Month: October 2017

by Yoko Tawada 
translated by Susan Bernofsky

This is a story of a line of three polar bears who live at different points in the Soviet Union, Russia and Canada. The first story is of a bear at the end of her career in the circus, writing her autobiography. It shifts between the story as she writes it- from her younger viewpoint- to the tale of the writing process, how an editor tried to cheat her, how the public received her words and then her book slipped into obscurity. The bear for the most part acted human, but often pondered how human ways were different from things she preferred or perceived. It was strange.

The second part is the story of Tosca, the first bear\’s offspring. Tosca seems more like a real animal, and most people half-treat her like one, albeit with some respect for her stature. Tosca was an actress but left the stage because she was turned down for a role in play, and went to the circus. However her story is mainly told from the viewpoint of a woman who works in the circus- here the story also shifts back and forth between past and present. As a child, this woman was fascinated by the circus and volunteered to help feed the animals. Eventually she got an actual job there and became animal-trainer. She created an act with Tosca that became a huge success. Most of this section of the book seems to be about how they kept trying to come up with a good act, politics within the circus, how it was viewed by the public and the government, and the woman trainer\’s obsession with the bear (her husband was jealous).

The final part is shortest, and this one runs in a straight line. It is about Tosca\’s son Knut, who grows up in a zoo (because his mother is too busy writing her own memoir at that point to raise him herself). Knut describes his slowly opening awareness, his attachment to the man who bottle-fed him, his delight in finally being allowed outside into an enclosed space, and to take walks around the zoo until he is large enough to be considered dangerous. Then he wonders why he has to spend all his days shut up alone in the enclosure, and tries to find means to entertain himself and avoid the summer heat. He is also anxious to keep his audience, and devise means to keep humans who come to see him entertained- although other animals he meets at the zoo deride this practice. I was disappointed at the ending of this tale- it kept mentioning that Knut would soon meet his estranged mother, and then be introduced to a female polar bear the zoo hoped would be his mate. But the story stopped short before those events happened.

In all these stories the bears are more than animal- they understand human speech, they sometimes talk to people, and are sometimes understood. They learn to read, to write, recognize human tools and concepts that are beyond a real animal\’s understanding. They puzzle over their similarities and vast differences from humans, they long for the cold and snow-covered land of the north. In the all of the stories there is mention of social class issues and other very human concerns; the final story also has worries about global warming and polar bears going extinct. Through it all I got a very distinct sense of place and culture.

The book is really about the fine line between animal and human nature- how much can animals understand? what makes us human, compared to them? what rights do we have to treat them the way we do. But some parts of it really puzzled me, and fell into a dreamlike category. Its tone reminded me of Animal Crackers, and the meandering, strange feeling was very reminiscent of Kafka. In fact it has some references to Kafka, which I almost didn\’t catch at first. Someone else compared it to Dog Boy in the comments on Stefanie\’s blog (see link below), and I can see that too.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                           252 pages, 2014

more opinions:
James Reads Books
So Many Books
Sorry Television

edited by Charles L. Sherman

One of those larger picture-filled nature books I picked up for free, on the chance it might be good. Maybe once this was something to wow readers, but not anymore. I read the forward, where it was really apparent the authors were proud of the color photography selected for the book- but all the images are small and the quality leaves a lot to be desired. The afterward is full of advice for the wildlife photographer who wants to produce good color images, but I think it is really outdated.

In fact, I skimmed a lot of the book. When it was printed, the Audubon Society had a habit of disseminating knowledge to its members via printed pamphlets on various subjects, sent out through the mail. Then they had some writers compile info from all those pamphlets and write it up into a book. So it reads just like that- a bunch of little snippets of knowledge piled into chapters. The subjects include \’animal children\’, song birds, wild flowers, seeds and seed pods, flowering trees and shrubs, etc. Some were so dull and limiting in their info on each species I basically skipped over it. There are three chapters that discuss the inhabitants of a particular habitat: ponds, shallow seawater (tidepools and shorelines) and the Everglades. I did find the chapter all about eyes– from simple to complex- more interesting, and the one on camouflage. Also the one about different structures animals build, and another about \’inventions\’ of the natural world that mankind has copied (reminiscent of a particular scene in Encounters with Animals!) I also read the chapter about butterflies and moths in its entirety.

Some of the interesting facts I gleaned: freshwater dolphins that live in the Ganges river are blind. They have no lenses in their eyes. The water is too muddy to see, they probably evolved to just use echolocation. Thanks to this book I finally identified a large tree that grows in my sister\’s backyard. It has very long, beanlike seed pods. From the description, I bet it\’s a catalpa tree. I thought that painted lady butterflies came to my yard for the flowers- I often find them at the tithonia. But I learned that the caterpillars feed on turtlehead plants. So I shouldn\’t mind the holes in my turtlehead, if it means more pretty butterflies! Also, they tend to live in a small area, so I will probably have regular residents.

But I also came across a few lines of misinformation. One author states that camels store water in their humps, for example. (They don\’t. It\’s fat.) And I don\’t know how many other falsehoods are in here. This was an okay read for curiosity sake, but it\’s going in the donate pile now.

Rating: 2/5             252 pages, 1956

It was my birthday last week. I found, to my delight, that the Book Thing of Baltimore had just reopened (they were closed for a year due to a fire). It is basically a free book exchange. The place holds over 200,000 donated books. I asked my husband if for my birthday treat, we could stop there (for several hours) on the way to visit family. He obliged- and I wasn\’t the only one who got books! We donated, too- my kids and I all cleared some space off our shelves. We gave the Book Thing three boxes full of books, and brought home five in return. My six-year-old picked out nine books (in good taste- some Little Critter, a few Golden Books and a picture book about collie puppies that I remember fondly from long ago), my teenager got about fifteen (YA fiction and some cookbooks- she\’s honing her skills), my husband found just over twenty- mostly on history and languages. I combed all my favorite sections: sci fi/fantasy, general fiction, travel, classics, biographies, gardening, biology, animals/nature, women\’s studies, anthropology and staff picks. Here\’s my glorious haul. I don\’t at all feel bad for adding so many piles to the floor in front of my TBR bookcase- it will probably be a year or more before we visit that place again.

The first two in this stack I have actually read, and been on the lookout to add to my collection. The rest, I am familiar with the authors so eager to try more of their work:

These are ones I instantly recognized because they\’re on my listed TBR:

A few oversize/ photography heavy books:

The ones I got just because they looked interesting:

and a few possible oops– I already had a copy of Thirteen Moons– promptly sent this one out in the mail thru Paperback Swap when we got home. I know I have tried Mary Renault several times and not really enjoyed it… and I am pretty sure I once had a copy of Wild Animus, tried it and discarded onto the swap shelf. I guess the cover blurb caught my eye for the same reason again!

The book love didn\’t stop there. I received a few gift cards- one for Powell\’s! -and after getting a few items for my aquarium, I mostly used the rest to round out my collection of Gerald Durrell. The first one arrived today- Ark on the Move (with photos!) Thumbing through it I fear I made a mistake: it has chapters about pink piegons and bats, so I think this is another case where one of his books was published under two different titles. I\’ve also ordered Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons– and I bet it\’s the same text. Will have to make a few returns… I wish I could find a list somewhere of his titles pointing out which have alternative titles.

While I was updating my LThing catalog today, I took the time to add in all the titles I have on my e-reader. I didn\’t realize so many. One hundred. I\’ve only read seventeen of them! It feels odd to put them in my catalog. Do you count e-books, when you\’re tallying up your books? They feel intangible: I often think- if my device suddenly quit working, or got lost or destroyed -all those books gone in an instant (I should copy all the files to my computer as backup). And yet there\’s a plus to that: if there were a fire, and I wasn\’t preoccupied with getting my kids safe out of the house, I\’d probably grab my sketchbooks and the e-reader. It would only save a fraction of my library, but it would be something. There\’s so much unread stuff on it because I tend to forget they\’re there. Upcoming travels, it will finally see some use again.

by Claire Cameron

I\’m kind of on a bear-related theme…. This one also was around the blogs a lot some years ago. It\’s based on a true incident where a couple lost their lives to a bear while camping on a remote lakeshore. Here the author added the characters of two young children, and told the story from their point of view.

Anna is five and her little brother is almost three. At night in pitch darkness a bear enters the campsite. The children don\’t understand why their parents are screaming and they hide, afraid of being in trouble. As his last act their father shuts them into a large metal cooler, saving their lives. When they emerge in the morning to the wreckage of camp, it\’s clear from the girl\’s narrative that she doesn\’t comprehend what has happened, nor how serious the situation is. Her seriously injured mother talks her into taking her little brother for a ride in the canoe- and thus they flee to the other side of the lake. Where they stumble alone for days through the woods, suffering from hunger, cold, insect bites and more.

This was very gripping, sad and even funny in some moments. I thought the voice of the young child was really well done- it veers around a lot following trains of thought which show how the little kid\’s mind makes connections that might seem unreasonable to an adult. It seemed authentic- the magical thinking, the disconnect from real danger, oblivious to certain things and heightened attention to others. Through Anna\’s memories that crop up during the story we gradually get a wider picture of her family\’s history, her personality and understanding of things. She struggles to stay in control of her emotions (one moment angry at her parents for not being there, the next feeling guilty- thinking they abandoned her on purpose), to take care of her little brother, to think what to do next. I\’m glad the tale didn\’t stop short at the point the children were found, but followed through with a few more chapters showing the aftermath, the reactions of extended family and neighbors, how the children readjusted. The parts at the end where her drawings and conversation led a therapist to make erroneous conclusions were amusing in a very sad, ironic way. The role the cooler played was completely realistic- on the author\’s site she even tells how she tested out this idea with a friend\’s kids.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5            221 pages, 2014

more opinions:
Indextrious Reader
Bibliophile by the Sea
Savidge Reads
Bermudaonion\’s Weblog

by Margo Lanagan

I saw this title quite a while ago all over the book blogs- but due to the violent nature of its opening chapters, I wasn\’t sure I wanted to read it. Now I\’m very glad I did- while the author makes it very plain what happens during certain awful scenes, it\’s without the kind of graphic description that turns my stomach.

Please note: there may be spoilers.

At the beginning, fifteen-year-old Liga has lived a brutal, rough existence in a rundown cottage in the woods with her widowed father. She is too young to understand what is going on when the abuse starts. By the time she is a teenager she has two children- one from incest, the other from gang rape. Her father dies in an accident, but life continues to be so awful she decides it is better to die- and save her infant from a similar future. Before she can execute her plan, a magical being whisks her away to an alternate reality- a world very like her own, but without the danger or unkindness she has always known. The people in the village now are all vaguely pleasant- no one is judgemental or cruel. Liga raises her children in this safe environment, and would probably be content to stay there. But as her daughters grow, they long to experience more of life- something beyond their flat one-dimensional haven where nothing bad happens, and even the wolves and bears are their friends.

There\’s a thread to the story that involves bears- this is when I realized it was somewhat a retelling of the fairy tale Snow White, Rose Red. A nearby village in the real world has an annual tradition where young men dress up as bears and run through the streets chasing girls. At different points of the story, two of these men break through into Liga\’s haven, where they are men trapped in the bodies of bears. The first is gentle and kind. The second not so much- this part of the story suggests bestiality, but the young woman he\’s intent on rebuffs him, and soon after he returns to the real world.

There are also midwives or witches in this story, and a greedy man of short stature (who reminded me of Rip Van Winkle in a way), and ordinary village folk. The tale shifts back and forth between different viewpoints- I usually don\’t care for this method in fiction, but here it was fine, and felt insightful. Characters from early in the book reappear later, their narrative weaving back into the story in a way that was really well done and added a lot to the depth and complexity. It is not just about abuse- but also growing up, the closeness between sisters, the dangers of ignorance, relationships between men and women, double standards and most of all, recovery.

I was a bit put off by the scene of revenge at the end- more so than the brutalities at the beginning- but it\’s just the kind of wild, outraged action a teenager would want to take upon learning what horrible wrongs had been done to someone she loved. I was also a bit sad for Liga in the end, that she did not get exactly what she was hoping for- but after thinking about it for a day I realized it was enough that she learned to live in the real world again, to finally heal and adapt to taking the good with the bad, making the best of her life.

I question if this book should be marketed as YA- even though the scenes are not too explicit, there is constant, frank talk of sexuality all through the book- from the mouths of nearly all the characters. The unmannered prose in which the story is told reflects well the rustic setting- in some places it is lovely and lyrical, in others amusingly frank. It reminded me a lot of the way The Book of Ruth is written, or Top Dog by Jerry Carroll.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5                  436 pages, 2008

more opinions:
Things Mean a Lot
A Striped Armchair
Reading Rants
Fyrefly\’s Book Blog
Rhapsody in Books
Eva\’s Book Addiction
Regular Rumination
Wright Lines
Six Boxes of Books

by Mary E. Pearson

Jenna Fox survives an accident that she shouldn\’t have. She wakes up from a year-long coma not knowing who she is. Her family has moved her to a remote, secluded location- in order to facilitate her healing process, they tell her. She slowly pieces her life together, watching old family videos and gathering fragments of memory. But then she can remember things she shouldn\’t be able to, and pretty soon starts to figure out that there is something definitely odd about her situation. She is alone with her mother and grandmother, her father sometimes visiting. Why did they move so far from home? where are the friends she recalls having? and why are her parents keeping secrets from her…

In many ways the premise is so like Eva– I kept thinking of the other book and comparing the two. They both bring up issues of how we use resources, ethics in the medical field, and how one family\’s desperate move to save a child becomes a huge thing. In Eva it turned into a public spectacle, in Jenna Fox the story is much more centered on personal discovery and individual family- the main character ends up knowing only a few other teens at a small private school, and one neighbor. But still, the implications and questions raised by the narrative are large.

It\’s not just about the ethics of making decisions for others- it\’s also very much about living up to expectations, how much a child might push herself to please her parents- and then what if she doesn\’t want to anymore. I particularly like this page from the book that reads like a poem:

Pieces

A bit for someone here.
A bit there.
And sometimes they don\’t add up to anything whole.
But you are so busy dancing.
Delivering.
You don\’t have time to notice.
Or are afraid to notice.
And then one day you have to look.
And it\’s true.
All of your pieces fill up other people\’s holes.
But they don\’t fill
your own.

Borrowed from the public library. I\’m not sure yet if I want to read the sequels. They seem to go into a popular trope of YA dystopian fiction- group of young people rebelling against a big institution. Not sure if I will enjoy that as much.

Rating: 3/5             266 pages, 2008

more opinions:
The Sleepless Reader
Reading Rants
Rhapsody in Books
Dear Author
Small Review

Why We Fool Ourselves We Aren\’t Being Fooled
by Jennifer Freyd and Pamela Birrell

I saw this book sitting on a table at my friend\’s house, and when for a moment I picked it up idly and started reading a segment, she offered to loan it to me. So I read it out of curiosity. In short spurts, over the past few weeks.

It\’s about the psychological phenomenon where a person can be so invested in keeping their situation safe, that they literally turn a blind eye to things that are wrong in a relationship. Why do people stay in bad relationships, why remain on at a workplace where something very wrong is going on behind the scenes? It\’s usually because subconsciously they know that admitting or recognizing the real issues will threaten their security. The most common example here is a person who does not realize their spouse is being unfaithful, even when there are obvious signs and everyone around them knows. This was the most frequent type of instance mentioned in the book. The other common one was of childhood abuse- children blank out or forget what was done to them, sometimes only remembering years later. Because to know that a person their very lives depended upon was harming them, is too risky. There are also other cases given- in the workplace, the military, governments and institutions. Denials of rights, or compensation, or support, or even just recognition. The biggest one, but it was only mentioned a few times, loomed large in my mind (probably because of a recent book I read): the Holocaust.

It\’s not only about how denial of trauma can occur in people\’s minds; the book is also about how these things can finally be recognized, how the person who suffered wrong can heal from it, how to be a good listener if someone is revealing past trauma to you, and how future wrongs can be prevented. The most interesting chapter to me was the one about mental and physical health issues caused by the betrayals. When someone you trust hurts you so fundamentally, especially as a child- it damages your ability to develop healthy relationships in the future. There were instances where the authors actually conducted studies with trauma survivors to see how their mental and emotional abilities were compared to other people. It was very interesting.

But overall also an upsetting book to read, even though the details were kept minimal, and (except with some famous cases), the reports were all made anonymous. Quite a few of them are repeated through the book, as various aspects of the subject are discussed. The most telling was in the final chapters, where one of the authors tells about her own experiences with a serious betrayal of trust. That section of the book felt like the largest revelation. The rest of it, many of the examples felt too simplistic- probably to keep identities private- but I frequently wondered what else there was to know.

Rating: 2/5             201 pages, 2013

by Laura Amy Schlitz

Brief little tale about a fairy who lives in a garden. But it\’s not sweet- this is a story of survival skills- miniature-sized. The fairy in the book looses her wings, and all the other fairies fly off without her. She is forced to figure out how to survive on her own- surrounded by all sorts of threats and obstacles. She\’s not a very nice character at first- determined and resourceful yes, but also demanding, selfish and a bit vindictive. A feisty little fairy, which suited her situation very well. Through the story she has to find a safe shelter and avoid aggressive creatures- the spider and a preying mantis are particularly dangerous. She\’s terrified of bats. She coerces a squirrel into doing her bidding but then sees a hummingbird in flight and is determined to make the bird carry her around. The hummingbird doesn\’t give in- she has duties, a nest of eggs to protect. The fairy has to re-think her approach if she really wants to get the bird to cooperate… She also has to learn how to channel and use her magic powers. That aspect of the story wasn\’t nearly as interesting to me as her interactions with the animals, but it gives her some security because she can do things in spite of her small size to defend herself or overcome difficulties.

I was kind of surprised how much I enjoyed this one. I thought from the cover it would be cute- but it was much more serious. I particularly liked that the details about the wildlife in the garden were very true to nature- the hummingbird is very territorial and falls into a state of torpor during the night, for example. The squirrel was such a character.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5           122 pages, 2010

more opinions:
Puss Reboots
Charlotte\’s Library
Fantasy Book Critic

by Amy Goldwasser

This is a fun, quirky little book featuring black cats. Real black cats, whose owners or caretakers or slaves offered their names and details to be included in the book (it was a kickstarter thing). Each page shows the cat\’s face and tells some little tidbit about their quirky habits and personalities. There are cats that hate people, or love them. Cats who despise their own kind, cats who rule. Cats who like cheetos, lick plastic, stick their noses in people\’s ears. Endearing cats, annoying cats, all of them very much different from each other. What I didn\’t care for in this book were the occasional references to popular culture or famous people, which never sits well with me. It feels a bit snarky, New York- style.

The illustrations by Peter Arkle really make the book. You think -of course- at a glance that one black cat is very like another- there\’s one down the street from us that I often mistake for my own when I see it walking on the sidewalk. But the faces are so distinct here- the slant and expression in the eyes, the shapes of their noses, tilts of their ears, texture of the fur. The artist really captured their individuality. I like how the spread of the inside cover shows them all. Here\’s a sample:

Rating: 2/5           120 pages, 2016

by Robin McKinley

The princess is waiting for a special day when she will be magically bound to a pegasus from the land across the mountains- in honor of a treaty made centuries ago between their two kindgdoms. In this world, pegasi are not mere horses with wings. They are fully sentient beings, with an ancient culture, with their own language and customs. It\’s a story about two very alien races in an uneasy co-existence. Their interactions have been guided and shaped for centuries by rules and rituals- for the safety of all, say the powerful magicians.  Who hold a lot of power, because only magicians or Speakers who have studied their entire lives, can translate between pegasus language and humans. But when the princess- fourth child of the king and thus of not much consequence- is bound to her pegasus, something extraordinary happens. It is not just a ritual, it becomes a real thing. She can talk to her pegasus in an easy, direct way no one else has before. They develop a real friendship, and start to make some discoveries about each other\’s worlds. Discoveries which stand to threaten the status quo….

I was eager to read this one, but had trouble finishing it. I saw where the setup was leading to, but it never got there, so the last twenty or forty or more pages lost my interest, and I had to force myself through. McKinley is one of my favorite authors, but this one was difficult for me. I really like the ideas in it, the execution- not so much. It has a lot of formalities, so many explanations, so much building up to something that won\’t happen until a sequel, now. Sigh. But I bet I\’ll read it anyway- I do like the characters and the world-building is intriguing. I want to see how it ends.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5             404 pages, 2010

more opinions:
Jenny\’s Books
Aelia Reads
A Literary Odyssey
Ela\’s Book Blog
Dear Author

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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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