Month: November 2020

the Ultimate Illustrated Guide 

by Gloria Stephens 

     A showcase of some forty-seven cat breeds (I think there\’s a newer edition as someone else\’s review on LibraryThing mentioned fifty-one). It has a short intro with basics of a cat\’s body, very brief history of the species\’ evolution, and then a more detailed explanation of genetics that determine the many breeds\’ eye color, coat color and pattern, plus some of the unusual traits (like curled ears, bobbed tails or hairlessness). I read through the entire section on genetics because hey, I like to learn stuff- but I did not get it. I felt like the author, who herself is a cat breeder, knows the subject so well she doesn\’t realize how little ordinary people grasp it. I then read the entire glossary so I\’d understand all the unfamiliar words, and some of it is still incomprehensible to me. Well, that\’s fine, because the photographs by Tetsu Yamazaki are really what make this book stunning. Most of the book is breed profiles, many with two or three pages showing different colors and expressions of the breed, very beautiful and expressive pictures. My nine-year-old demanded that I give her this book when she caught me in the middle of reading it, because she wanted to look at all the adorable kitties! (I refused and loaned her my cat encyclopedia for bedtime reading; tonight we\’re going to trade).

There\’s one odd page, right before the glossary, that has a blurry graphic of a cat running, black with red outline- very rough and feel completely out-of-place in a book full of exquisite photographs. Why they didn\’t just put another cat photo on that page- like on the title page and front flap- I don\’t get. Also, I learned a sad fact about the Manx- correct me if I\’m wrong, but it sounds like the gene for tailless is dominant, and must be paired with a recessive gene for regular tail, which makes the cat born with no tail. If there are both dominant genes, the kittens die before they\’re born because the spine never forms completely. So that\’s why the Manx is rare, because so many kittens die for every healthy Manx that lives. I think that\’s very sad. (The Japanese bobtail has a different gene that causes its short tail, with no issues). Also I was surprised the book didn\’t mention health issues for other breeds- Persians and exotic shorthairs having flat faces which affects their breathing, for example.
Some photos in the book show cats in home settings, and this one is my favorite:
Rating: 3/5              137 pages, 1990

Medicine and What Matters in the End 

by Atul Gawande

     Traditionally, people used to live with their grown children or extended families when they grew old and became incapacitated. Now it\’s far more common (at least here) for the elderly to live in nursing homes or assisted living units. There\’s also the option of in-home hospice care, but I think what few would really want is where many end up in their final moments- holding on until the very end suffering from unpleasant procedures or unconscious, tethered in a hospital bed. This very thoughtful and sobering book looks at all those scenarios, describing the history of how nursing homes and assisted living became a thing, looking at how they\’ve changed over the years, and examining whether those options really are in the best interest of the elderly people they serve. The doctor (I must read more by him!) also looks carefully at what people actually want as the end of their lives draws near- what\’s most important to them, and how can it be achieved. It\’s not always seeking every last treatment that has the smallest chance of a positive outcome. It\’s usually the simple things that begin to matter most- being close to family and friends, maintaining some autonomy, feeling like their lives have had worth . . . There are a lot of poignant examples from people Dr. Gawande has known- his own acquaintances, patients, friends, and finally, in a very personal and moving account, his own father. It\’s difficult to read at times and makes you think about the hard things that nobody really wants to discuss, but points out how important those discussions are before they become crucial. I\’m very glad I read this.

Rating: 4/5             282 pages, 2014
More opinions:

by Beverly Keller 

     Amusing little story about a kingdom with a foolish king, a smart but drab princess, and a lurking dragon on the mountain. They all get into a mess of trouble when a sorcerer is brought in to deal with the dragon (who doesn\’t want to fight knights or eat sacrificial victims). The sorcerer has soon ousted the king, banished the king\’s advisor and locked all the knights in the dungeon. It\’s up to the princess and a few stout young men to defeat the sorcerer, if they can only free the dragon! First he gets trapped under a landslide in his own cave, then he gets shrunk by the sorcerer and locked in a birdcage. It\’s funny and quirky, but events move through the scenes so fast I sometimes wondered what the heck was going on. There\’s secret identities and unspoken love interests (which I didn\’t at all see coming, so that threw me a bit at the end). I did like a lot of the wordplay, especially when characters offered other words in rapid succession when they didn\’t understand what someone said- made me chuckle. My favorite character was the grumpy dragon, however after his second entrapment he doesn\’t do much. A quick read. 

Rating: 2/5                        144 pages, 1984

by Tatiana de Rosnay

     This novel has two overlapping storylines, in alternating chapters (until near the end, when it drops to one perspective). The first is about a young Jewish girl who lives in Paris. It\’s 1942, and when French police come in the middle of the night collecting Jewish families on orders of the Germans, Sarah\’s terrified four-year-old brother hides in a secret cupboard in the wall of their bedroom. She locks him in and pockets the key, promising to come back when the police let them go. But of course, they never do let them go. Sarah ends up in a camp, eventually separated from her parents, suffering from hunger, deplorable conditions, and horrific sights. All the while desperate to escape and return to the apartment where her little brother is waiting in the dark. It\’s such a sad story. The other storyline is modern time, about an American-born woman Julia, who lives in Paris working as a journalist. She is writing an article for the anniversary recognizing the day over 10,000 Parisian Jews were taken from their homes, an event which most locals around her seem to want to forget. She has a hard time finding people who remember the day and will actually talk to her. Her research leads her to the names of Sarah\’s family, and then it turns out she has a personal connection to the apartment where the little boy was left in the cupboard. As the two stories continue to dovetail, Sarah trying to find out what happened to her brother, and Julia attempting to track down the remnant\’s of Sarah\’s family, there\’s also a lot about how Julia\’s marriage is slowly unraveling, and how her life is changed by her research into the events of sixty years ago.

I thought I wasn\’t going to like this one, honestly- I had the impression it was over-hyped back in the day when it was all over the book blogs. Actually, it\’s a good read, very heartfelt, and I\’m glad that the ending didn\’t have the final pat coincidence I thought I saw coming. It\’s been a long while since I read a Holocaust story. They\’re often hard for me to get through. This one was a fairly easy read and worth it.
Rating: 3/5              293 pages, 2007
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by Camron Wright 

     Based on a real place, but the story is fictional. About a family in Cambodia that lived on the outskirts of the largest waste dump in the country- making a meager living by picking through the trash for recyclables. Each day they barely earn enough to eat that night, and their young child is chronically ill. Sang Ly, the mother, despairs about the misery of her life- until she suddenly finds out that the short-tempered drunk woman who collects their rent (for a shack made out of tarps and cardboard on the edge of a cesspool) is literate. She convinces this woman to teach her to read- hoping it will somehow help her family improve their circumstances.

It does, but not at all in the way I expected. I thought- oh, they\’ll be able to read instructions on the medicines foreign doctors at free clinics keep giving them, that never seem to work, or they\’ll learn that having to pay rent for the crummy place where they live is a scam, or they\’ll be able to leave the dump and find better employment, thanks to becoming literate. Nope. Instead, woven through the whole length of the book are lessons on living true to yourself, making the best choices, rising above your circumstances, etc- all presented in the snippets of poetry and literature that the rent collector teaches to Sang Ly. Who, by the way, learned to read incredibly fast and was soon presented with summarized versions of Moby Dick and Romeo and Juliet by her teacher. I found that really hard to swallow the idea that her reading skills would have progressed so quickly. There are many Cambodian fables and myths as well- including their version of the Cinderella story- which I enjoyed and found very interesting. As the relationship between Sang Ly and her teacher grows more trusting, she starts to learn things about the rent collector\’s past- which makes everything start to appear in a different light. The ending has some very tidy connections, that are emotional but also a tad unbelievable. Through the novel there are glimpses of other aspects of life in Cambodia- a bit about the horrific history of the Khmer Rouge (which I know a little of from watching The Killing Fields), a look at life in the countryside when Sang Ly visits family, mention of child trafficking when an orphan girl in the dump faces the threat of being sold into prostitution by her older brother who\’s in a gang. I was puzzled when Sang Ly\’s child was given a traditional cure by a healer- and then afterwards seem miraculously better. My western brain tried to figure out how this worked- and my best guess was that the healer fed the child charcoal mixed into paste which absorbed some toxins the child had in its body from living in a waste dump his whole life. But really, who knows. I don\’t have to have an explanation, it\’s a story.
I really liked the parts about literature, even if they stretched my sense of belief somewhat. Aspects of the story- how learning to read opened up the world for this young woman and her family- reminded me somewhat of The Book Thief. Totally different setting and circumstances, but similar message about how books and knowledge can change lives. But- reading some other reviews (especially on LibraryThing) and finding out how about the author\’s inspiration for this story- how much he appropriated from a poor family who probably never saw any benefit- makes me feel uneasy about liking it. 

Rating: 3/5           271 pages, 2012
More opinions:

the Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit 

by Michael Finkel

     I hadn\’t heard of this story before- in 1986 a young man named Christopher Knight drove as far as he could on back roads in rural Maine, left his car depleted of gas, and walked into the forest. Eventually he found a hidden clearing in some very thick tangled trees and brush, where he made a camp and lived alone for nearly three decades. Very like Into the Wild. This Chris however, was successful for a long time. He had survival skills, he was adept at moving quietly through the trees without leaving tracks, and he had a steady source of supplies- stealing from nearby vacation cabins around a lake. Was ashamed of his thievery but kept doing it- for twenty seven years!- until finally he was caught. He only wanted to be alone, to live in solitude, he never accepted handouts people offered on their porches when they got tired of the break-ins. He suffered a lot living out there in the winter- from hunger and cold for months on end. Kept himself occupied by reading books and magazines (stolen of course), listening to a radio or just sitting quietly thinking. Once apprehended he was incarcerated for a while, then forced to live in society again. Where this journalist found him and gained his trust enough to be able to write his story (but later kept approaching him when Chris obviously asked to be left alone). It also includes the perspective of the vacation home-owners around the lake, some of whom constantly felt uneasy, or their children fearful of the thief, while at their cabins. There are brief examinations of various people who have lived in seclusion throughout history and what compels them to do so, and some criticism of Walden. Many people who profess to be modern-day hermits shun the North Pond Hermit (as he became known by those in the area) for his criminal ways. The story is kind of a quandry for me. I get a lot of what Chris said- I\’m an introvert myself, I know what it\’s like to feel more comfortable in quiet places, apart from the noise and bustle and pretense of general society. As a kid I used to daydream about living in the woods off survival skills (but knew very well I didn\’t have any!) But to do so for decades by stealing- this man did so literally hundreds of times, from some thirty families- even though it was for the most part inexpensive items- I can\’t condone that.  There\’s several news articles about him if you do a quick search.

Rating: 3/5            192 pages, 2017

and Other Writings

by Henry David Thoreau

I finally read this, after two previous attempts (years ago) and a break in the middle for something easier. My copy contains not only Walden: or Life in the Woods but also Civil Disobedience, Slavery in Massachusetts, A Plea for Captain John Brown and Life Without Principle.

Here’s the thing: this is not at all what I expected. I always thought it was some wonderful if slightly archaic nature writing full of observations on the weather, birds and creatures, growing things etc. Not really. It’s a lot more about politics (as they were back then), protests on slavery, umbrage at modern developments ruining mankind (there’s pages and pages about how the train makes people hurry and rush about), how government should or should not affect our lives, why people should be engaged in something useful and soul-lifting instead of just working to earn money, etc. He criticizes his fellow man a lot. He does mention a few birds here and there, how peaceful it is to just sit under the trees, how much he appreciates the simple life. But he wasn’t far off in the woods in isolation. Tons of people visited him all the time it sounds like, really curious what he was doing out there by himself. The train ran very close to his cabin, the pond was a regular fishing spot for many, farmers and kids out picking berries walked close by, and he could hear cattle in the adjacent fields. It was walking distance to the village. He eschewed coffee and other so-called luxuries to live pretty much just off what he grew or gathered (I think): mainly his beans, and fish he caught. I thought there I would relate, there’s a whole chapter about cultivating the bean plants and I\’m a gardener too, but nope. It starts out about hoeing the beans and how nicely meditative that task can be, but soon unravels into other lofty topics that supposedly relate to what bean plants with their nice broad leaves made him think of but I can’t make head or tails out of it.
That was my main problem. Thoreau is very much a philosopher and it either makes my mind wander, or go in circles, or I have to read a passage three, four, five times in a row and I still don’t get what he was saying. So many pages of this book I was actually thinking about something else as the printed words marched through my head unheeded (so now I know how a fellow book-blogger could sing while she reads, which I didn’t comprehend before). The parts I liked? where Thoreau describes in detail the ice on the pond, the air bubbles in it, the way it forms and later on breaks up in the springtime, the industry of hired people who come to cut blocks of it, harvesting for use in summer- people had ice-boxes back then, not fridges and freezers, so this was interesting to read how that was done and how it was stored to prevent melting. How mud makes weird shapes during the spring thaw (but again he turned this into some lyrical comparison I did not get). The voices of owls, a mouse that got used to his presence, the geese he observed on the pond and fish under the clear water. I liked reading how he undertook to plumb and measure the pond’s depth, as people in the vicinity claimed it was bottomless, but nobody had ever really tried find out. I liked a lot of his sentiments and agreed with many of his opinions on what’s valuable in life etc, but it sure was tough to wade through all the words. Philosophy and political rants are really not my thing.
Note on below: this is obviously one of those great books which I personally have difficulty appreciating. I didn’t exactly enjoy reading it, though I do feel enriched by it. It was pretty hard to get through. If it had been easier and more enjoyable, definitely would have given it a 4. The publication dates noted span the five works in this volume.
Rating: 3/5
368 pages, 1849-1863

by Glenn Balch

     I was hesitant to try this one after the last disappointment I had with Glenn Balch, but knew upon the first page that this edition hadn\’t been dumbed down or abridged. And it\’s quite different from other horse stories I\’ve read- so even though some parts felt predictable and the children\’s dialog a bit stilted (because English was their second language in the story) I found it likable enough. The main character is Jan, a boy whose family fled Latvia due to war. They settle uneasily in America, working on someone\’s farm. But this isn\’t lush green pastures with flowers and chickens running around like they were used to back home- it\’s dry sparse range country. Their main task is to tend a grain field, but the boy Jan longs to see and ride horses. He\’s jealous of the ranch owner\’s son, who can drive a truck, has a fancy rifle, a good horse, and roping skills. When Jan\’s mother wishes for warmer winter blankets, the boy makes traps to catch wild ducks and geese on a nearby body of water. He has no idea that in this new country there are laws protecting animals that don\’t belong to anyone, that he\’s trapping illegally out of season. When game wardens show up questioning the family, Jan basically panics. He remembers that his brother and grandfather back in Latvia were taken away by authorities for breaking some law, and never returned. He doesn\’t want to die at the hands of police or soldiers (so he imagines) so at night he grabs some supplies and runs away into the hills.

There he holes up for a while in an abandoned dugout shelter he finds by chance. Soon notices a band of wild horses that regularly grazes nearby, and realizes the golden-colored stallion must be the wild horse ranch kids talked about back home- everyone seemed to want to catch and own that stallion. Jan figures out how to survive in the wild (reminscent of Hatchet), and is planning to cross the mountain range where he hopes he can find work and nobody will have heard about his poaching mishap. But something holds him back- he sees a cougar stalking the horse herd, and comes across the bodies of colts it killed. He loves watching the young colts play and determines to protect them, by hunting down the cougar. (This part of the story reminded me so much of The White Puma). The big cat is secretive and intelligent, so this takes a long time. But when Jan finally deems the horses are safe from predation, he still can\’t leave- for now the horses have become used to his presence and he thinks maybe he has a chance to catch the golden stallion. His sister found out where he\’s living and brings him food supplies, she also brings him a rope when he tells her about seeing the wild stallion. However he hesitates to just throw the rope over the horse- instead determines to win its trust- by hanging out with the horses day after day they come to accept him until finally he can make his move to capture the stallion.
But when he finally has the wild horse under his control, he realizes it is unhappy to be separated from the band of mares. He feels guilty for taking the stallion away from the life it\’s always known, and also wonders how he will take care of it if he travels on across the mountains, or if it will attract too much attention- being such a fine horse for a boy (except it\’s actually rather dirty and scruffy now). The final chapter is Jan deliberating what to do- and because it\’s a kid\’s book I guessed what would be his final move. Would have liked to see a bit more closure on that, what the consequence or reactions were, but oh well.
I do have to say, a key component of Jan\’s plan to approach the wild horses and get them used to him, took me by complete surprise. In fact it\’s a little shocking and not for the squeamish. I wonder how well it might have worked in a real situation.

Rating: 3/5                     192 pages, 1963

a Wildlife Drama in Central Park 

by Marie Winn

    In 1991, a rather light-colored red-tailed hawk was spotted by some regular bird-watchers in NYC\’s Central Park. Observers were excited to see the hawk engage in courtship display and win a mate. Their first nesting attempt was foiled by mobbing crows, but the next year the pair built a new nest on the side of a building, an unusual site for red-tailed hawks to choose. They laid eggs which failed to hatch, but later on had success- and eager bird-watchers counted the chicks, watched the parents going to and fro to feed them, witnessed the young hawks\’ first flight. Meanwhile they also did all they could to protect the birds without disturbing them- stepping in when the city poisoned rats and pigeons, or when maintenance workers attempted to remove the nest. The notably pale hawk is a mainstay through the story, but had several different mates in a row- and one that apparently returned to him later on- because some of them met with misfortune. The book isn\’t all about the hawks though- in fact I\’d say it\’s more about birds of all kinds in Central Park and the people- from dedicated scientists and locals to visiting tourists who never took an interest before. There are downy woodpeckers, saw-whet owls, flickers, green herons, killdeer and one rare seagull escaped from a zoo mentioned in particular, and many many more species mentioned just as sightings. The account as a whole is really engaging and lovely to read, although I felt the title and jacket description a bit misleading since the hawks aren\’t the entire focus of it. The hawk pair became pretty famous for thriving and raising so many young year after year in the heart of New York City; if you just do a search for Pale Male you can find plenty of websites with photos or video and more books about him. 

Rating: 3/5                   333 pages, 1998
More opinions: Living 2 Read
anyone else?

by T.H. White

     Relates a time when the author bought a young wild goshawk and attempted to tame it, using several old books on falconry as a guide- with outdated methods. I am not, of course, a falconer myself but I\’ve read just enough about it to recognize when things were going wrong. White admired and loved the bird for its fierce beauty, but also seemed to mostly want to dominate it and take pride in forcing it to his will- so it seemed to be all one step forward and two steps back. He didn\’t have a mentor and succumbed to very human failings- frustration, impatience, brash decisions. Some of the scenes are hard to read, I cringed for the bird. But there\’s also riveting descriptions, and interesting little asides (also many that really wandered or at least I had no frame of reference). My favorite passage was how the hawk carefully examined water when once he was set on a board in a small pool, and eventually dipped his feathers to bathe. I liked very much the author\’s joy and satisfaction in figuring out and making things to use in his endeavors. Also appreciated how brutally honest the whole account was- White tells at the end, how later on he successfully trained other hawks (using more modern methods I gather) and explains plainly how many of his efforts didn\’t work and why, in hindsight. If I hadn\’t read H is for Hawk I might not have approached this one, so I\’m very glad I read the other first, as it gave me more perspective. 

Rating: 4/5            215 pages, 1951
more opinions: Vulpes Libris
anyone else?

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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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