Month: April 2018

by Wallace Stegner

I have held off a few days to write about this book, because it\’s hard to know what to say about it. It\’s a story of neighbors, an account so vivid in detail feels like a real experience. The narrator and his wife are in their retirement, come to the California hillside community for some peace and quiet, which they fail to actually find. His wife has more patience, but the narrator is constantly irritated by a close neighbor\’s neglect of certain aspects of his land, and rough improvements in other areas, that end up eyesores. He is further perturbed by the constant barrage of insect pests, gophers, moles and diseases that attack the garden he tries to cultivate. And even more irate at a hippy squatter who lives across the creekbed, taking outrageous advantage of the owner\’s blind eye to his constant stretching of their unwritten agreement that allows him to be there. Into this uneasy circumstance comes a new set of neighbors- a young couple with a daughter and a baby on the way- even while the wife, gentle and wise and allowing of all things their right to live- down to the gnats, fleas, ticks and germs that plague people- is slowly dying of cancer. This is a story in which not much happens- and you see the ending coming from very far off- yet it is all told with such depth of perception and wry humor it took me an incredibly long time to read it because I could not get through more than one chapter, if even that, in a sitting. It is a story of people, and their depth of feeling. It is so dense with meaning and thought and bitter, bitter irony. Marian\’s character is lovely and sad, the hippy kid is interesting and repugnant, some other neighbors and acquaintances thrown together at a Fourth of July barbecue are all curious in their own way. I think the most amusing passage was when the narrator tried to appraise this lady\’s hideous metal sculptures honestly at said party, without hurting her feelings. Even though I saw the ending coming, there were still a few shocking surprises, and the reappearance of the hippy guy added an unfortunate twist to the final incident. A book I will definitely not forget anytime soon, and must keep to read again. Reminds me in some parts of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Rating: 4/5           288 pages, 1967

more opinions:
Leaves and Pages
Book Slut
A Guy\’s Moleskine Notebook

Exploring the Mind of a Mollusk
by Sy Montgomery

This \’Scientist in the Field\’ book was more in-depth than the previous one, and I enjoyed it more. The chapters detail how the author accompanied a team of scientists who were studying the eating habits of octopuses around the island of Moorea. For the duration of her visit they actually spent most of their time looking for octopuses to be their study subjects- they\’re very difficult to find, being excellent at camouflage and hiding in small spaces. Then it all fell into place and on the last day of her trip, they were suddenly finding octopus all over the place. So a lot of the information about octopus in this book is side notes and explanations, but it\’s fascinating regardless. (She mentions briefly the encounters with octopus in public aquariums described in The Soul of an Octopus). The part about how octopus change color (and skin texture) to blend with their surroundings is especially cool. There\’s a lot about other animals sharing the same ocean habitat, as well. And for some reason this book reminded me of those I\’ve read by Eugenie Clark.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5            72 pages, 2015

by Pamela Turner

This is another of the \”Scientist in the Field\” books, just the level of J-Nonfiction I like reading. While the focus is on marine biologist Amanda Vincent\’s study concerning the impact of fishing and trade on seahorses worldwide, her focus began around one coral reef in the Philippines. Initially the study was to gain knowledge on seahorse reproduction but after talking to many local fisherman to find what they knew about seahorses, she realized their numbers were steadily dropping. She also realized that many local fishers depended on seahorses and other marine life for their livelihood. She expanded her project to change that- educating locals about seahorses and the welfare of the reef in general, advocating to close off certain areas against fishing entirely, implementing plans to repopulate the reef and plant mangroves to protect marginal areas, creating sustainable fishing practices and so on. It\’s all very intertwined, a precise example how the fate of one small creature (there is a pygmy seahorse the size of a pecan!) depends on the choices and actions of many people far away. And of course, there\’s lots of info on the seahorses themselves- charming, intriguing little creatures. I do stare at them in wonder whenever I visit a public aquarium.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5            58 pages, 2010

more opinions:
Miss Rumphius Effect

by Cat Urbigkit

Browsing, picked up a few juvenile non-fiction books on wildlife, which I enjoy sometimes. This one is about pronghorn antelope, which aren\’t actually antelope but something between an antelope and a goat. Which the book did not really explain, it keeps things simple. It basically just describes the life cycle of pronghorn, where they live and migrate, what they eat, how they survive the winter, something of their behavior repertoire etc. The photos by Mark Gocke are excellent. I learned just enough about these animals to become curious about finding a more in-depth book on the same subject.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5              34 pages, 2010

by Shreve Stockton

Photographer Shreve Stockton was instantly taken with the landscape when driving through Wyoming, so she promptly moved there. Found a place to live, met local folks, learned how to adjust- from city living to very rural. Became friends with a guy who kept fifty cattle, and their relationship developed. Her boyfriend’s dayjob was shooting coyotes to protect livestock. He did this very well, specifically targeting the animals that were actually a threat to ranchers’ livelihoods. One day on a whim he brought home a baby coyote from a den he was annihilating, and gave it to Shreve.

She raised it in her little cabin, alongside her grown cat. The interaction between the cat and the coyote, and its changing interactions with Shreve herself as it grew up, are fascinating to read about. She had to make a lot of difficult decisions: let the coyote roam or keep it tied up? castrate him or not? how to manage its aggressive behavior as it matured and began to challenge her dominance. Very clear that this was a wild animal- many times it suddenly turned to attack her and she was carrying around shed deer/elk antlers for a while to use as defense. It took her a while to figure out what was causing the attacks and also how to alter her own behavior to stop them. Very subtle cues the animal picked up on. (Also made shockingly clear how efficiently coyotes prey on cats- a few times in play the coyote would open his jaws over her cat’s head- coyotes have a very wide gape- and completely engulf it. Good thing that cat was dominant to the coyote!) Shreve also had to work hard to keep her coyote safe and hidden from her neighbors- anyone in that ranching community would have shot the coyote on sight and thought they were doing her a favor.

I thought I would like this book less because it is as much a memoir of this period in the author’s life, as it is a story about the coyote. But the depth of her introspection and honesty in describing things, make the personal aspects of the book just as good. Her photographs are stunning. She started sharing her photos with friends and family via email which evolved into a blog, and eventually this book. Her struggles with the sudden flood of criticism via online comments is a modern issue lots of writers have to deal with when they make their lives public- I sympathized. I was a bit skeptical at times- not always agreeing the author’s reasoning- but overall found this an intriguing read.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5       293 pages, 2008

more opinions:
This Book and I Could Be Friends
Bibliophile by the Sea

Life with My Soulful Chickens
by Lauren Scheuer

I\’ve been wanting to have backyard chickens, but my city rules don\’t allow. Next best thing is reading about others who keep them! This author needed something extra going on in her yard after her kids were grown and out of the house; she acquired three hens to add life to her garden. Her story tells all about the learning moments, the amusing incidents, the surprises in keeping chickens. From tiny little fluffy things to gangly adolescents to egg-laying mamas. Well, one wanted to be a mama. She deliberately didn\’t have a rooster, so when one of her hens turned broody, adopted a few chicks for it to raise. And saw a whole new world of behavior open up, how the hen communicated with and taught the chick, protected it, tended to it constantly. I thought it would mostly be a cute story- the illustrations sure are (and oddly superimposed over real photos used as backgrounds) but in actuality it\’s a touching story as well. Keeping three hens content turned out to be quite a balancing act- her frequent need to build new shelters, extra coops and cages to keep one hen from bullying another, or to give a sick hen safe place to hang around outside, reminded me of the shuffling I\’ve sometimes had to do in order to keep my various fish species well. Her efforts to make her terrier dog understand the chickens were not prey finally worked out when the dog became their protector. She also saw acts of compassion between the hens- as well as inexplicable viciousness. She worked through their various illnesses, had to deal with a rooster when one of her adopted chicks turned out to be male (her solution to the rooster\’s crowing was absolutely brilliant) and swamped her neighbors with eggs. It\’s mostly delightful.

I still want chickens someday, ha. I think I\’d appreciate them most for the insect control.

Borrowed from the public library

Rating: 3/5             243 pages, 2013

by Edna Wilder

The author of this book is from Bluff, Alaska. Her mother, locally known as Grandma Tucker (Eskimo name of Nedercook), was a native born in the 1850\’s in a small village community called Rocky Point, on the Bering Sea. Nedercook grew up in the village following the \”old ways\”. She did not see a white person until she was an adult. They lived a subsistence lifestyle hunting, fishing and gathering berries, making all their clothing and necessities. In this book, the author relates a year of her mother\’s childhood, as it was told to her. It is a quiet story full of everyday home life, close observations of nature, gratitude for the land that supported them and family members who were close. Its tone reminds me a lot of A Child of the Northeast and of course it is also reminiscent of Julie of the Wolves (which was one of my first exposures to Inuit lifestyle). But each small native community so far north, had its own individual community and this story carefully details them: from codes of conduct and taboos children must follow, to festival dances, songs and superstitions. Many stories that were passed down verbally through generations are here in written form. Some of them puzzled me, they were so foreign and had no explanation. Others sounded delightful. I especially liked the tale of the woman who was carried away by an eagle husband. Most of the book is just about home life, but there are exciting moments too- such as when Nedercook was lowered over a cliff to gather bird eggs and nearly got stuck on a small ledge. She seemed quite young to be killing animals for food, but survival of the village depended on what all members could provide, so I guess it was normal for kids to be out hunting in that setting. The introduction states that this book is the first of a \”long awaited saga on the life of Grandma Tucker\” so I looked to see if other volumes followed: yes, The Eskimo Girl and the Englishman is a sequel which I\’d now like to read some day.

Rating: 3/5               183 pages, 1987

One Woman\’s Epic Journey by Dog Team
by Pam Flowers and Ann Dixon

Pam Flowers fell in love with the remote, beautifully empty wilderness of the Arctic. She wanted to follow the footsteps of explorer Knud Rasmussen- traveling from Barrow, Alaska to Repulse Bay in Canada- crossing the entire width of the Arctic alone with her team of eight sled dogs. Lots of planning and preparation- training the dogs and herself in endurance, stashing caches of food, shipping supplies ahead to communities she knew she would pass through. Often she stored her items in a school and in return would speak to the students about her trip, about going through whatever it takes to make dreams become reality.

She accomplished her goal, but several times in the journey feared for her life. The cold she and the dogs could deal with, it was the relentless wind during one part of the year, and the early warmth of thaw at other times, that seriously threatened them. They faced whiteouts and early breakup, nearly drowning in attempting to cross a bay when the ice started rotting beneath them. It sounded terrifying. Twice she lost a dog, later her valuable lead dog became ill. They had a frighteningly close encounter with a polar bear, and several times encountered caribou or other wildlife that excited the dogs, causing trouble. Most times passing through native villages she was met with generous hospitality and helping hands, but a few times her visits were unwelcome. Kind of amusing was the time an Eskimo dog followed her out of one village, and wouldn\’t turn back. Later she found out this dog was famous for miles around, had a habit of tagging along behind whatever team came through.

Her story is told in a very straightforward fashion, drawn from brief journal entries I can only imagine she was often too exhausted or cold to write much at the end of a long day\’s travel. Still the vastness of the land and the stark beauty of it that inspired her is palpable. A woman who thrived on solitude, she speaks very fondly of the bond with her dogs. The story of her adventure is further detailed by side texts that describe various facts and history- everything from her daily routine to the effects of wind chill factor, how she planned for storms, what was behind certain abandoned structures she passed on her journey, methods she used compared to the Inuit and other natives, and so on. A very interesting and inspiring account.

Rating: 3/5              120 pages, 2001

by John Muir

This stunning novella is about a walk John Muir took on a glacier, accompanied by a small spitz type \”lap dog\” named Stickeen. Muir was on an exploratory expedition and had been advised not to bring the little dog along, as it was considered by others a \”worthless\” animal. The tough little dog certainly kept to himself, wandering in the woods and catching up to their boat at the very last minute. He was nothing special to Muir until the day they explored the glacier.

I have long admired Muir\’s conservation efforts in helping establish our national parks, but I had no idea he was such an intrepid, adventuresome and daring man. He deliberately walked out onto this glacier in the middle of a raging storm, just for the thrill! went on through wind and driving snow with only the dog as companion, no ropes or special shoes or any other tool than a hatchet it seems. Jumping crevices and nearly getting lost. In the end to make it back to camp, he had to cross a narrow bridge of ice over a deep crevasse and the dog was barely able to follow. It was in the moment of seeing the dog\’s terror at crossing the bridge, and its delirious joy at making the hazardous crossing safely, that Muir realized that Stickeen had more emotion and intelligence in his little furry head than he ever let on. (At the time animals were considered automatons of instinct by most scientists, so this revelation into the dog\’s emotional state felt groundbreaking to Muir). The dog was ever after devoted to him. Sadly, it was stolen from their company shortly after the expedition and he never heard of it again.

I was shocked to read of the dangers Muir faced on the glacier just for the thrill of it. I am astonished they got out of there alive. The writing is wonderfully descriptive, the personality and deportment of the bold little dog vividly drawn. It\’s an amazing piece of writing that anyone who enjoys outdoor adventures or who loves dogs might enjoy. The afterward of the particular copy I read has a timeline highlighting key events in Muir\’s life, which opened my eyes to what an incredible individual he was.

Borrowed from my sister.

Rating: 4/5              73 pages, 1916


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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