by Douglas Adams
and Mark Cardwardine
Sci-fi author (famous for Hitchhiker\’s Guide to the Galaxy) travels the world to view some of the most endangered animals on the planet, before they are gone. He goes to Madagascar to see the aye-aye, to Komodo for the iconic giant lizards, to Zaire for the mountain gorillas and northern white rhino (there were twenty living at the time), to New Zealand in hopes of finding a kakapo, to China in search of the Yangtze river dolphin, to Mauritius to see the Rodrigues fruit bat and some endangered birds as well. Some of these he just caught a glimpse of (the aye-aye), other animals he was able to observe up close. I was surprised what a fun read this was, in spite of its grave subject matter- it\’s kind of a wild travelogue, and the author\’s humor in describing situations frequently sparked a laugh. To note, in the years since this book was written, the river dolphin is presumed extinct, the northern white rhino is functionally so (down to two individuals), the fruit bat is increasing in numbers, komodo dragons are doing okay (listed as vulnerable), kakapo appears to be gradually recovering (their reproduction rate is incredibly slow), the gorilla and aye-aye are still very much endangered. When I read this book I was impressed at the actions the Chinese took to save the river dolphin, but it wasn\’t enough. Similar book, although now outdated in terms of the animals\’ predicament (and not nearly as enjoyable a read) : Wild Echoes.
Rating: 3/5 220 pages, 1990
Things Mean a Lot
by Valerie Hobbs
Young border collie leaves his farm when sudden hard times hit the farmer and his wife. Spends the rest of the book looking for a good home, in particular one where he can herd sheep again, knowing that is his life\’s purpose. Has a short stint in a pet shop, then with a spoiled child who treats him like a toy. He runs off, meets up with some tramps and later an odd character that travels with a bunch of goats pulling a caravan. Gets caught on the street and put in the pound, where a new owner finds him- a cruel circus man who makes him learn tricks by beating him. All the circus animals are miserable; the border collie finally strikes out in a confusing scene involving an elephant, but a female dog he\’s become enamored of in the circus refuses to leave with him. Wandering again, he finally takes up with a lonely boy in an orphanage.
I might have liked this book. The dog knew a bit too much to be a credible animal character, while being woefully ignorant of other things that affected him closely. I could have overlooked that, though. The strange part was how closely certain stages of this book echoed other stories I know- which really got annoying to be honest. The tramps were very much like Lennie and George in Steinbeck\’s Of Mice and Men. The orphanage scenes reminded me strongly of They Cage the Animals at Night. The Goat Man and the circus made me think of other books too- Hurry Home Candy is one. The character of the dog was nice (he went through a whole slew of names as he met different people) but I started rolling my eyes at easily recognized tropes and skimming through the chapters.
I read this one sitting in a thrift store, waiting for my teenager to look at clothes. I nearly finished the book- enough to know I didn\’t really want to bring it home.
Abandoned 144 pages, 2009
More opinions: ExUrbanis anyone else?
My Battle to Save One of the World\’s Greatest Creatures
by Lawrence Anthony
with Graham Spence
This man saw that something needed to be done in attempt to save the northern white rhinoceros from extinction in the Congo, so he went there, and did something about it. It was not quite the read I expected, but riveting nonetheless. He basically plunged into a war zone in an attempt to find a remaining handful of rhinos and remove them to a safe location. This goal was far more complicated than can be imagined. Logistics, politics, lack of infrastructure, dangerously armed poachers, safety issues- it was bogged down at every step. Felt like I was reading a war story half the time, that\’s how volatile the area was. Much to the author\’s surprise, he found himself acutely involved in attempts at peace talks between two brutally warring factions- sidetracked from the efforts to save the rhinos- but he stepped up to the occasion and did his best to convey information and goodwill. When things weren\’t progressing on the rhino project, he would return home for a breather to his wildlife reserve at Thula Thula. It was very satisfying to read more about the elephants Lawrence had struggled to settle into his reserve (there\’s actually more on personal encounters with them in this book than rhinos) but disheartening the immense difficulties he faced in trying to work on behalf of the rhinos. Of that subspecies, only two are still alive in the world today. Not much hope. In spite of the serious subject matter, this book did make me laugh several times- it\’s nice the author kept his humor, and there\’s plenty of hair-raising adventures in here as well.
Borrowed from the public library.
Rating: 3/5 327 pages, 2012
by Laurie Halse Anderson
It\’s been a while since I read a book by this author, so I had forgotten how much I liked her writing. It\’s vivid. And funny in parts. And oh, so difficult- what the characters go through. Anderson doesn\’t shy away from tough subjects. I guess I\’m getting old, I blinked at some of the stuff that seemed the norm for highschoolers in this story. Little things, like big screens installed in the cafeteria showing the news, announcements and lists of names: kids who have to report to the office for counseling or discipline. Or the gym class being staffed by volunteers who don\’t care because funding got pulled (where I live, pretty sure art and music would be cut before physical education!) Larger things, such as teens posting internet photos of their naked body parts to get back at each other- but in the story they shrug it off as something totally normal. More ominous, the main character\’s best friend starts popping pills- first stolen from her mother\’s cupboard, later bought outright. And Haley herself has the tension of a growing attraction to a boy, which – eventually- she would really like to consummate, but pregnancy is a big NO. The author is frank and straightforward about what teens go through.
But I\’m getting ahead of myself. The protagonist, Hayley, is something of a newcomer to the highschool scene. She\’d been travelling the country in her dad\’s big rig until he decided to settle down and quit trucking for a while- in her grandmother\’s now-empty house. Hayley soon finds friendship with a girl down the street she knew as a kid but barely remembers. She is kind of a typical teen- standoffish and sullen, acerbic in wit, smart but not wanting to fit into the system. Her conversations with peers in and out of the school setting are just brilliant (writing, that is). Hayley lives with a huge burden that she is very slow to reveal to her new friends: her father, a war veteran, suffers from PTSD and it is all Hayley can do to keep him going and avoid the blows.
It took me a while to realize that Hayley herself was struggling with many of the same things her father did- flashbacks to terrifying moments from her childhood, large gaps in her memory. Reluctance to accept help from authorities. Pushing away her friends when they got too close. But the boy in the story- he\’s so good for her- and not without his own flaws or it would have been too perfect- and in the end helps Hayley face some of her fears and patch things together. He\’s got his own difficulties as well- an older sibling with addiction that ruins his family- and her other friend has battling parents on the verge of divorce- they all have it so hard. I guess that\’s what makes this book feel so real. I couldn\’t put it down.
Borrowed from the public library.
Rating: 4/5 391 pages, 2014
by Mrs. Kelley\’s Class
River Bend Middle School 2017-2018
This slim volume is in the same vein as This I Believe– stories written by students, then printed and bound by an online service. I had much the same reaction as to the previous collection of student essays- but in this case was able to just enjoy the reading experience, glossing over the typos and grammar mistakes. It felt more like an actual book in my hands- the presentation in that regard well done. A bit awkward that the pages seemed to be direct facsimiles of papers the students had turned in- so all the fonts different not only in style and size but also weight- some the ink so faint it was difficult read.
Regardless, I found it entertaining. The stories in here feature ghosts, demons, creepy monsters (one made of something described as black noodles), haunted houses. There\’s a story about a swarm of spiders, and another with a mutant plant creature that eats people. I don\’t usually watch horror films, but even I could see where some of the inspiration came from, with familiar elements- orphans and a well reminiscent of The Ring, a ghost of a starving child that crawls out of a television, one with idea very like Mirrors, another with a creepy rocking chair, etc. A story in here that made me stop and think what? at the end was \”The Call,\” even though the material felt typical.
A few were unique to me. One about a creature that crawled out of the Rhine, showing up over decades- and I laughed at the conversation the monster had with a person it caught, about who was the present \”leader\” of Britain. The ending was confusing though. The other that caught my attention was actually quite disturbing- seemed to be about an inner struggle, very descriptive but kinda hard to figure out. I think it was depicting self loathing or fear, the person in the story apparently killed part of her own persona in the end. Two other stories that I found a bit disturbing had a parent suddenly turn violent- in one case possessed by a demon, in the other the parent was just suddenly evil and became the terrifying, threatening entity the kid was desperate to escape from.
Part of the whole collection that started to amuse me was noticing certain words repeated though many of the stories- I think it must have been a vocabulary list the students were supposed to make use of. Including: derision, nonentity, haggard, audacity, trepidation, pulsating, raucous, supposition and premises. Those words just started to stand out through the pages, particularly since I read all the stories in one sitting.
My daughter made the cover illustration!
Rating: 3/5 48 pages, 2017
My Adventures Among Wild Chimpanzees:
Learning Lessons from our Closest Relatives
by John Crocker
The author, an MD, works in a family medical practice. Much earlier as a college student, he had the opportunity to spend eight months in Gombe, as a student field assistant for Jane Goodall\’s chimpanzee research. This book is in three parts: the first tells of his experiences in the Gombe forest: following the chimps to take notes on their behavior while also learning about a very different culture among the local Tanzanians. In particular he was very intrigued by observing the parenting styles of different chimpanzee mothers, and how their offspring fared. Leaving was very difficult, and so was completing medical school. He often drew on his memories of the time in Tanzania to help himself focus, relax or more closely connect to his surroundings. The second part is mostly about how the time at Gombe influenced the rest of his life. How he applied lessons he learned in patience and being in the moment, to everyday challenges. Particularly how he applied what he\’d observed about innate primate behavior, to understanding the needs of patients he treated, and of his own children. Finally, in the last section he writes about returning to Gombe over thirty years later, with his own grown son, to visit the research area again. A few of the chimps he had once followed through the forest were still there: Frodo and Freud all grown up themselves. He made connections again with a local guide who had been his close friend and companion during his original stay, and visited his home village. He reflected on many things that had changed in Gombe over the ensuing years, on how the trip affected his son’s view of the world, and their own relationship. He also tells, many times through the book, of what it was like to know the famed Jane Goodall, to sit and have conversations with her, to participate in a small way in her research.
Having read In the Shadow of Man and a few other works by Jane Goodall when I was an impressionable teenager- starting my lifelong love of reading nonfiction about wildlife studies- I was already familiar with the chimpanzee study, and recognized the names of many, and some of the stories about them recounted here- especially Fifi, daughter of Flo. It was something of a treat to revisit all that in a new way through the eyes of Dr. Crocker.
Some things really struck me. The account of when Crocker climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with his friend- unprepared, other than renting boots. He noticed on his return thirty-six years later, a distinct decline in the amount of snow on the summit (this time viewed from the airplane). Another was about a night he decided, as a young man working in Gombe, to sleep in a chimp’s nest. He thought it would give him a feeling of peace and connection to the animals, but instead it was uncomfortable at best, even frightening. This was just mentioned briefly in the beginning of the book, recounted in more detail later when he relates how he told this story to his young sons, who (touchingly) added their own details with later retellings.
In whole, it\’s an interesting and inspiring book, with lots of reflection and thoughtful lessons learned. I\’m glad I read it.
Borrowed from the public library.
Rating: 3/5 269 pages, 2017
by James Howard Kunstler
Post-apocalyptic fiction that felt pretty realistic (as far as I can guess)- until I got to the last few chapters. It\’s set in time a decade after an oil crises, severe economic collapse, bombings of LA and DC and a widespread flu virus that erased most of the population. The small upstate NY community in the novel is isolated from the outside world- modern conveniences that ran on electricity or anything made by large corporations is gone, medicine is rudimentary, government services no longer exist, people get by doing manual labor, growing crops, spending all their time making what they need to survive. In some areas people live in near-starvation and squalor, many suffer or just plain go crazy. I found interesting the ideas about what aspects of our current way of life would remain- and what things would disappear or becoming obsolete immediately. The author portrayed people falling back into an agrarian society where men basically ruled and women worked in the home. There were few women portrayed in the book and I rather felt sorry for their condition and lack of choices. Who knows if it would really turn out this way. Also the uprising of religious fervor, which becomes key to the story arc in this book.
There\’s a wealthy man who sets up a huge plantation-like operation, putting other people- desperate for a stable living situation- into basically serfdom or slavery. There\’s a group of thugs who commandeer the landfill and mine it for useful materials, trading them to the townspeople at extortion rates. There\’s a religious group that moves in and takes up residence in the empty school building, living in secretive, cult-like conditions. And our main character is a man who just works day to day to sustain himself, until he realizes the town is slowly crumbling- so he goes on a downriver trip to find some missing men, he galvanizes others to fix their water system (luckily they have a reservoir at higher elevation, so it still functions with gravity), he gets involved in an attempt to bring justice to some misdeeds in town (ranging from murder and theft to the religious group forcibly cutting off other men\’s beards!) Most of the narrative proceeds at a quiet, musing pace (in spite of the lawlessness and violence)- with reflections on what has been lost to the past, while noting the emptiness of parking lots and strip malls, the rising abundance of fish and insect life. But at the end it takes a weird turn, with inexplicable happenings that are never explained and the hint of magic or spiritual influence was so unlike the rest of the story, it rather put me off. I suppose it was useful to spark some to follow the book into its sequel, but it killed interest for me. Just felt too strange.
Rating: 3/5 317 pages, 2008
attack of the 50-foot book
by Doranna Durgin
Sequel to Dun Lady\’s Jess and Changespell. Something terrifying is happening in Camolen- magic gets warped in random places, destroying anything it touches. A group of prominent wizards goes to investigate- and the only known survivor of the encounter is a palomino horse. What infrastructure the magic world has starts to crumble; at first people don\’t know anything has happened, then widespread panic begins. Jess and her companions get heavily involved- Carey and the others decide their only chance to find out what happened is to turn the palomino into a person, and question him. Jess is upset by this idea- and only goes along with it because she can help the horse make the transition- finding suddenly that she relates to him far better than she ever did to Carey. She deliberately spends long periods of time in horse form later in the book- in part embittered by her recent human experiences, her trust shaken, her difficulties in understanding the human world exacerbated by current issues. There was a lot in here about how the magic worked, how different factions tried to control it, and even how new innovations and greed suddenly affected the environment in ways that threatened everyone. I found all the ideas very interesting- but getting through the middle of the book was something of a slog. The characters were still not very well drawn for me; the only ones I got a strong sense of were Jess and the palomino man- but in spite of his (unwilling) role in the heightened events, he didn\’t get a lot of page time which disappointed me. I found that when some of the longstanding characters struggled with loyalties, frustrations and even debilitating injuries I just did not care that much, did not get a real sense of them as people, and read impatiently for the story to get back to Jess and the palomino. Oh well. The ending was pretty good- and left enough intriguing openings for another sequel- if the author ever writes one I\’ll look for it.
Rating: 3/5 429 pages, 2002
by A. Merc Rustad
I really liked this one too, although it made me feel troubled and sad. But the ending is hopeful. The main character, Tesla, doesn\’t quite fit in with the norm- can\’t always figure out how to make human connections work, uses rational thinking and list-making. Tesla has a pretend boyfriend, and has fallen in love with a robot- in fact, Tesla wishes to actually become a robot. The robot in question is outdated and going to be scrapped for parts, but perhaps it is fixable. Tesla decides that as transforming into a robot seems impossible, and fixing up the robot proving very difficult, it might be easier just not to be alive. Thankfully Tesla has friends around, and the fake-boyfriend\’s new real boyfriend proves to be very understanding as well. Much as this story tugged at my heartstrings, I wished for more (usually the case when I find good short stories). Why isn\’t it longer? I would have gladly read a whole novel of this.
Rating: 4/5 Sept 2018
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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