Month: January 2021

A Novel in Letters 

by Mark Dunn

I’ve had this book on my shelf for some two years, but hesitated reading it because well, from some reviews it just sounded too gimicky. It was- and it wasn’t. Very clever the wordplay, plenty of charm and humor throughout and yet how sobering the underlying message. The premise starts out with something rather ridiculous- there’s a small self-governing island where everybody loves language and letter-writing. It was founded by the man who created the famous pangram (a sentence using all the letters of the alphabet) the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. He’s so revered there’s a statue to him with the sentence below in tiles. One day a tile falls off: the letter Z.

The ruling Council declares that this must be a sign from their dead founder, who now wishes them to all quit using the letter Z, whether speaking or writing. The citizens don’t see that as much hardship and go along. But then more letters start to fall, and one after another is banned from use. The Council puts in place serious punishments for those who don’t comply. As the story is told in letters written between some of the island inhabitants, you can see how the restrictions of language starts to make things fall apart. At first people just choose different words to avoid problematic ones- making for sentences full of interesting word choices- I had to look so many up! Then their sentences get less prosaic and descriptive, more brief and to the point. Eventually so many letters are banned they have to substitute numerals, or use creative phonetic spelling (which was a bit tricky to puzzle out in the final pages). Some people outright give up and quit writing at all. Also as the governing Council tightens its control on people you see how they all respond- some quickly report each other for infractions, others band together and help those in need. The library is shut down, schools soon close, people deliberately leave the island, or are forced out- and so other business start to fail as there are fewer customers. Suspicions abound.
However there’s a possible solution- as the original revered pangram was presumed divine simply because it was so unique, if someone can come up with a new sentence using all the letters (without anything superfluous), it will prove the founder wasn’t godlike. (Because at this point, most of the Council were treating it like a religion and getting fanatical about things).
I thought the solution just so clever as the rest of the book- especially how it was discovered (made me laugh though, because the detail it came from was something I’d wondered earlier why it was in the book at all). I didn’t really get a sense of any characters in this story told through letters though- my focus first being what they were saying (especially when I had to figure out the meanings of invented or oddly phonetic words), and the second being what the letters told me about what was happening to the society at large. The individuals, I kind of just glossed over them.

Ella Minnow Pea has been reviewed all over the book blogs. Below is just a sampling:

Rating: 4/5                            208 pages, 2001

by Janet Taylor Lisle

     Hillary is intrigued when the girl who lives in the house behind her shows her tiny little cottages built of leaves and twigs. Sara-Kate tells her in whispers they were built by elves, and soon has Hillary wrapped into the imaginary world of the elf village. The other kids at school scorn the idea, and talk unkindly about Sara-Kate- her worn clothes, thin appearance and wild temper. Hillary listens uneasily to their warnings to stay away from Sara-Kate, but she wants to go back and see the elf village again, so slowly the two become friends. She\’s never invited inside Sara-Kate\’s house though, and never sees any lights on either, not even after dark. When Sara-Kate stops coming to school, Hillary worries something has happened and screws up her courage to knock on the door of the silent house. She\’s shocked to find that some of her friend\’s stories had a scrap of truth- Sara-Kate is in a rather desperate situation, but Hillary doesn\’t want to betray her friend by seeking help. She tries to offer some assistance herself, even though this means doing things she knows is wrong- stealing and lying to her parents. Soon an adult steps into the situation though, and then everything changes very quickly.

This story was compelling and in the end, rather sad. It\’s another that I read in one sitting, quite unable to put it down. While the exact nature of illness in Sara-Kate\’s household was never revealed, the hints are clear enough. More interesting is how completely Sara-Kate invented the details of the elf world for Hillary, drawing her back day after day with the curiosity and hope the magic would actually be real- all the while hiding her real difficulties. She left a mark on Hillary, too- who always looked more closely at things afterwards, who noticed tiny details others might skip over. Though it was just secondary material, I also liked the bits about her father\’s garden, the work he did there and how he missed it during the cold winter months. It was nice that Hillary found a way in the end, to conserve the elf village the two girls had worked so painstakingly on. And that she recognized the greatest lesson she learned from their strange friendship- that other people\’s reality might not be the same as yours, that you have to work hard and put aside your assumptions to truly see things from another\’s point of view. 

Rating: 4/5                       122 pages, 1989
anybody else?

by Phyllis Root

     This is a short J fiction book I picked up on a whim secondhand. It\’s about a young girl in a Native American tribe. At five years old, she\’s been living alone with her parents for some time. Her father leaves on a hunting trip and when he doesn\’t return, the mother goes out to find him. The girl Kiri waits and waits but nobody returns. A couple from another tribe comes across her tent and takes her in. She is at first shy in her new surroundings, not used to being around so many people in the new tribe. Kiri has a special ability to \”put herself into the eyes of others\”- I guess you would say she\’s an empath, able to deeply feel what others around her experience, and also to see the world through the eyes of animals. This can be useful- she can put herself into the eyes of a bird overhead and see something far off, for example. It\’s also hard to deal with in close quarters with other people, as when she can\’t avoid feeling the anger and resentment of a boy in the tribe named Garen. Seeing how disconcerted she is among others and recognizing her gift, the tribe\’s healer adopts her so she can live in relative seclusion in his tent, and learn his skills. But when she\’s asked to help him heal a sick person, she flinches away from the strong feelings of loneliness and pain that overwhelm her at the bedside. When Kiris turns thirteen, she has to go on a solitary journey to seek a spirit vision that will let her know what her purpose in life is, and her role in the tribe. She expects that it will be as a singer and healer. But she\’s afraid, doesn\’t feel ready for this responsibility. On the journey she runs into a storm and her boat is wrecked, leaving her stranded on a riverbank in unknown territory. So it turns into a survival story- how she finds food, builds a shelter, and so on. She finds an injured wolf, and tries to heal it. Then Garen shows up- he\’s been out on a spirit journey too, and he\’s hunting the wolf that she befriended. He\’s also half-starved and needs help. Kiri is torn between protecting her wolf companion or helping this disgruntled young man she\’s never really liked. Of course she does the right thing, even though it\’s hard- and when she finally reaches out to Garen with her healing skills, she finds to her surprise that they have something in common- a deep loneliness each has been carrying around for years.

In the end Kiri finally resolves having felt abandoned by her parents so long ago, and returns to her adopted tribe with confidence and peace. It\’s really a nice story with some complexity and depth of feeling I didn\’t expect for how short it is. I read it in one sitting. I really wished it had been twice as long- I wanted more of every aspect! There\’s also throughout the entire book, words like korlu and skirre which kind of threw me out of the narrative because I spent way too much time trying to figure out what they were. Every single animal in the story has a foreign word instead of English (and I have no idea if this is a real tribe depicted, or a made-up one). While there\’s a glossary, it doesn\’t say wolken- a wolf but instead wolken- an animal with slender legs, bushy tail, pointed nose, and keen eyesight and hearing. Is it a wolf? or did she befriend a fox? I just want to know and I wonder if kids would puzzle as much over this as I did, or just gloss over it and be absorbed in the story. The illustrations by Dennis McDermott are beautiful, rich with texture and detail that add a lot to the book.

Rating: 3/5            106 pages, 1992

by Beverley Nichols

     Delightful book written by an avid gardener who was famous in Britian. He wrote lots of books about his gardens- this is one of the later ones and frequently makes references to past events or plants he used to grow or things he mentioned in other volumes, but never in a way that left me feeling in the dark. This book seems to have a focus on flowers, in particular ones that he considered rare or at least less-well-known. There were of course lots of plants mentioned I have never grown or even heard of, but also plenty that I\’m familiar with, so I enjoyed learning new things all around. As even the familiar ones had interesting bits of info.

In particular, Nichols writes effusively about lilies, old style roses, clematis and various other climbers, dwarf sweet peas and nicotiana, flowers that are blue and many that are white, plants that have beautiful delicate scents and how they bring memories back so strongly, why he considers a water feature essential in a garden and what to do with it, irises, lamb\’s ears, rhododendrons, tulips and many many more. There are growing tips and little stories and many times I laughed aloud. I didn\’t really relate to the chapter on flower arrangements and the appendix at the back is a list of recommended nurseries and growers- all in Europe so not of much use to me. I did look some of them up out of curiosity and quite a few are still operating today. Would be nice to have an index but I took notes (it\’s been a long while since a gardening book prompted me to do that) on some things I want to remember. 

I would now someday like to have a pink-berried rowan tree, if it\’s feasible in my part of the world. Also Euphorbia lathyrus, or the \’mole plant\’. Not that I have moles, but because maybe it would keep the chipmunks from tunneling in certain areas. I\’ve been wanting to read Beverley Nichols for a while, very glad to have this book at last and now wish for all the others.

Rating: 4/5                            252 pages, 1963

by Betty Macdonald

       You know a book is going to be good when you’re already laughing aloud on page four. Very lively and funny, this. It’s about when Betty Macdonald lived on Vashon Island (across the sound from Seattle) with two daughters and her second husband. Time period is the late forties. Some things like doing the cooking and housework for a family with reluctant pre-teenagers, are awfully familiar and relatable. There are awkward houseguests and kids’ friends coming and going, changing fashions you can’t make sense of, hectic rushes to get out the door for school or work on time (in this case compounding by the narrow margin of trying to catch the ferryboat) and lazy weekend mornings. Babysitting for the neighbors, kids navigating their first jobs, fibbing about trouble in school . . . I’d feel like I was reading about a family I might have known growing up, or my own. Then there’s details about using a phone line shared with fourteen other households, frequent power outages, using a washing machine that’s a huge tub with a wringer (filled by hand), war shortages and news from overseas, Japanese neighbors that are never mentioned again after being “sent to internment camp”, and an incredibly casual attitude towards smoking that soundly reminded me this wasn’t of my time. And of course the styles. It mentions several times plans in the making for a floating bridge from Vashon to Seattle, which apparently this family looked forward to, as the ferry could be unreliable. Turns out it never happened as enough Vashon residents protested the bridge plans, not wanting their island to become built up and “commercialized”.
This book charmed me as The Egg and I did, because it’s set in a locale I know well, having grown up in the Seattle area. It’s a lot more like Macdonald’s other book Anybody Can Do Anything in tone. I kept alternately picturing the beach cabin near Copalis that my family spent holidays in when I was a kid, and my great-aunt’s place on the shores of Lake Washington, while reading this book. The rain and slippery trails on bluffs thick with huckleberries and oregon grape. The rocky shoreline and beaches where they dug clams  (a few recipes are included, which sound scrumptious). Beachcombing forays and attempts to garden on the hillside around their house. The antics of their dog, the constant quarrels of their children, and yet how calmly things fall together in the end. It was familiar and curiously unique at the same time. Fun.

I also have her book The Plauge and I, which fits between Anybody Can Do Anything and this one chronologically, but I skipped and read them out of order. Because when my nine-year-old year old saw The Plauge and I on the shelf she asked me, sounding quite appalled, if it was about corona, or maybe the black plague? (which we’ve discussed a few times). No, it’s about when the author had tuberculosis. Somehow that put me off reading it right now though.

Rating: 3/5               242 pages, 1954
More opinions: Blue-Hearted Bookworm
anybody else?

by Helen Hoover

This is a nice little book about whitetail deer in northern Minnesota. The author and her husband lived in a remote cabin in the woods. They habitually put out food for the birds and squirrels in winter and one particularly hard year, a starving deer showed up. They helped the buck survive- cutting cedar branches for it to eat (recognizing that corn would be too rich and a shock on its system). They named the deer Peter and he became very accustomed to hanging around their cabin, even stamping on the porch to demand food if it wasn’t set out yet. Before long other deer joined Peter in their yard, and then the Hoovers watched fawns appear with the doe they named Mama and grow up, several years in a row. The narrative describes the woods and other widlife- birds, squirrels, a bobcat and lynx that seemed to be companions, a moose that trampled their garden, a groundhog that ate cookies from their hands. A young bear that they were troubled to see tourists feeding (yet they had no qualms about feeding the deer and other wildlife themselves). Mostly though it’s about the deer, and the social interactions they observed which was really interesting- especially as I was able to connect some details with information I’d learned in Heart and Blood just prior. Sadly and not surprisingly, it turns out that the deer, now being partially tame, were more vulnerable to hunters who showed up even though it was private land with posted signs. In the end I think they regretting having fed the deer so regularly, and were relieved to see the animals grow more wary of people following the hunting season. The author has published several books with titles including A Place in the Woods and The Years of the Forest, which I’ll probably pick up if I come across them someday.

Rating: 3/5
210 pages, 1965

More opinions: Puss Reboots
anyone else?

Well, I made a new cover out of a book for my kindle paperwhite. Same method as last time, gluing the pages together into a solid block, tracing around the device and cutting the shape out with an xacto blade. Pressing and gluing again, making a notch for the on/off switch, and smoothing the inside edges with sandpaper. The first twenty pages or so came out neatly enough that I\’m saving them to use for grocery lists and notes.

The aftermath.

The result!

This time I did not sacrifice an actual published book, as you might notice. I happened to find this blank cashbook in the recess of my filing cabinet- no idea why I originally bought it (must have been over two decades ago) and certainly don\’t have any other use for it now. So I figured why not see if it will work for this. The outer edge of the page block did end up very narrow- I was worried it wouldn\’t be strong enough, but glued and pressed it twice and so far it seems sturdy.
For a while I was looking online for a suitable blank book to purchase and hollow out- maybe a journal with a particular kind of cover- but never could decide on one. Also I found listed on various sites many journals or sketchbooks made with the covers of books removed and restitched or glued to hold blank pages. I was dismayed to see the covers of books I\’ve read and loved myself- The Heart of a Dog by Albert Payson Terhune, Brighty of the Grand Canyon by Marguerite Henry, The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling, The Wizard of Oz, the Velveteen Rabbit, Anne of Green Gables, The Little Prince! Black Beauty! Charlotte\’s Web! Not kidding I saw all these rebound and more. I guess the people taking these books apart and reselling them as journals think nobody wants to actually read the originals- but it makes me upset. There\’s even sites where you can buy the covers of books already parted from their text content- as empty shells. In huge lots. 
Maybe I shouldn\’t let it bother me- I once did it myself. But now I can\’t bring myself to do it again. So I used this blank lined book that was a bit too small, and then put some vinyl lettering and pattern on the front,
and the spine. Not quite straight, but at a glance on my shelf it fits right in with all the other TBR books, you wouldn\’t necessarily notice it unless I pointed out the one that says So Many Books.

I\’ve run out of laminate sheeting which I was going to use over the cover, so the lettering doesn\’t peel off. Used packing tape instead. Some of it ended up with creases. And the spine got a little crushed under the stack I used to press it with. So it\’s not perfect. Still, it feels just like a book in my hand, though I haven\’t really tested it out by reading another e-book with it yet. Soon!

Living with Deer in America 

by Richard Nelson

Marvelous book. It looks at all sides of the relationships deer and people have in this country. The author is a hunter himself but holds great respect for the animals and their environment, which you can palpably feel in his personal descriptions. The opening and closing chapters detail time he spent in the woods with his border collie dog- whom he depends on for alerting him to the proximity of wildlife with her keen senses. He follows deer but also has a close encounter with a marten (riveting scene) and is tailed by a brown bear, and in the final pages tells of witnessing a doe actually giving birth. It\’s incredible. All the other chapters tell about deer, both from his research and personal experiences as he crosses the country witnessing how people live alongside or utilize the cervids. There is a chapter that tells of the evolutionary history of deer (more in brief than Whitetail Tracks) another that explains the difference between North America\’s three deer species, their physiology and way of life. Most of the book is about deer / human interactions, with far greater depth and understanding than I once gleaned from Nature Wars.

Nelson visits many areas in turn: first an island in Alaska where deer are being studied, and discusses the impacts of various types of studies in general- including whether or not their means are considered humane. (Some studies have deliberately allowed deer to starve, others subject wild deer to a lot of stress). He visits an island off the California coast, and another near New York, where deer populations have far outgrown the space, looking at the various methods used to attempt controlling population numbers and why they don\’t work. He goes to an area of Texas that has a very healthy deer population, where the wildlife live alongside cattle on ranches (they eat different plant types) and then are thinned each year by hunters who pay for access- and it\’s very specifically managed.. He accompanies several Wisconsin hunters on public lands, where the control is slightly different, and contrariwise, also goes along with a group of animal rights activists in a different part of Wisconsin, whose aim is to interrupt the hunters (very civilly done, I might add). The varied hunts include stalking deer through the forest on foot, sitting in tree platforms near open areas where deer might visit, and walking with a group of men on a drive across fields and hillsides. Finally, he visits farmland in southern Wisconsin, where deer are also hunted- in this case mostly to protect the crops. Which is a very serious thing- it sounds like not a single crop grown could be brought to reasonable harvest if deer are not fenced out (which is often impractical) or shot.
Overall I felt like this was a really well-rounded look at the deer situation, one approached with admiration for the animal, honest friendliness towards various types of people the author visited and interviewed, willingness to try and understand other points of view, interpretation of the science for laypeople like myself, and finally, a love for the beauty of the land and wildlife. I was struck by how time and time again, occasions were reported where deer that were troublesome in suburban areas were relocated in attempts to control their numbers- and what a failure that is. Some die of shock during handling, and most or all of the rest die within the first year of being moved. And it\’s expensive. Birth control for deer doesn\’t work, which is explained. Natural predators are for the most part missing, so it leaves human hunters to keep the population in check. Otherwise the deer destroy habitat leaving it unfit for other animals as well. Oh, and there\’s a chapter about forest growth, and how monocultures of trees replanted after logging usually don\’t support deer or other wildlife and why. The author himself personally witnessed the state of deer starving in winter in an overpopulated area; it sounds like the misery and suffering of the emaciated animals deeply affected him. He not-so-subtly hints that he disagrees with the animal rights people who assert that starvation is nature\’s way of handling the problem, opining that a hunter\’s precise mark which ends their lives quickly and gives them purpose as someone\’s dinner (for a family, it can supply a year\’s worth of protein) is a far more humane option.
I found that many of his sentiments closely harmonized what I read recently in Braiding Sweetgrass. In particular I marked a few quotes:
Organisms we buy in stores and array on the table are our makers, the creators and nurturers of our bodies, until eventually we die and nourish other organisms in turn. As a society, we could benefit enormously by finding ways to remember, acknowledge, and celebrate this process, to accept with gratitude and respect the plants and animals who keep us alive, who weave us into the living tapestry of earth.
A true ecological wisdom, it seemed to me, is one that keeps people and land together in the business of producing food while they develop a more balanced and sustainable relationship with the natural environment.
This is one of those books I lingered over, then read through the pages of references in the back, to add more to my never-ending, always-growing TBR. Including now several other titles by the author which look just as good.
Rating: 4/5              390 pages, 1997

1,000 piece puzzle by Peter Pauper Press. Illustration by Stephanie Law. I really like the picture- it has a very soft, dreamy quality compared to most of my puzzles. Also a non-glare surface which is so nice to work with. Just one odd thing- the bottom edge of the picture looks like it was copied in pieces and added on to make the image larger (probably to fit the puzzle size). It looks hastily done, and I\’m not the only person who noticed- other reviews online mention this. Regardless, still a lovely puzzle that I enjoyed time with.

Assembly sequence (click arrows to skip through)

by Glenn Balch

I\’m in the middle of a longer book but needed an easy read for a hot bath, and this was it. Unfortunately I found out pretty quick that like Indian Paint, this book is an abridged version of the original (titled Wild Horse). Wasn\’t quite as \”dumbed down\” so I was able to enjoy it somewhat; however it still doesn\’t really sound like the author\’s voice to me and will only stay on my shelf until I find a copy of Wild Horse

It\’s about two kids who have been admiring a wild black stallion that lives near their father\’s cattle ranch. The father doesn\’t see much use in wild horses so he doesn\’t mind when men come to run the wild horses, intending to sell whatever they catch for rodeo broncos or to a factory that makes chicken feed. The kids are appalled that the wild stallion they call King might meet such a fate. The boy determines to go out and catch the wild horse himself, and his sister helps by bringing supplies and fresh horses. It is a long hard job which they mainly do by following the stallion in relays until he\’s worn out. Most of this story felt really flat and bland to me- the dialog and descriptions- but that is probably due to it being \”revised\”. The final chapters were more interesting, after the horse is caught. The ranch hand is from South America.  He uses a bola for the capture instead of a lariat and his methods for getting the wild horse to accept some basic tack were also interesting. I liked that the horse\’s behavior and responses were very realistic. Eventually they teach the horse that it can\’t get away from a rope and are riding it (although it\’s not really controllable). The kids are so excited to have the wild stallion, but also dismayed that it seems the horse will never really accept confinement or guidance from a rider- having lived so many years in the wild and being set in his ways. But if they let him go again, he\’s at risk of being caught by others and sold to rodeo or slaughterhouse. The way they solve this problem is neatly done and honestly I didn\’t expect it at all, even though it was hinted at in the opening scene, I missed it.
Definitely think I\’d like the original version of this story. Happily I found a website that lists Glenn Balch\’s books and notes which ones are revised reprints, so maybe I can avoid this mistake again.

Rating: 2/5            118 pages, 1960

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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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