports the library! Here\’s my haul, with a few notes:

I\’ve still got a mild fascination with sailing and fishing operations. Thus Fishdecks. Nature Wars is about how urban sprawl is mixing with wildlife that adjusts to human presence -kind of like that book that called them \’weed animals\’ I\’m thinking, only a lot more current. I\’m finding that the more gardening I do, the less instructional and encyclopedic books appeal to me, but gardening narratives sure do. Those in this stack appear to be more of the narrative type, except for Success with House Plants. It just looked so thorough I couldn\’t pass it up, and the pictures are very clear. Ditto with the aquarium fish book. I probably don\’t need another bonsai book, I haven\’t even read or applied the use of the ones I already have, but this one was very attractive. The horse book here looks a bit dated (especially in quality of photographs) but it seems to be full of stories illustrating the various points, so I thought it might be good. I\’m gradually adding to my Calvin and Hobbes collection. But I haven\’t paid attention to which of the volumes are compilations of several others, so I probably have a duplicate or two.

These I all got just because they looked interesting. The Wild Truth is about Chris McCandless, told by his sister. I wasn\’t aware that she\’d written a book! A Wayside Tavern is a duplicate- oops. I have another copy of that one picked up at the last sale. Caught my eye for the same reasons… I have not yet read any James Fenimore Cooper so here\’s a go with The Deerslayer. I just looked it up- it was the last book he wrote of his series, but it\’s a prequel to all the others- so probably a good one to start with! Alien Animals looks interesting, although another old, dated book- about introduced wildlife in various areas of the world and the problems they cause. Unicorn Mountain is an older fantasy novel about unicorns that are discovered living near a ranch and someone wants to get footage for a wildlife tv program but then they find out the unicorns have a disease so should they intervene? I like the straightforward-sounding approach to unicorns (the story doesn\’t appear to have magical elements). Backyard Giants is about competitions to grow the biggest pumpkin. Castaway appears to be about some guys who deliberately lived on an island to see how they could survive there- reminded me of Thor Heyerdahl\’s books when I thumbed through it- due to the writing style and age of the photos.

And these titles caught my eye because I\’ve seen them on your blogs and they are probably all on my TBR lists here somewhere. I\’m reading One Thousand White Women right now. It will be interesting to come back here in a few months (or years, who am I kidding) to see how my actual reading of these compares to the initial impressions that made me pick them up.

I also got a few knitting books for my twelve-year-old.

by Benjamin Capps

When she is only nine years old, the small homestead where Helen lives with her family on the edge of the frontier is attacked by a Comanche band. Helen and her little sister are taken captives. At first they fear for their lives, but are sold by their captors as slaves into different families within the band. Helen wants to escape but soon realizes how hopeless this is as they travel farther away from white settlements. She steels herself to make the best of her situation, to appear compliant so she can gain the trust of the Comanches and take an opportunity in the future. Helen gradually learns the language and customs of the band. She comes to be treated more as a family member than a slave. She watches her sister grow up among the native children- too young to remember her origins. As the years pass, opportunities present themselves for her escape, but Helen hesitates each time- wanting to bring her sister, waiting for a better moment- until at last she finds she is completely assimilated into the tribe, no longer sure she even wants to escape.

I was surprised at how much I liked this story, even though the writing is rather straightforward and the timeline passes quickly. At first I thought it might be considered a YA or even J Fiction book, but it turns out there are a few brutal scenes that were difficult to read. Helen finds that the Comanches are not \’dumb savages\’ as her father\’s folk used to say- but neither are they all kindness. They have their own prejudices against other tribes and torture captives. Larger events pass by and Helen hears rumors of warfare among the whites- later they notice the wildlife is diminishing in certain areas and acting strangely in others. They hear even worse rumors of other tribes being forced to leave their land by \”treaties\” made with the whites. Helen never dreams that these rumors will affect the life she has come to know.

Mostly it is a story of everyday life among ordinary people. The family relationships, the daily work for food and shelter, their travels to different parts of the territory at various times of year, their interactions with other tribes. The games that children play, the stories they tell. One of the more interesting characters I though was the medicine man- who apparently wasn\’t a very good medicine man at all- how his standing among the tribe began to slip and how that affected his son who was coming of age. Also a shift in leadership. And Helen\’s own act of bravery when she saw all their work for winter food being despoiled by a warrior from a rival tribe . . .

A very good story, one that has me looking for other books by the same author.

Rating: 3/5      247 pages, 1966

by Ernest Thompson Seton

Yan is an unhappy boy at home. He longs to be in the woods. He\’s all about nature- eager to sketch animals, lingering to stare in front of a taxidermist\’s shop, making himself a hideout in a thicket, wanting to learn all about local wildlife and plants. But those around him dismiss his interests; he is supposed to stick to his schoolwork and help with chores. However after struggling with a long illness, his parents send him to live with some relatives on a farm, in hopes of improving his health.  He is very surprised and pleased to discover that his cousin is also \’keen on woodscraft\’. The boys have very different temperaments and skill sets, but become friends through their common interest. They play in the woods any chance they get, and eventually gain permission from their parents to spend a few weeks camping out.

With the help of an old trapper who befriends them, the boys make a tipi and set up a proper camp. This trapper had once lived with a native american tribe, so the boys pester him to teach them all he knows about \’being Injun\’. And he does. They learn how to make arrows, start a fire with sticks, track game and all sorts of small details like how to make smoke draw properly out of the tipi, how to skin an animal, tan hides, stuff a bird, make moccasins, set a live animal trap etc….  They have a strict code of conduct among themselves- predators and animals considered pests are fair game, but killing things like songbirds is forbidden. However sometimes they get carried away with their sport and cut down trees to try and capture squirrels, for example. They make up all sorts of games to compete and improve their skills- really their marksmanship with bows and arrows are laughable at first. The detailed game of taking turns hiding and finding a dummy deer they made out of burlap and straw was delightful. By the end of the story they have befriended several other boys and even brought their disinterested parents into the camp to admire their accomplishments.

Aside from all the details about making a temporary living in the forest, the book is a good story about a bunch of kids, just being kids. They have their moments- staunch camaraderie, teasing and heated quarrels by turns. I really appreciated that each kid had a very distinct character. There is a sharp contrast between Yan and his brothers earlier in the story, too. The characters are drawn so nicely I wonder if Seton wrote them after people he really knew (or himself as a child?). It is also a great picture of what life was like for people in rural, relatively poor areas over a hundred years ago. Yan\’s family is not well off by any means, but he finds there is another level of poverty altogether when he visits an \’old witch\’ who lives in by herself in the woods. He admires this woman for her knowledge of herbs, but when he asks her for information finds that a lot of her lore is mixed with superstition, and when she invites him to stay for dinner he is horrified at the blatant lack of hygiene when she prepares food. The written vernacular can be a puzzle- it was amusing to read it out loud when sometimes I couldn\’t figure out in my head what people were saying. Especially the poor folks with their heavier slang and rough talk.

There are also ghost stories, a distracted coon hunt, and a bit of mystery to solve that exonerates a man who had for years been shunned by the community, righting a long-standing wrong. And so much more, but I\’ve got to stop writing.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It\’s not as long as the page count might make it seem- the print is fairly large and there are tons of drawings- bird tracks, animal prints, diagrams showing how things are made or built, profiles of ducks, humorous sketches and full-page illustrations. Incidentally, Seton\’s drawings of ducks showing how the species could be identified by characteristic markings seen from afar inspired the first bird field guide by Roger Tory Peterson.

Rating: 4/5     552 pages, 1903

by Mark Twain

In 1861 Samuel Clemens accompanied his brother west on a stagecoach, apparently because he had nothing better to do. His brother had a new appointment as Secretary of Nevada Territory, and the author tried his hand at lots of odd jobs- including mining, labor in a silver mill and editor of a small newspaper. He kept going west- stopping a two days in Salt Lake City, spending time in California and finally taking a ship to Hawai\’i (then known as the Sandwich Islands). He wasn\’t quite yet a writer by trade, and the stories are kind of rough. Lots of tall tales and anecdotes told many times over by other folk. Tons of exaggeration, which can be laugh-out-loud amusing or just plain tedious. I was intrigued to read his description of traveling by stagecoach and of the early Pony Express, of frontier life, of the craze for silver mining prospects in Nevada, of his visit to Utah where he reports that he met Brigham Young- his description is not very flattering but then he makes fun of most of the people he meets in this book. He writes about the lawless situation in the territories, and there are many episodes showing how people tried to enforce law or impose order on desperadoes, outlaws and swindlers galore. The accounts of trials and hangings got to be long-winded and boring. The detailed descriptions of mining assessments and operations were interesting only to a point, then I didn\’t want to read about that anymore (I was astounded that they would handle \’quicksilver\’ or mercury- in their hands while using it to extract silver from other base metals in the crushed rock- it ate the ring off his hands). The native americans are portrayed as being weak and depraved, but the vistas of wilderness are full of grandeur. The description of a visit to Lake Mono and a claim on Lake Tahoe (where they started a fire that burned up the camp) was particularly interesting.

Most of the stories are funny, if you can wade through all the flowery prose and rough vernacular to get to the punch line.

Even though I read the last few chapters to the end, in all honesty I have to mark this book as \’abandoned\’ because I skipped well half the middle of it. In fact, if I hadn\’t seen a few other readers\’ remarks about how interesting the section on his travels to Hawai\’i were, I might well have ditched the book sooner. Glad I didn\’t though, it was a pretty interesting account! A mix of introduced \’civilized\’ culture and \’pagan\’ native ways, many of the Hawaiians were still not used to things like wearing clothing. Twain tells some curious stories about how they abandoned their traditional gods for christianity, accepted european ideas of government, and how they loved ceremony- yet so many traditional ideas and superstitions obviously still believed in regardless of how much they appeared to have adapted to \’white man\’s ways\’.

Abandoned        421 pages, 1872

more opinions:
Fifty Books Project
Avid Reader\’s Musings

Mini Encyclopedia
by Peter Hiscock

I bought this book over a year ago when I started keeping a planted tank, and then never read it! So a lot of the info I\’ve learned by now, it was review- conditions that plants require, planting and propagation methods, pruning techniques, maintenance, etc. There are several nice spreads showing what plant selections would go nicely together according to needs (water hardness) or a biotope display. Second half of the book is plant profiles. Nice clear pictures although sometimes the little informational snippets in the margins didn\’t actually correlate to the part of the picture indicated, which I found kind of amusing.

I did encounter some new plants here that I\’ve never heard of, and learned why a few of mine haven\’t done well- hydrocotyle species seem to prefer softer water so probably that\’s why mine is failing (it wasn\’t a plant I got on purpose, but a freebie piece that came mixed with some others). I added a few to the list of plants I want to try. There are over a hundred and fifty species profiled in this book, but it seems to be an abbreviated version. The author has published another, much more extensive aquatic plant encyclopedia and that\’s the one I really want to have on my shelf.

Rating: 3/5    208 pages, 2005

by Ernest Thompson Seton

Note: there are SPOILERS in this post.

The story of a grizzly bear, different from Monarch the Big Bear of Tallac. The opening scene shows the bear cub gamboling charmingly with his siblings, the mother bear nearby. In the next chapter the mother bear is shot by a man, and only one cub- later named Wahb- survives. He is just old enough to make it on his own, but missing some crucial instructions he would have received from his mother, goes through a lot of struggles in his first year. Which ends up making him a sullen loner. Several run-ins with mankind leave him with a permanent limp and a deep fear and hatred of humans. The story shows how the bear holds his territory and drives out other, smaller bears. He even manages to drive men from his range- terrorizing them at homestead claims until his name becomes known and folks simply avoid the area. The bear is pretty smart- when first caught in a trap he accidentally treads on the spring that releases it; remembering this is later able to free himself from other traps. Further on in the story he finds a hot spring and discovers that soaking in the pool relieves the pain of his old injuries and he visits the pool many times for this purpose. In another part of the book the bear makes Yellowstone (then a very new park) part of his summer haunts, and there is even brief mention of the sick cub that fed on trash outside a lodge there (told in greater detail here).

For once, the main animal character in the story meets a peaceful end. The final chapters of the book was actually my favorite part. It describes how a younger bear seeking its own territory comes onto Wahb\’s land. This bear can tell that Wahb would be a formidable enemy, so it sneaks around for quite some time. Then it discovers a means to trick Wahb into thinking it is actually a larger bear. When the resident grizzly finds these marks, the apprehension of meeting the younger bear worries and wears on him. It was a really interesting description of the psychological conflict the two rival bears could have, one gradually pushing the other out even though they never had a direct encounter. In the end, Wahb goes into a gully where noxious gas seeping out of the ground makes him fall asleep, never to wake again. This is an actual place and I bet the description of dead bears found there gave Seton material for his story- he based most of his writings on observations or accounts of real wildlife.

My book is a 1914 edition, the story was first published in 1900. It seems to have been reprinted with several different titles- the image I show here is a newer edition which includes reference materials and historical information about the area Wahb lived in. I\’ve also seen an older edition titled King of the Grizzlies which I think is the same story.

Rating: 4/5     167 pages, 1900

by Pat Conroy

This is rich storytelling, and heavy reading. The novel is narrated by Jack McCall, one of five brothers who is living as an ex-pat in Rome with his daughter, and has vowed to never see his family again, or let them be part of his daughter\’s life. He is convinced to return by one thing: his mother is dying of cancer. Going back home- to South Carolina- is facing a rocky past. And not just his own past, but that of his parents, and their parents, and his wife\’s parents, and his childhood friends and so on. It covers so much pain, and so many dysfunctional relationships. Jack has one brother who is mentally ill (his heated parts of conversations stood out to me- the other brothers really blended together I forgot who was who constantly), a drunken father, and a mother who coldly manipulates everyone- or so they all said, frequently proclaiming their hatred for her. I never really got that part, though. Events that happened among friends when they were all students- yeah. Fear and loathing of his father who bullied them- yeah. The bad character of his mother- where were the stories about that?

There\’s so much going on in here it\’s hard to keep reading. Family secrets and betrayals. Pogroms in the Ukraine and the horrors of the Holocaust. Student riots during the Vietnam War. An old friend hiding from the law in Rome, in the guise of a priest. Rich cooking- Conroy does like to talk about food, doesn\’t he? Dirt poor living conditions in an Appalachian valley- I\’d never read descriptions of people who worship by handling live poisonous snakes before. Oh, and sea turtles being rescued. By the protagonist\’s mother. That part really felt unrelated to anything else- was it just to show a sympathetic side to that character… ? Ramblings in the low country, a near-disastrous fishing trip where they encountered a giant manta ray- that part felt really far-fetched. But I have to say, Pat Conroy is a darn good storyteller. For most of the book I rolled with the ebb and flow of shifting storylines, curious to see how each character\’s past had made them what they were, how it affected and influenced all the others in turn- until I suddenly didn\’t care anymore, because well, it was just so much to take in and I didn\’t particularly like any of them.

I almost didn\’t finish. All this buildup to tell the pivotal, ruinous event that had occurred when the friends were at college, and when I had a hundred pages to go I just didn\’t want to read more. The political turmoil of the Vietnam War era wore on me. The mock trial staged in a theater where all the characters involved were brought together to air their grievances and explain themselves- felt so overly convenient. In the end, the big reveal didn\’t seem like a huge deal compared to all the rest of the brutality that happened in the book. I must temper that by saying there is plenty of love in these pages, too- and moments of bravery, unlooked-for compassion, people standing up for what\’s right, even humor. But I skimmed the last few chapters just because I couldn\’t bear to call a 700-plus page book abandoned if I lost interest near page 672.

Rating: 3/5            773 pages, 2009

more opinions:
A Guy\’s Moleskine Notebook
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by Dietlof Reiche

A while ago I read this cute book about a hamster- I, Freddy. My daughter has the first four books in the series, so looking for another fun read I tried the second and third.

I just couldn\’t get into it. The established premise is that Freddy can now read and write with ease- he is in fact writing (his life story and some fiction) on his owner\’s computer, and also using the computer to communicate with the man who seems to find it normal to talk to a hamster now, but keeps it a secret from everyone else. Freddy in Peril pitches immediately into a mystery of sorts- someone is trying to break into the apartment and Freddy suspects it is to steal him. This would-be-thief has learned of Freddy\’s communication skills and wants to use the hamster in some scientific experiment. Of course Freddy and his companions- a cat and two guinea pigs- have to thwart the plan and save Freddy.

It was just implausible from the very beginning. I enjoyed the first book which only stretched a little bit from the normalcy of a hamster becoming used to a new environment and getting along with the other pets. This one goes a lot further- talking hamster solves a mystery and saves the day! I can see how kids would really like it, but it\’s obviously aimed at them and not me.

I opened the third book Freddy to the Rescue just to see, as this one had a premise that interested me a bit more. Freddy learns that a nearby construction site threatens the lives of a field hamster population, and he intends to save them. But it was really tedious to find that so many things were reiterated in the first chapter as in the other books: the guinea pigs fall over whenever Freddy surprises them with his snarl. The cat is full of himself but Freddy knows better. The humans are clueless as to what is really going on and Freddy will figure out how to fix it all- despite his small size. The incessant jokes and rhymes coming from the guinea pigs were tiresome. The writing style did nothing for me. Oh well.

Now I\’m diving into something thick instead.

Abandoned         208 pages, 2006

by Dana Simpson

It\’s nice to have a slew of fun, easy reads sometimes. I\’m still enjoying these unicorn comics. More adventures of Phoebe and her best-friend unicorn Marigold Heavenly Nostrils. Quirky, amusing combination of reality and fantasy, poking gentle fun at stereotypical ideas regarding girls who love unicorns. Phoebe is definitely a nerd and into things like role-playing games, but she also likes girly stuff on occasion too. She\’s not a flat character at all. (A nice touch is the variety of hairstyles and clothing she sports in the comics, there\’s even a \”breaking the fourth wall\” moment in one of the strips where she makes a comment about how most comic book characters always look the same- as if they never change their clothes. Haha.) She goes through all kinds of usual kid trials- facing tests at school, popular kids teasing her, misunderstandings with her friends (but never with the unicorn- they question each others\’ ideas and poke fun at human/unicorn characteristics, but never yet have I seen them have an argument!), generation gap moments with her parents, summer camp. But also things like meeting the monster in the lake again, and another new unicorn (this one is pronounced plain though he doesn\’t really look it). Helping out her frenemy with a goblin problem. I think my favorite bits were the part where she had to read a book for school, and the very brief joke about origami (my twelve-year-old is into that).

Borrowed from the public library. I think there\’s only four volumes published so far, so now I will have to wait for another compilation, or start following the daily strip online. Have an idea to go back and read some old Calvin and Hobbes collections I have, just for the fun of it. And the comparison, of course.

Rating: 3/5       184 pages, 2016

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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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