Month: November 2018

by Barbara Kingsolver

Collection of thought-provoking and beautifully worded essays. On everything important, it seems. Many are very personal and close to home- she writes about family life, what it means to be honest, raising food for yourself, connections with the land. She writes about her youngest daughter\’s chickens. She writes a letter to her teenage daughter, and another to her mother- very heartfelt. Other essays range more broadly- the importance of biodiversity, and what currently threatens it (I did not realize before, just how scary GMOs are), the nonsensical pervasiveness of war, patriotism wrought into a fervor against others, how large impassionate corporations are pushing out small business. In particular I liked her essay about writing, love of books, how small independent bookshops helped her career as a young writer, her feelings for the importance of poetry in schools, and the time she first wrote sex scenes into a novel (makes me look at Prodigal Summer differently, I admit). There are also has several essays written in response to 9/11, and to the Columbine school shooting. I struggled a bit with the first of these, but dealt better with the other two, later in the book. Woven seamlessly through these essays are also some lovely bits of nature writing- observations on habitats in Arizona where she lives part of the year, especially the delicate, richly diverse belt of riverside plant and animal life. Close look at a hummingbird building a nest. Retelling of an account where a bear apparently nurtured a young child until it was found. And so much more. Homelessness. The strength of being a woman. The dangers of ignoring what\’s going on around us. Why she doesn\’t have a TV in the house. How fiction can teach truths, why mythology is important. Definitely a book that\’s staying on my shelf, that deserves many re-reads, that inspired me to give another honest try at appreciating her early works The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven (I\’ve attempted both a few times, never got far). Also, she has made me want to read Middlemarch, even though I am not really a fan of Victorian novels.

Rating: 4/5           267 pages, 2002

more opinions:
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On

by Eric Kahn Gale

Mild spoilers!

Middle-grade fiction that gets a bit more dark and action-packed than I usually care for. It\’s about a boy who lives in a zoo his father, a famous explorer, established on a small South American island. The animals in the zoo were collected by his father from the jungle- Marlin has always believed the purpose was to protect and care for the animals, and show them to people so they could appreciate their beauty. Helping his father and older brother run the zoo, Marlin struggles a lot because he has an extreme stutter- usually completely unable to make himself understood, not helped by the fact that his brother teases him cruelly, his father dismisses him, and the staff scorns him. He finds his one comfort in the animals- in their presence, words somehow flow smoothly and he can talk.

One day his father brings back a black panther from the jungle- everyone is shocked and terrified of the powerful animal. Marlin talks to the jaguar just like he does with any other animal- and to his surprise, Jaguar speaks in reply. The Jaguar possesses mysterious magic, and he gives Marlin the ability to understand all the animals. This was when the story turned delightful, as Marlin uses his new ability to resolve some problems with many of the animals in the zoo, and finds that they appreciate him. His new skill boosts him in his father\’s eyes, which makes his brother jealous, which makes that situation worse. Then a new, very wealthy and powerful family arrives on the tourist boat- and Marlin starts to discover some ominous plans for the surrounding jungle- and that his father\’s intentions with the zoo are not exactly what he\’d always believed.

There is so much going on in this story. Sibling dynamics, bullying, disability, wildlife behavior, the economics of tourism, exploitation of habitat, family secrets, and so on. It got kind of ridiculous when Marlin\’s father planned to put on a circus show for the guests- when none of the animals have been trained. It quickly turns into something brutal and Marlin desperately tries to put a stop to it, while a lot of the animals suddenly see him as a traitor. The last part of the book is very fast-paced with a lot of frenetic action. By then I was invested enough in the characters, I had to see how it ended. My favorite of course, was the mysterious, laconic Jaguar. When they call him \”Eater of the sky\” I at once thought of the fearfully brilliant cat Night-who-eats-stars in Clare Bell\’s book. Some aspects of this story reminded me of El Zoo Petrificado. I think my one disappointment was with Olivia, daughter of the visiting family who began to befriend Marlin. It seemed like she should have played a greater part in the book, but she ended up being just a side character.

I have this book on my e-reader.

Rating: 3/5         240  pages, 2015

more opinions:
Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales
Sci-Fi and Scary

by Eric Vinicoff and Marcia Martin

A foreign planet, where a race of sentient, big cats is the dominant species (sound familiar?). They are not really social. Each holds a parcel of land which they defend and use as a source of food- hunting prey- but they also gather together in a rough town center to trade goods, advanced enough to have tools, a system of currency, and strict rules of conduct. But they\’re also still lethal creatures, and disputes which cannot be resolved by the Weigher- a key social figure who uses references to ancient codes and balances of debts between individuals to settle differences- are satisfied via bloody combat on a central field in the town. It\’s all very ritualized and bound by entrenched tradition.

At first the story is intriguingly different to pick up on- told from the perspective of the town\’s current Weigher, immersing the reader in the alien world. Then some strange creatures suddenly arrive- seemingly frail and unbalanced but possessing vast stores of knowledge which the intelligent catlike beings crave to acquire. I instantly recognized these as human explorers landing on an alien world. They offer their superior knowledge in exchange for being allowed to collect data- and the Weigher complies- after making sure the humans are following the rules of debt exchange in order to avoid insult and putting themselves in an unwittingly dangerous position. The Weigher gradually sees the humans as more than curiosities and sources of valuable information she can barter- but also as creatures worth protecting and friends. So when one of their new ideas threatens to disturb the balance of their rough society- in a way that surprised me, honestly, it seemed like such a small thing- events quickly cascade into a dangerous situation, and the Weigher is forced to flee into exile with the strange humans.

It was all pretty intreresting. I wished for more, though- especially more about the wild counterparts of the sentient cats still living without language or culture in the forbidding Wild, and their custom of abandoning young, while some were recollected from the Wild and then after being taught to speak and act civilly, integrated into the society. I found I had the novella version of this on my e-reader, I really do want to acquire the full novel and read it again as a more fleshed-out story.

Rating: 3/5            ? pages, 1984

more opinions:
Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales

by Joseph Conrad

I had a hard time with this classic, even though I found the prose riveting. I\’m glad I knew a little about it beforehand, or I might have been thoroughly confused and not made it through. The narrative is by a seaman telling a story to his fellow sailors while waiting for a tide to turn- about a former trip via steamboat upriver into the depths of the Congo. He was hired by a trading company to travel to a remote post to collect a man named Kurtz who has a load of ivory extracted from the interior- as far as I could tell. Kurtz is strangely held in awe by many, and when the narrator finally reaches the destination, it\’s obvious he\’s been out in the jungle wilderness far too long- he has the native population (depicted in very racist, stereotypical fashion from a nineteenth-century imperialist perspective) under his thrall, raves in lunatic fashion and appears to be suffering from some awful disease.

Most of the novella is about the frustrating travel upriver through the dense jungle, suffering frequent breakdowns, lack of materials, poor management, horrific exploitation and suffering on the part of the natives. It\’s very rambling and dense, a lot of it internal monologue on the depravity of human nature and moves without description or explanation between scenes- so I often had difficulty understanding what was actually going on. In a way it is Kafkaesque, in another way the deeply visceral prose reminded me of William Golding\’s The Inheritors (which I now regret I culled out of my library- this book makes me want to read that one again, oddly enough). Many of the passages also brought to mind Lord of the Flies, and I rather wonder if Golding wasn\’t heavily influenced by Joseph Conrad. Sample of the descriptive power in the text:

Trees, trees, millions of trees, massive, immense, running up high; and at their foot, hugging the bank against the stream, crept the little begrimed steamboat, like a sluggish beetle crawling on the floor of a lofty portico. It made you feel very small, very lost, and yet it was not altogether depressing, that feeling. After all, if you were small, the grimy beetle crawled on- which was just what you wanted it to do…

or: 

The mind of man is capable of anything- because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valour, rage- who can tell? – but truth- truth stripped of its cloak of time. Let the fool gape and shudder- the man knows, and can look on without a wink. But…. he must meet that truth with his own true stuff- with his own inborn strength.

It\’s a book I found hard to put down even though it was difficult to get through, and one that definitely merits a re-read (or several!) in order to understand. I read this one in e-book format.

Rating: 3/5              280 pages, 1902

more opinions:
Melody and Words
Vulpes Libris
who else? let me know!

by Doranna Durgin

Sequel to Dun Lady\’s Jess. Wanted to read this one enough I finally just bought a secondhand copy online. Pretty enjoyable. The writing is smoother- only a few times did I have to stop and re-read a conversation or phrase again because it wasn\’t quite clear what was going on. This story is set in the alternate, magical world. Jess can change between being Lady the horse and being human, but as Lady she can\’t change herself back voluntarily. A few of her friends from the human world are here. Jess thinks she will just settle into another of the courier holds, learning more about how to navigate life as a human, and sorting out her feelings for Carey (who used to be her owner and rider when she was only a horse). But things get dicey when they realize some unknown wizards are working dangerously powerful magic, and at the same time some confused, strangely-behaving people show up here and there- animals turned human against their will. Mule, large wild cat, cairndog… None of them have had the training and close human guidance Jess received when she suddenly changed the first time, so it doesn\’t go well for them.

Jess and her companions have to figure out fast who is causing trouble and why- they suspect it is their old enemy, who wants revenge. Turns out to be more complicated than that. I was expecting the story to have a lot of animals-turned-people in it, but although the ethics of that is explored, the turned people themselves are in brief scenes. Mostly it\’s about the intricacies of how magic works in this world, the laws and strictures around it, the confusion of figuring out who is wielding it wrongly. They almost don\’t put the pieces together in time. There was a huge component of substance abuse which I didn\’t expect to be part of the story, it was a surprise that fit into the narrative well. How it affected magic, the dangers which none in this world could anticipate, really. In the end they go after the bad wizards and there is a bitter showdown of sorts.

It\’s also a romance. Not a heavy one- but the tension of feeling between Jess and Carey runs a thread through the whole story, plus the interest another courier has in her, and one of her friend\’s interest in him. Some of them don\’t really realize what\’s going on at first, so it\’s not really a triangle- kind of an undercurrent. There\’s also the long struggle Jess has to gain control of when she is horse or human. Most interesting were still the parts where Jess as human struggles against her equine nature- or acts out what she feels naturally, on purpose (pretty funny when she goes kicking guys she doesn\’t like). The way unfamiliar people treated her was interesting- you\’d think in a world of magic an animal-turned-human wouldn\’t be unusual, but it is, and people don\’t know whether to treat her as an intelligent being deserving respect, or someone they can walk all over because she was an animal. I hope some of these ideas get worked out more in the final book of the series.

Rating: 3/5          352 pages, 1997

edited by Marc Bekoff and Cara Blessley Lowe

This is a collection of short stories and essays about cougars (aka puma or mountain lion). Some of them are firsthand accounts- brief sightings, face-to-face encounters on trails, one guy watched a cougar cross a tennis court and then dart through a street, another once found a young puma hiding under his cabin. Other chapters in the book are by biologists or conservationists: reports of studies on cougar population dynmaics, detailed description of the habitat cougars like to use- a variety of these: dessert, mountainsides, rocky canyon. One quite different essay describes a drying-up riverbed, a boy who rescues a fish stranded in a pool, and at the very end evokes the presence of cougar. There are nineteen authors total, plus Jane Goodall wrote the foreword. I have to admit a few of these – especially the scientific ones- were a bit dry for my taste, and I skimmed a lot- thus the rating below. Others went the other direction: writing about cougars and spirituality. In one case this was an explanation of some Navajo beliefs, which I found interesting. In another, it was a woman gushing about what a glimpse of the big cat meant for her soul- the connection and inspiration she got from it- a bit much, for me. Even further out there, but curious in its own way, was an author who wrote about several dreams he had with cougars present in them- then deconstructed what the dreams meant. Very intriguing. Barry Lopez and Ted Kerasote are among the writers featured here. My favorite essay was one of a personal encounter: \”Lion Story\” by Rick Bass- about running into a cougar on a walk with his dog. Vivid. Overall the impression is of the secretive, powerful cat itself: elusive, silent, with its gliding motion and long, floating tail. The few people who report having seen a wild one up close were mesmerized, no doubt. Magnificent animal. End of the book has a listing of people reported killed by cougars over the last century (very few, compared to deaths caused by dog attacks, and minuscule compared to the number of casualties caused by car accidents!) and then some notes on how to live safely in cougar country, and what to do if you encounter one. There are references for further reading, as well.

This book perhaps doesn\’t deserve the number I gave it. I\’m tired, there are other reasons I lacked focus, having nothing to do with the authors\’ various styles or the angle of their writings. Borrowed this one from the public library.

Rating: 2/5            200 pages, 2007

by R.D. Lawrence

I\’ve read this book before, but it was so long ago the prior review was written from memory. Had the chance to enjoy it again, as I bought a copy recently from Powell\’s. The nature writing is just as good as I remember, but funny how the dramatic hunting scenes from the final sixty pages made the strongest impression on me before- in reality, most of the book is a slow buildup, showing the life of the mountain lion. It starts with his mother. The female puma has a negative encounter with a pair of wildlife poachers, one of whom accidentally gets his arm damaged in a trap he\’d set for her– and afterwards the puma is touted as a \”man-eater\” who \”almost ripped his arm off\”. The bad experience instills her with a deep fear of mankind that she teaches to her cubs later in the story. A lot of the book is just about how the family of cougars lives- the mother puma and her three young. How they navigate the landscape, find and ambush prey, show affection for each other, learn skills, hold their territory, avoid danger (encounters with wolves, bears and man). Eventually only the main puma of the story- a very rare creature with an albino coat- is left alive of the family. His fear of man boils into a hatred, and when the poachers come after him specifically, he starts stalking them in turn. I had forgotten most of the story about the hunters and their operation, which has just as much page time as the puma\’s daily life. In the end, a trio of conservationists comes to try and protect the rare cougar from being killed- whose existence is accidentally revealed to the public by one of the hunters when he gets drunk and starts bragging of the future trophy. Reading it this time around, I found the parts about the animals\’ behavior and survival methods satisfying, the parts about the people a bit stiff- perhaps it\’s just the writing style or the age of the book. Near the end, I thought the tactics of the woman who camped out in the forest alone to foil the hunters, a bit laughable. Times were different when this book was written, that\’s for sure. The ending gave me a nice surprise- I had completely forgotten the turn of heart one of the hunters takes. Nice that it was the one I found a bit more sympathetic during the entire storyline.

Rating: 3/5              329 pages, 1990

by Joanne Ryder

I picked up this book for my seven-year-old. She\’s never quite as keen on animal stories as I was at her age (still am). I also found for her a book about a bear cub, and a more fanciful one about a crow family (which I might review here later). Tried to read Snail in the Woods as a bedtime story, but my kid was grossed out by hearing about slime and snails eating fungus and how they can retract their eyeballs back into their heads through their feelers; she refused to finish it. So I read the book myself. It\’s very simple text, decent monochromatic pictures, about the life of a land snail. Hatches from an egg, eats its own eggshell, crawls around seeking shelter and food. Estivating when there is no moisture. Avoiding getting eaten by shrews (more drawings of shrews in this one book than I\’ve ever seen before!), mice, birds, millipedes and other predators purely by luck. (My kid thought the millipede looked like a monster. It surely is to a tiny snail). Biggest event in the story is a flood, which some snails escape by crawling higher on trees and shrubs, and our snail gets carried downstream on a log. Finds a new home, finds a mate, crawls around more, lays eggs which will hatch in spring. Nice little book, if your kid wants to learn about how snails live.

Rating: 3/5               62 pages, 1979

Animals of Mountains and Poles

It\’s cold weather, so I liked reading a book about cold places. Found this at a thrift shop, it\’s two books published in one volume. The foreword by David Attenborough features his picture- let me tell you, it\’s quite something to see a photo of him as a younger man.

Polar Life
by Joseph Lucas and Susan Hayes

The first half of the book was pretty interesting to me. It describes in detail the opposite regions of the poles, and I learned a lot about how life hangs on in such cold, arid climates. While the northern Arctic is rich in wildlife and plant species, the Antarctic is all the more remarkable that anything lives and thrives there. Not just penguins- fishes, whales, a few lichens, seabirds. The book describes the habitat in detail, the oceanic currents, how the weather affects everything, where living things are distributed, and a bit of how they survive such rigorous habitat. I didn\’t realize before (perhaps silly of me) that icebergs are shaped very differently on either end of the earth- flat thick sheets of ice or chunks- and why. Particularities about the land formation kept coming up – how the Arctic is frozen ocean surrounded by land masses, while the Antarctic is one land mass surrounded by oceans- separating it widely from any species that would try to colonize it. Would I had read this book before Rockbound– it\’s got a brief description of \’Mother Carey\’s chickens\’ or the storm petrel- complete with a photograph. Sadly, I couldn\’t help thinking through much of this, how drastically the Arctic and Antarctic regions are changing today- descriptions of polar ice sheets and impervious nature of permafrost- no longer so. It also really dates itself by mentioning here and there how much was unknown at the time of printing: what certain animals ate, how exactly whales and seals evolved from land mammals, etc. Even so, it was a more engaging read than the second half:

Mountain Life
by Bernard Stonehouse

This part of the book is, of course, about mountain ranges across the planet, how they are formed and what lives on them. I was expecting some interesting facts about how wildlife (and plants) are adapted to life in cold, high-altitude regions, but the details were rather lacking. There is a lot about rock formations and how the land masses collided during the past to form the various mountains. Maps show the features discussed in the book- where the ranges cross continents. Comparisons between the places, especially showing how animals in some ranges are related to those in others, proving their divergence from what used to be one land mass. I feel like it was the writing style that made me feel disengaged, here- it seemed more to be a listing of plant and animal species for each area and habitat range, without much description on how they live. I did find some details interesting: all those stunted, twisted-looking trees you see bent under winds are not small and weak but surprisingly long-lived and strong, very tenacious.

Overall, the reading started out interesting and I ended up skimming a lot just to finish. Noted a lot of species names to look up online- animals and plants I\’d never heard of before. The photographs are fairly grainy and often poor in focus. Kinda worth skipping.

Rating: 2/5               288 pages, 1976

by Wally Lamb

Sorry ahead of time if some of this is spoilers. It wasn\’t what I expected. Never read any Wally Lamb before, although I\’ve heard of his titles. Wow, this guy can tell a story. I couldn\’t put it down. It\’s one of those narratives of a train-wreck life, but you can\’t look away (I\’m thinking of The Book of Ruth). This girl goes through everything. Mentally ill mother, father who disappears from her life, Catholic schooling, raped by the upstairs tenant at thirteen, struggles with her weight, hates her life, serious rebellion, floundering attempt at college life, running away from it all, stay in a mental hospital, some strange but life-affirming therapy, ditching that before her psychiatrist thinks she\’s ready, finding a man but that\’s a mess too, writing them off altogether. In the end circling back to where she began (reluctantly), and finally coming to peace with her life, with the mistakes her parents, her grandmother, her ex had made. Epiphanal moment with a stranded whale in Cape Cod. Abortion. Suicide attempts. Friends stricken with AIDS. Chaos of the seventies and eighties. Some parts were a bit crude for me, but I found myself rooting for this narrator, in spite of her caustic commentary and consistently bad choices. I did think a few of the events in the story were implausible- like how she tracked down her college roommate\’s former boyfriend- but I bought it while I was reading the story. Or the drastic changes her body went through- it seemed rather unrealistic, too easy? But again, I blasted past that while I was in the narrative. I was dreading what the ending would lead to, relieved the author didn\’t turn it into a disaster or a perfect ending, but something that felt satisfyingly real. Of anything, the complex relationships between people are so vivid in this story. The little networks of lies, the gradations of trust. Especially the unhealthy relationship she had with her mother, which it took her whole life to come to terms with (the book spans about forty years).

PS: I was horrified at how fish were treated in this book. So rarely do I come across my hobby depicted in fiction, I had some anticipation when an acquaintance invited the narrator to see her aquariums. It was appalling what she did to them in a fit of revenge. Much later in the story she kept her own fish, in atrocious conditions, and of course they died. Bah.

Rating: 4/5               405 pages, 1992

more opinions:
Dot Scribbles
who else? I know you\’re out there!

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