Month: May 2019

A Naturalist\’s Journeys on the Roof of the World
by George B. Schaller

I thought- mostly due to the cover image- that this book was about the field study of a Tibetan antelope called chiru. That\’s only a few chapters. It covers many different trips and field studies the author conducted or participated in, travelling through remote regions of the Tibetan Plateau- encompassing areas of China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Mongolia. His studies were all about wildlife conservation- but there is (disappointingly for me) not a lot of description of actual animal encounters or behavior. What little is described of the wildlife, is brief. Mostly it is a report on how many animals they find in the various regions, how they tallied death numbers (from poaching, trophy hunters or natural causes and predation), and their survey of the areas- in particular noting the attitude of local people to the animals, what they knew of them, how they interacted with them, what local laws were in place and how well enforced, etc. A lot of it is just plain facts, and rather dry reading. I did find it interesting enough to complete- but I think (similar to Joy Adamson\’s Queen of Shaba) this is a case where the author is relating crucial info and not really giving vivid storytelling, as I have encountered more in his works (the few I\’ve read so far).

The book describes in passing the yak, kiang (or wild ass), Tibetan gazelle, golden eagle, Tibetan brown bear, Tibetan fox and a number of other animals. More attention is given to the chriu- mostly in head counts- and an entire chapter is about how the desire of the wealthy to own shawls woven from the fine wool of chiru caused the animals to be killed in great numbers until protection was put in place. There\’s a chapter about pika- small rodents- all about how they fit into the ecosystem, but unfortunately local inhabitants blamed pikas for degraded pastures, and poisoned them in great numbers (on the contrary, Schaller explains that pika are important for a healthy land). Another chapter describes efforts to locate, track and study snow leopards, and a final one the Tibetan bear- but in both cases they barely get a glimpse of the animals, relying mostly on camera traps and information gleaned from the few individuals they are able to radio-collar in order to track movements. More about politics and legal tangles involved in protecting Tibetan wild sheep- the argali- and the Marco Polo sheep. A lot of it is just we-went-here, we-did-this, or in many cases, how they failed to. If you want to read about the difficulties and drudgery of field work, or an overview on how lifestyles have changed in that region of the world over the past decades – Scahller went there many times with repeated visits, so he was able to give a bit of perspective on that- by all means this is a valuable account.

It\’s just not terribly intriguing to the casual reader like myself. Personally, I would really like to read the book of pika fables he wrote, in order to teach local Tibetans why the small animal was valuable. Being written later in his career, Schaller also includes some introspective musings in this book, looking at what his life\’s accomplishments had been so far-

I have not lived up to my potential. I am neither leader nor follower, and instead inadvertently subscribe to the dictum of Ralph Waldo Emerson: \”Do not go where the path may lead; go where there is no path and leave a trail.\” It affords me great pleasure to observe the rich and complex life of another species and write its biography. . . I have published interesting and useful scientific information. But all scientific work, unless there is the grand, everlasting insight of a Darwin, Einstein, or Newton, is soon supersceded, forgotten or rated at most a historical reference as others build upon your research. That is how science must proceed.

This makes me think of a comment on Wild HeritageBut I wholly recognize that Schaller\’s work in surveying and reporting on wildlife in various parts of the world has contributed greatly to conservation efforts, even if his books aren\’t wildly popular or always make fun reading (I however, plan to read all I can get my hands on, even though my library only has a few. I\’ve been collecting the others- have one on gorillas and another on pandas on my shelf. Really want to get the one about his first study, on lions in the Serengeti).

I borrowed this book from the public library.

Rating: 3/5              372 pages, 2012

by Johanna Verweerd
translated by Helen Richardson-Hewitt

I picked this one up at a free book exchange, because I thought it was about a garden. Well, there\’s a garden in it, but it\’s really part of the background. The main character, a lonely sombre woman called Ika, works for a landscape designer, she\’s planning a garden for a greenhouse setting, with careful selections to bloom in the dull, cold months. But not much of this is mentioned beyond her at the drawing board, and although there are suggestions at how important the small garden at her childhood home was to her, it\’s not a large part of the story, either. Most of it is about relationships- the strained, cold, unloving relationship Ika had with her parents (while her younger sister was cheerful and beloved). The narrative moves often between past and present, showing how Ika feels now and how memories arise of her miserable childhood. She had finally escaped her family\’s unloving environment, leaving home to work for a landscaper and rent her own small place, but now returns home over a decade later upon learning that her mother is very ill, probably dying. There\’s awkward quiet moments caring for her bedridden mother, brief conversations with her sister and some neighbors, the village doctor, the teacher from her old school- all slowly piecing together her past. Why it was so painful and unhappy. Why she still feels burdened by those feelings. It wasn\’t until the very last pages that the dark secret of her childhood finally came to light- and the answer wasn\’t shocking, or very satisfying either. I really wish there had been more to the story about her slowly growing hope in the new life of young plants as she cared for the garden, but this seemed to be more a metaphor stuck in, for the unfolding hope in her heart that she could build a new life for herself. Mostly it is stilted and understated, full of unexplained resentments and quiet suffering. I suppose a lot of the stiff feeling could be because I read a translated text, but perhaps it is just this author\’s style, as well- understatement, things told and not much shown. I just – didn\’t really get a strong feeling for most of it.

Also, it\’s a book with religious themes. It really didn\’t detract from the story for me, but it didn\’t add a lot either- I suppose because phrases and quoted scriptures which seemed to have a lot of weight and meaning for the characters- just didn\’t for me. I felt like there was a depth of intent there, which I wasn\’t picking up on. I failed to really grasp the more current relationships, either- the new friendship Ika had with her employer, the warmth she felt meeting her sister\’s husband and her nephew for the first time- it was all stated, not really felt. At least by this reader.

Rating: 2/5                    269 pages, 1995

the Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat
by Barbara J. King

This book looks at the lives of animals we humans tend to eat: fish, chickens, goats, cows and pigs. It also starts off with a chapter on insects- is it better to eat insects than mammals, because they need fewer resources (lighter burden on the planet), and have less apparent intelligence? maybe- but most people in the western world can\’t get over their repugnance. On the flip side, I can\’t think of anyone who would eat chimpanzee meat, for entirely different reasons- but the author tells us there definitely are people who do, in other parts of the world. There\’s also a chapter on octopus, how smart they are, how much a delicacy in certain cultures- but having not-too-long ago read Sy Montgomery\’s the Soul of an Octopus– which is quoted plenty in here- I found myself skipping through a lot of it. In fact that was a damper for me in most of the book- I\’ve also read several Michael Pollan books, Jonathan Safran Foer\’s Eating Animals and Barry Estabrook\’s Pig Tales, plus several others which are quoted or heavily referenced here. So although the author brought in a lot of personal experiences and incidents I hadn\’t heard of, still much of the material felt repetitive to me, not a lot new, and I skimmed plenty. I also gather that much of it was first written as a blog, which might have something to do with how brief and light some of the writing feels to me. It\’s also strong on the emotional slant, in giving reasons for moving away from eating meat and being vegetarian or vegan. However there was enough of interest in here – and some very convincing rationales I hadn\’t though of before- that I read it all the way through, regardless of the skips. So please don\’t take my rating to heart this time; it\’s more my personal response to the book because I already felt fairly saturated with this kind of information, than anything else. I think I need to switch subject matters for a while.

I was really horrified by the story of Mike the headless chicken by the way- just google that, if you will. Even worse is the fact that after this chicken gained fame (and money) for his owner, lots of other men tried to duplicate the curiosity- killing tons of chickens just to try and get one that would freakishly survive it. What??!

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5                 229 pages, 2017

An Outdoor Family\’s Year on the Water, in the Woods and at the Table
by Dylan Tomine

This book was very enjoyable. It\’s about a family that does a lot of what I wish I did more of- forage, grow, harvest and catch their own food. Well, they benefit by living right by the ocean- literally five minutes from a boat ramp. They go crabbing, fishing, deer hunting, gather mussels, dig clams, hunt chanterelles and pick berries in the forest, and grow a vegetable garden. The father is passionate about finding and cutting deadfall trees to heat their house all year round. Not all trees are equal in this- I didn\’t realize by how much. Not all goes as planned- but Tomine writes with wry humor his own mishaps, and describes in glowing tones his small triumphs, and wow the food sounds delectable all round (this book makes me hungry.) His kids get muddy, wet, cold and tired- and are happily involved, delighted in their part. They are always eager to try one more fishing spot, drop one more crab pot. They point out the lovely things alone the way- porpoises and seals in the Sound, birds on the water, when dad often just wants to find the thing they came to catch and get it home again- kids make you slow down and appreciate the doing of it. He talks about the tricky balance between trying to live \”green\” and being practical about it- especially when it comes to what kind of car they drive, and where they source materials for an addition to their house. It\’s honest about how much one can do- when their tomato crop fails due to blight, they recognize it\’s okay- they don\’t solely live off their garden produce, and they have a ton of stuff growing wonderfully even when the tomatoes didn\’t make it. It\’s about doing what you can to be good to the Earth, living close to nature and making the most of the available bounty. It also makes me nostalgic, being written by a man who lives on an island in Puget Sound- right around where I grew up. I heartily recommend this book to my siblings and parents- I\’m sure they would really appreciate it.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                  230 pages, 2012

the Life and Death of a Grizzly Bear
by Bryce Andrew

This book is gritty honest and sobering about the conditions that pitch grizzly bears and man into conflict, but also full of beautifully lyrical writing about the landscape, people and animals. It really makes you feel you are there. The author writes about a particular valley in Montana where bears have been strongly attracted by the richness of crops, feeding on apple trees and gophers in fields instead of staying up on the mountainside eating things like cutworms and berries. Some bears discovered corn, and more and more came every year to ravage corn fields- and they are extremely dangerous because invisible inside the tall corn. The author became involved helping a rancher experiment with new fencing around his corn field, hoping to keep the bears out before the corn ripened. He writes about why bears in corn is bad all around- not only bringing them into conflict with people, causing huge amounts of crop damage and loss, making the bears unhealthy (corn is more fattening than their natural foods), young bears learning this as a prime food source which could put them in lifelong trouble with people. He brings his parents (artists and writers) to visit the field and see the bears, noting their different perspectives on the situation. He accompanies law enforcement to seek out a man who shot one particular female bear, maiming it in an awful way that left it suffering for months on end. He visits with leaders of a tribal group on a local reservation, to learn from and work with them resolving bear conflicts. And finally, he follows the fate of two young grizzlies – presumably orphaned by the injured bear. It all winds up in a sad place, was my thought.

Illustrated with black and white photographs. I borrowed this book from the public library. Similar read: True Grizz.

Rating: 4/5             274 pages, 2019

by Mary Stewart

Took myself by surprise, here. The book is a mystery and a romance- genres I don\’t usually read, but I could not put it down regardless. The characters are well-written, the situation intriguing, the descriptions of place vivid and real. Heroine is a young woman named Bryony, who grew up on an old family estate- now slowly falling into ruin, held together by a trust established by one of the family ancestors, and part of it rented out to strangers. Bryony had been living away from home for a while, but hurries back at news of her father\’s sudden death- and hears from their lawyer that the estate will now pass into the hands of her older cousin Emory. There\’s several older male cousins- Bryony has always found them rather attractive (this is back in the day when it was okay to marry your cousin?) and she wonders if one of them is he who has spoken with her telepathically since she was a child. It\’s a family gift handed down from a gypsy woman who married into the family once- but for Bryony it is much more than just an exchange of thoughts. She feels so close to the one she\’s been mentally communicating with, she calls him her lover, even though they\’ve never met in person. I found this- really odd and uncomfortable- especially with the idea it was her cousin- and I don\’t usually like stories that include paranormal elements at all- so that tells you what a darn good writer Stewart is, to get me intrigued anyway.

Well, Bryony finds a lot of subtly suspicious things going on when she gets home to the estate. She starts to wonder who is lurking in the shadows, who her \”lover\” really is, and was her father\’s death an accident- or did someone purposefully run him down. His last words were written down and handed to her- they seem to include a warning and she\’s determined to figure it out. Meanwhile, there\’s a wealthy American family living in the better part of the huge old house, Bryony soon meets them and that was pretty interesting- sorry to say I sometimes find English opinions of Americans to be rather- disparaging? – but this one was admiring and astute. She also meets some childhood friends who still live nearby, peruses old books in the near-empty library in search of clues (there\’s some lovely literary references, I always like it when characters in books are well-read), and puzzles out the overgrown maze in the center of the garden- which might also hide secrets to some long-ago obscured scandal.

I won\’t say more, except that this story surprised me at so many turns. What was hidden at the center of the maze- I really thought it was going to have some magical properties- an ancient curse perhaps- but the truth turned out to be much more matter-of-fact! Who the un-met lover was- this part surprised me too, but I also found it very satisfying. The cousins turned out to be nasty fellows, and really deserved what they got in the end, I thought. I don\’t know if I\’d pick this one up again- I\’m still a bit weirded out by the closeness of cousins and the telepathy stuff- but if I ever feel game to read a mystery again, I\’ll probably reach for a Mary Stewart.

Rating: 3/5             336 pages, 1976

more opinions: Indextrious Reader

Animorphs #22
by K.A. Applegate

This book was really tense! It wraps up the \”David trilogy.\” The newer Animorph is obviously a dangerous loose end. He quits the team for good, but his very existence is a danger to the others, not to mention he obviously intends to use his morphing powers for crime and gain, and now he wants to get his hands back on the blue box that grants those powers. It is really strange to see the Animorphs facing danger from one who wields their own abilities- you can see how they\’ve managed to hold on so long against the alien enemy, even though small in numbers and only teenagers. David can easily threaten them, sneak in amongst them unseen, he could be anywhere, any time. He infiltrates Rachel and Jake\’s extended family in a very clever and disturbing way. It makes it doubly hard for the team to get rid of him- but also more determined to do so. They have to be very careful and smart to outwit one of their own- and meanwhile still have to put a stop to the summit where the enemy are trying to get at the heads of five different nations. Which they decide to do in a ridiculously straightforward fashion, since their last attempt using subterfuge didn\’t work at all. More significant to me than all the action, though, was the constant second-guessing Rachel (the narrator) did. She finds herself questioning why Jake specifically puts her in situations that call for threats, violence and even ruthless behavior, to get the better of David. She\’s angered and frightened by the knowledge that there is a dark side to her character that enjoys the challenge of a fight, and upset that the other members of the team might see her that way too. Also it becomes clear that Jake is starting to stragetically use his friends as team members for their specific abilities- they don\’t always like what that entails or suggests about them.

There aren\’t really any new morphs in this book. David uses the snake, they all morph birds of prey at some point, they morph dolphins and a whale at one point- battling David as an orca at sea- he\’s trying to kill them off- and several of the Animorphs acquire elephant and rhinoceros forms to (literally) crash into the summit. Rachel morphs the rat in order to lead David into a trap. None of these were really described in detail- and I rather missed that. However it was nice to have far fewer of the drawn-out sound effects written in! (I think this is among the first of the Animorphs books that were ghost-written- most of the second half of the series weren\’t directly authored by Applegate).

Rating: 3/5               152 pages, 1988

more opinions:
Arkham Reviews
Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales

Animorphs #21
by K.A. Applegate

Warning for SPOILERS.

Most of this book takes place at a summit, where the Animorph team are desperately trying to thwart the aliens\’ attempts to take over the minds of several leaders of the world, without being detected by the human security in place. It\’s confusing. Especially all the levels of holograms that occur. Deviousness galore. Not just on the enemy\’s part- also apparently from one of their own. David, the newer Animorph member, proves himself more and more untrustworthy. He has an unpleasant, look-out-for-yourself mentality, an unpalatable glee in watching fights, an obvious callousness to animal suffering. At one point he wonders aloud to Jake which animal would win in a fight: lion or tiger? (David has a lion morph). The summit turns out to be a huge trap, the Animorphs once again confront Visser Three face-to-face, David ends up exposing himself as being human, and in a moment of visceral fear, pleads for his life and caves in to the enemy- admitting he\’d go over to their side. But they manage to get away and later he tells the Animorphs it was all a sham, he\’d never do that. Now this kid has nothing to loose, though- his parents are controlled by Yeerks, the enemy knows his face, he can never go home again. He has to live in hiding or morph other humans (something he has no qualms about doing). Makes it clear to the others that he doesn\’t care about their fight, he\’ll use his morphing powers for gain any way he wants (already having done so to some degree) and he threatens Tobias\’ life (I yelped aloud when I read that page near the end). Yet already I was suspicious enough about David\’s motives I wondered if that, too, was a sham- did he, as a golden eagle, attack and tear apart a random hawk, to make the Animorphs think he\’d killed Tobias? the book ends with the Animorphs new and old turning against each other, a battle between lion and tiger (in the mall) in the dead of night, while Ax races to get Rachel for help, and Tobias is ominously silent to all communication attempts. It\’s a very tense cliffhanger ending-I have to read on.

Rating: 3/5                  158 pages, 1998

more opinions:
Arkham Reviews
Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales

a Memoir in Thirteen Animals
by Sy Montgomery

This little book is deeply personal. I\’ve read quite a bit of Sy Montgomery, and always been impressed. It\’s very obvious she loves animals and feels a close connection to them; this book explains why. Montgomery tells about the dog she loved as a child, problems in the family she grew up in (although she loves them very much) and how inspired and comforted she felt by the animals around her. She tells of the study on emus in Australia that changed the direction of her life, the huge lovable pig she adopted and cared for during fourteen years, a series of border collies she and her husband lived with- each strikingly different in personality and needs. She tells of assisting with a study on tree kangaroos in Papua New Guinea, of encountering and holding a giant tarantula in French Guiana, how delicate and beautiful this arachnid was, that most would fear. Of a dazzling fierce weasel that raided her chicken coop one winter- and how she admired it, in spite of the sorrow the chicken\’s death brought her. And there is the octopus. At first approach, I thought this book was sweet, a lovely affirmation of the connection people can have with other animals. But it is also very sobering- later in the book she tells how the death of some she was very close to, contributed to her plunge into a deep depression, her thoughts of suicide, and how encounters with other animals helped pull her out of that. I didn\’t know I was going to read about this. So brave of her to write. So important, the other lives around us that touch us for good or ill- the creatures that share our world are so very different, and so much the same.

The illustrations by Rebecca Green are simple, but very charming and expressive. I borrowed this book from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                 200 pages, 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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