Month: June 2018

the Story of an African Leopard
by Joy Adamson

Joy Adamson, famous for raising the wild lion Elsa of Born Free, went on to raise and release a cheetah as well. Her final ambition was to do the same with a leopard, which had never been attempted before and many cautioned her against it, because leopards were a lot more unpredictable and considered more dangerous than lions and cheetah. It took a long time for her to obtain a leopard cub (with permission from wildlife authorities). The first orphaned cub she acquired died from an overdose of a vaccine, the second one she got seven years later, and it died when left in a hot car too long – very sad. The third orphaned cub that came into her hands remained healthy, and she named it Penny. First it was kept in an enclosure near her home in the bush, but after a lot of consideration she an her small crew of helpers found a suitable location to release the leopard, and they basically moved there and lived out in the bush, letting the leopard roam and keeping tabs on her. They fed her regularly, and supplied her with water to keep her from frequenting the river where they feared she would get taken by a crocodile. They put a radio collar on her (it looks crude and bulky in the photos) but it often fell off so they spent hours searching for the leopard and calling, to find her location and provide for her. The leopard must have learned to hunt eventually, because often she appeared well-fed, but Joy continued to support Penny by taking her food at her regular haunts, even after she birthed a pair of cubs in the wild. She rarely got a glimpse of the new leopard cubs; this big cat was secretive and didn\’t bring her young to visit her surrogate human mother as Elsa had done.

Joy obviously cared a lot about her cats. During the time she was working with Penny she also took charge of an abandoned lion cub for a brief time, and an adult male leopard who was later released into Penny\’s territory in hopes he would become her mate- and she devoted all her efforts and time to their care and watching over them. I\’m amazed she did all this work even though her health was becoming frail- when she first got the cub she suffered a broken ankle from a fall, and had hip replacement surgery. She seemed prone to injury and the leopard itself often turned on her- I can\’t count the number of times she wrote that she was stroking Penny- who appeared to solicit the attention- when the leopard suddenly turned and tore her skin, or bit a hole in her arm! It didn\’t deter Joy from continuing the project. She was careful to keep other people at a distance, only one or two men who worked directly with her became trusted by the leopard; Penny remained wary of other humans and Joy made sure to stay away from areas frequented by tourists or tribesmen, so the leopard would remain as wild in behavior as possible. (In the case of the wild male leopard, nobody at all handled it, that one was fed at a distance from outside the cage until it was ready to be released).

A fascinating true account of one woman\’s relationship with a wild leopard. But, as reading material goes, I\’m sorry to say the book itself is rather dry. I know the author took pains to avoid anthropomorphising the animals she wrote about, so that her words would be taken seriously- she was afraid that otherwise, nobody would believe her stories. So that means her books are very factual accounts, without a lot of emotion or descriptive writing. I\’m debating if I should keep this one on my shelf- I feel I ought to, to make my collection of Adamson\’s writings complete- but I doubt I\’ll ever read it again (this was the second time).

Rating: 2/5            180 pages, 1980

by Peter Stark

Stark grew up in South West African and lived in Namibia most of his life. He was an accomplished horseman, received strict German training in dressage, and a skilled builder as well. But his true passion was hunting. At a very young age -seven or eight years old- his mother bought him a horse and basically allowed him to wander around the bush by himself with his rifle. He became fascinated with lions and adept at hunting them. Not just to remove lions that were killing people or livestock, but often he went hunting just to see if he could get one. The way he talks about hunting and catching live game (usually young animals) to sell to wildlife dealers, you read between the lines and realize he was a poacher. A renowned one, in fact. He knew the bush very well and was on close terms with the bushmen, able to speak the language of a local tribe, spend days out in the bush and survive off game and plants like they did. He learned from them. Later his skills at hunting and his understanding of the native people served well, when he became a game warden, turning about to protect wildlife in the game reserve, and hunt down the poachers.

So his book is all a retelling of hair-raising incidents, many close calls with lions, elephants and other dangerous animals. I was astonished at how many risky encounters he came out of alive. The man was no doubt very bold and knowledgeable, he led a wild kind of life and obviously loved what he did. He talks about the people he met, adventures they had, run-ins with poachers, frustrations with tourists, love of various dogs he kept over the years, and fine horses. But he also has no qualms mentioning his fierce temper, his need to take revenge on people -and animals- who had shamed or wronged him. He would often track down a lion just to \”teach it a lesson\” and once harassed a pair of lions until they fled into a tree, whereupon he drove under the tree and pulled the lion\’s tail. It defecated on him. I thought he well deserved it. I can\’t say I admire the man very much, his attitude towards animals put me off. He definitely respected the power and intelligence of the lions, but only a few times seemed to actually feel regret at killing them.

The writing is very straightforward, a bit dry- but it\’s an incredible book when you sit down and take in that his stories are all true accounts. I was really interested in the part that describes how he trained bushmen on horses to herd elephants out of farmland when they strayed from the Reserve- very dangerous work that sounded. I felt sad for his wife and children- they are barely mentioned at all, were it not for a few photos of his family in the center pages, I would not have realized he\’d been married at all. I\’m not surprised that at the end of the book he mentioned that he had ignored his family, being all the time in the bush, and his marriage failed. I wonder what kind of tale his wife would have to tell, of raising four children basically on her own.

It\’s a bit amusing, how I came by this title. My husband recently took a trip to Namibia, where he found this book in a shop. He bought the copy in Afrikaans (mine is translated into English by Jan Schaafsma) because he wanted to read it in the original. Back home he was often relating to me surprising stories from the pages, and I was a bit annoyed because it seemed like just the type of book I\’d enjoy myself! So he surprised me, purchased a copy online so I could read it too. Very kind.

Rating: 2/5           223 pages, 2008

by Gerald Durrell

If Durrell really wrote a book about every trip he went on to film or capture wildlife, I am happy there are so many yet for me to read! This one is from earlier in his career, when he was part of making a wildlife documentary for television. With a small film crew and his wife, he spent six months travelling through New Zealand, Australia and Malaysia to look at wildlife conservation efforts in those countries. Of course, having a short time frame in which to find elusive, often very rare animals and get good footage of them, often made for hectic schedules and amusing situations, such as when they captured \”flying lizards\” (gliding lizards in the Draco genus) and released them over and over from the top of a stepladder while the cameraman lay on his back below, to get it on film. Banter among the camera crew and his wife constantly interjecting caution (the cameraman in particular would take alarming risks to get the footage needed) interesting observations on culture and local people in the places they went, make for a lively read. As always, I was most intrigued to read first-hand descriptions of animals in their native habitat (for the most part- a few they saw in captive breeding programs). Some of these included the royal albatross, king shag, takahe, malee (two rare birds), platypus, mudskippers (not rare, but very interesting) and leatherback sea turtle. They witnessed a kangaroo birth and apparently were the second to ever get it on film. (The first footage made, by scientists at a place that studied kangaroos, was deemed unfit for television use). Durrell was apparently quite fond of wombats, but considered koalas to be dim-witted and dull. I wasn\’t aware that black swans were (at the time) considered an invasive species in New Zealand. Durrell makes a continual point how mankind has changed natural landscapes and many species are in danger of extinction. His final chapter is a plea (repeated in most of his books) for people to pay more attention to the needs of wildlife and support conservation efforts. It\’s nice to know most of the conservation programs he visited at the time, have since shown a good success rate.

Rating: 3/5           256 pages, 1966

A Gardener\’s Miscellany
by Allen Lacy

Enjoyed this one very much. It\’s another collection of little gardening essays, a man speaking from his own experience. He is obsessed with daffodils, praises or criticizes a great many other plants, expresses irritation at silly-sounding plants names in catalogs and limited selection in nursery stock. Describes many doings in his own yard and garden, and also describes a few others that he knew well- even if he never met the gardener. Each little essay feels too short- but rich with insight and lively with humor (even if he\’s poking gentle fun at himself). I definitely want to find more of his writings.

Rating: 4/5           259 pages, 1980

Animorphs #4
by K.A. Applegate

The five Animorphs get some strong hints that a piece of an Andalite spaceship may be crashed in the ocean nearby, and the alien enemies are zeroing in on it. Two of them are also having strange dreams, hearing calls for help. They decide they must find what\’s in the ocean, so they morph into dolphins. They handle the time constrictions a little better this time around; Tobias-the-hawk carries a watch now so he can remind them when they\’ve been in animal form too long. They manage to travel long distances without getting stuck in dolphin form by flying partway as seagulls, and stowing away on a cargo ship as themselves. Still some awkwardness in their plans, complications they just don\’t think of beforehand. As dolphins they run into sharks, and get help from a whale. I suppose since the Animorphs can communicate mentally, receiving messages in dreams and speaking telepathically with real whales shouldn\’t be so odd, but it still struck me as a little out there. What they encounter in the ocean- well, let\’s say the last few chapters did take me by surprise. It looked like they were doomed to fail, but the aliens showed a surprising vulnerability. And they find a young Andalite (Ax is the shortened name they give him) who had been left behind when all his companions died in the war. That character caught my interest again- his apparent standoffish manner, the gulf of their understanding. It made the last two chapters better than all the rest, the foil of alien nature. There\’s also a kind of moral dilemma arising in Cassie\’s mind- she feels uneasy with her struggle against the animal nature when morphing, compares it to how the aliens enslave humans. Others point out this isn\’t a fair comparison: they are acquiring DNA and becoming a new animal individual, not actually taking over the mind of an existing animal. Still, it\’s something to think about.

Yet for some reason, I didn\’t enjoy this book as much as the others so far. The writing is not quite as good. There were several parts where the phrasing seemed downright juvenile- not as if it were aimed at a young audience, but as if the writing wasn\’t polished. The animal transformation scenes didn\’t captivate me as much, either (and those are really what I read it for). If this is a hint of quality to come, I don\’t know how far I\’ll keep reading in the series. The opening scene where Cassie morphed into a squirrel to spy on a fox- that one was a bit funny in spite of her panic.

Borrowed from the public library

Rating: 2/5                154 pages, 1996

more opinions:

Poems on self-love and spiritual blackmail, vol 5
by Angie Outis

I didn\’t realize there was a fifth book out in this poetry series, until it came into my hands. It wraps up the story of what the author went through leaving her husband and filing for divorce. Seeking family help, which wasn\’t there. Finding cold shoulders and blame, instead of helping hands. Telling the kids, fielding their tears and confusion. Desperately packing the car and moving out when her spouse wasn\’t home. Scrambling for options. Mourning loss, recovering from fear. Her children gradually realizing what it all meant, expressing some of their own fears. Her awkwardness around men, in raw, new situation as a single woman…  And I thought when closing the book: so few pages, to hold so much pain. I hope she\’s in a better place now.

I received a copy of this book from the author.

Rating: 3/5         44 pages, 2018

by Russell Page

This volume is about the career of a landscape architect. I am not familiar with the author, but apparently he is renowned in gardening circles. He spent his entire life designing outdoor spaces for the wealthy after creating his first garden at age 18. I read the initial chapter where he tells about how he first became interested in plants and gleaned knowledge from all his neighbors who gardened, and then struggled to stay with the book. It\’s very strongly focused on design, on balance and form and how the eye is led through a landscape. Stuff on a grand scale. While the principles are something I\’d probably benefit from understanding better, personally I found the reading rather dry. And over half the plants were unfamiliar to me. All the photographs are in black and white, which I suppose is okay because you see the form and composition of things, instead of being wowed by beauty and color- but it felt rather flat and dull. I skipped around trying to find something a bit more engaging, but even when he was describing design problems and how plants or sketches solved them, it failed to keep my interest. The last chapter, where he imagines a garden he would build for himself, was more intriguing, however only for the first few pages.

I\’d like to like this book, but I don\’t. Why is it that whenever I don\’t care for a classic, I feel disappointed in myself? Urg. It\’s quite dense, and not just with the words- it\’s also surprisingly heavy for the size of a standard hardback book- so I became physically weary of handling it. Nothing against the author for that, but it did make it harder to try and appreciate a book I just didn\’t want to be holding for long.

Abandoned          382 pages, 1962

by Katharine S. White

This gardening book is a compilation of articles originally written as a column for The New Yorker magazine. It took me by surprise. The individual essays are not actually about gardening per se, but are for the most part, reviews of seed catalogs. I have done this once myself, so I was a bit intrigued. It turns out Mrs. White is quite opinionated about gardening and the development of new plant varieties- especially how showier flowers and bigger produce seem to be all the seedsmen are aiming for- at least that was her take on it. She disparages a lot of trends in the seed catalogs, which makes for some amusing reading. Here and there she mentions her own experiences with certain plants, which were the parts I really enjoyed. She doesn\’t just talk about plants, though. She criticizes (or praises where it was merited) the paper quality, choice of typography and clarity of photos in the seed catalogs. Later in the book are a few reviews of different types of publications regarding plants- field guides to wildflowers and oversized gardening books meant to be decorative (I call them \”coffee table\” books). I admit I was totally uninterested in the two chapters about books on formal flower arranging, styles in flower arrangement, and flower shows. I kind of skimmed through that. I puzzled a bit at how often she made a point of telling which supplier had what particular variety of a species, until I recalled the publication date: there was no internet back then. You couldn\’t just do a search and find where to buy the rose your grandmother used to grow or anything. So of course she made notes on which seeds suppliers grew, developed and sold what particular strains of plants. Specializing in roses, or azaleas, or herbs, etc. Helpfully, in the back of the book is a listing of all the catalogs and suppliers mentioned, with brief notes if they are still in business or have changed their focus. Only the last two chapters review gardening books of the kind I like to read- and here I did note down a few titles that sound particularly good. And on a different note, the introduction is written by her husband, a lovely portrait of Mrs. White and some of her gardening habits.

Rating: 3/5         362 pages, 1958

by Edith Holden

I am not familiar with this author/illustrator, but I do know she has written a Country Diary, which this compilation predates by a year. I expecting something like Wildlings, but this book is much simpler and I admit to being slightly disappointed. While it does have daily notes, where Holden jotted down the wildflowers and bird species she saw on walks through fields and hedgerows, it\’s really just like a list. Very few and far between are any actual incidents or descriptions of wildlife behavior. Most of the text is a collection of poems and quotes about the seasons, or flowers, or the beauties of nature. Wordsworth, Longellow, Shakespeare, Tennyson . . . . but I don\’t read a lot of poetry, especially this type, and personally I did not care for much of it. There are a few interesting tidbits about where the names of the months originated, or special holidays and folklore particular to each season. It was slightly reminiscent of the Treasury of Flower Fairies.

What I really like about this book is the artwork. The detailed paintings and drawings of many different types of wildflowers (quite a few I recognize, considered weeds in my yard!) and birds are just lovely. Delicate, lively and carefully done. It\’s apparent from her notes that Holden carried flowers and foliage home to study and paint from; I wonder if she just had a quick eye or some other means to attain the accuracy of her bird sketches. A few mammals: rabbits, ponies, one fox, but mostly it\’s birds and some butterflies. They really are very nice.

The notes and drawings are from 1905; the book was first published in 1989.

Rating: 3/5             192 pages, 1905

by William Mayne

This book has a rather unique premise: a young boy refuses to go to school and instead climbs up to the church steeple, where his father is working on the roof. He is snatched by a golden eagle which carries him off to an aerie on the mountainside. There the boy is raised alongside the eagle chicks. It is a very uncomfortable life, needless to say. Several times he fears he will die. But gradually he adapts to his new situation, learns to stand his own against the aggressive eaglets, and starts to understand the eagles\’ communication. It turns out they abducted him for a very specific purpose: they have a mission only he can carry out, to rescue a special egg that was stolen. But first they have to teach him to fly.

It\’s rather weird and delightful all at the same time. At first I thought the dialog was rather stiff, and wondered if the text had been translated. But a brief reference to bison and a quick look at the authors\’ ouvre made me realize it\’s probably set in North America, in some unnamed, simple town. Further into the story I began to appreciate how real the characters feel, how very human Antar\’s reactions to everything, and the odd situations just made it more interesting. I was really not at all sure how the story was going to end. It has a few unexpected turns near the end- in part caused by the fact that the eagles nest close to an active volcano… . . .

Aside from the moment when the adult eagles pushed the young ones off the nest to make them fly, the behavior of the wild raptors in this book felt very authentic. Well, overlooking the fact that they talk to each other, and have a leader, and send a boy to save a missing egg… . . . It was quite a nice mix of fantasy and naturalism, and I liked the writing style enough that I will be on the lookout for other books by this author.

Rating: 3/5            166 pages, 1989

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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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