Month: September 2021

Encounters in the Animal Kingdom

by Dr. Evan Antin

I never heard of this veterinarian before- apparently he’s got a television show and a huge following on social media. The book is about his travels all over the world, first just to see wildlife and film himself talking about it- giving little information snippets while he’s holding a creature- and later on, to offer his services as a vet in places that needed one. Sometimes he was a tourist, in other cases able to go places by volunteering- whether it was to clean out cages, do surgery on a primate’s abscessed tooth, or assist in catching wild giraffes for transport. The various locales include Australia, Tanzania, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Panama, Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, South Africa, Fiji, Tahiti, the Galapagos, Bahamas, Philipines, Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. He tells about getting up close to rhinos, elephants, minotor lizards, sharks, mountain gorillas, chimpanzees, tamanduas, river otters, sea lions, poison dart frogs, giant tortoises, scorpions, whale sharks, komodo dragons, many species of monkeys and most of all, snakes. This guy loves snakes. So many kinds of snakes I never heard of are described in enthusiastic detail. He always wanted to hold one- and obviously had the experience to do so, though I momentarily held my breath when I read about the fer-de-lance. I vividly recall how incredibly dangerous that one is from reading an incident in Jaguar! I really admire the work this man does, and his excitement at seeing wild animals in their natural habitat is unmistakable. As is his respect for the individual animals, and his desire to help them. He does talk a lot about conservation and why wildlife needs protection. However I was a little put off by the casual tone -the narrative is peppered with words like bro and gnarly. It covers a lot of ground in relatively few pages, letting you know how difficult and tedious it was to reach far-flung locales to see the animals, without much actual descriptive detail on that. It’s the kind of book that will appeal to a wider audience. Rather like Last Chance To See in my mind. Also the author doesn’t fail to mention how fit he is, he’s certainly very self-confident. I kept wondering if I would appreciate his videos or not, but I haven’t felt like watching any yet to find out.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
235 pages, 2020

by Helen Griffiths

This is the story of two young people in Spain, who fall in love just as unrest broils into civil war. When the first pages unfold, laying down a detailed setting of their lives in neighboring villages, their greatest obstacle is the local conflict. For generations there’s been friction between the two villages, intermarriages seriously frowned upon. I connected with these characters easily, so perceptive and adroit is the author’s description of their thoughts, feelings and intentions. Bernardo, from the smaller village, is a gentle soul, a dreamer who loves books especially poetry, and is content to work with his hands. His brother is the opposite- ambitious, uncaring towards his family, in the end full of fire for one thing- a political ideal. The brothers part ways early, but later their stories intertwine in dismaying fashion. Elvira, daughter of a prosperous shopkeeper in the larger village, is high-spirited and vivacious. She catches Bernardo’s eye at a festival the two villages jointly participate in, and he sets his heart on marrying her. First there is a long, constrained courtship- not only because their families would disapprove, but also because Elvira is held back by her religious upbringing, and harbors doubts (asks herself, does she really love him, or is she just overwhelmed by new emotions?). While Bernardo isn’t as deeply ingrained by tradition, his sole focus is her, and he’s willing to grasp the opportunity presented by a new law: they could have a civil marriage, without their parents’ blessing. A hugely controversial thing back then. As Bernardo grows increasingly impatient waiting for Elvira’s consent, they start planning how to get around the circumstances and be together.

But civil war sweeps over the country. Unlike his older brother, Bernardo has no interest in politics. In attempting to put together a future for himself and Elvira though, his choices go awry and he gets caught up in the turbulence. At first his only thought is to reunite with his love, but then it becomes a matter of just staying alive. Elvira also leaves her village for the city, attempting to find Bernardo, even though she knows it will be risky and dangerous. She has no idea what she’s stepping into. The ending, though so realistic- is tragic. I wish I hadn’t known a crucial piece of it beforehand. The story was gripping enough that I had trouble putting this book down at all over the past two days, but it would have been even more so without a bit of quoted praise in the frontispiece telling me a main characters dies. I guess they had leeway to do so, as the preface written by the author reveals this to the reader. It’s the only criticism I hold about the whole book!

Such a touchingly deep, bitterly heartfelt story. So alive and nuanced. I should have expected it, but I’m amazed at how well this author writes people– the delicate and unspoken connections in relationships. Not only the depth of feeling the two young lovers have for each other, but the disparity between the brothers, the parents’ hopes and fears for their children on both sides, the caution they hold from years of own experience, yet unable to dissuade their grown sons and daughters from forging their own paths, making their own mistakes in the name of love. And the great irony, that those in this story who live in more or less arranged marriages, had some stability, contentment and ease of existence. Whereas Bernardo and Elvira, full of passion for each other, a depth of emotion and loyalty the others don’t understand, could not attain a place to call their own and live together. So sad. Especially how the furious insanity of war rolls over them, catching all these innocent lives up and senselessly destroying them. Some make it through alive, but none are without scars and sorrow. I was reminded so much of a recent read, The Cat I Never Named– different place and circumstance, but the suffering of innocent civilians in warfare so very much the same.

I was very excited to read this book, I can’t tell you how much. Even though historical fiction is not my usual thing, and romance even less so. In the past, I’d always hoped to come across one or the other of this author’s books secondhand- as they were long out of print and hard to find. What was my surprise and delight about a year ago, to be contacted by a publisher who is reprinting all of Helen Griffith’s works. I’m so thrilled at the opportunity to be able to read her books as ARC’s- and very grateful to the publisher who sent this copy to me.

Rating: 4/5
256 pages, 1966

by Raynor Winn

This couple was dealt a double blow in their fifties. After raising their children in a farmhouse they’d renovated themselves, they lost it all due to a bad investment with a so-called friend who turned out to be a bad business partner. House taken away, no livelihood, nowhere to go. All their attempts to find a place they could afford to rent with the little money they had left, failed. Public assistance was not really helpful, and the generosity of friends/family letting them stay wore thin quickly. Then in the same month, the husband was diagnosed with a serious neurological disease. He was told to rest and take it easy, but since they had no home, they decided to just take a long hike, on the South West Coast Path of England, from Somerset to Dorset, all of 630 miles. With two packs, a cheap tent and thin sleeping bags, not much else. So reminiscent of a few books I’ve read about hikers on the PCT or Appalachian Trail, and I also thought many times of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Though this book is really nothing like those. It’s so individual. It was tough. It was wild and beautiful, and the people they ran into were friendly or aggravating, encouraging or unkind in turns. Some just downright odd. They could barely afford food (often went hungry or picked berries, collected mussels on the shore, etc) and rarely pay for a proper campsite, so very soon were dirty and ragged. Fellow backpackers commiserated, but other people they encountered- usually tourists as many of the villages they passed through had long since lost their original occupations of fishing or mining and were now just surviving as tourist attractions- reacted to their appearance in one of two ways. If they said they’d left it all behind and were just walking the path- letting people assume they’d sold their house- they were admired for doing something inspiring. If they honestly said they’d lost it all and were actually homeless, people were immediately uncomfortable or disparaging. If it was by choice they were brave, whereas if by accident, they were pariahs. Why are people so judgmental. I’m sure their version of being homeless- not due to addiction or mental illness but just plain misfortune- is not all that uncommon.

It was a pleasant surprise that I’m vaguely familiar with some of the places they walked through (geography of foreign countries is not a strength of mine). They went through the village where Doc Martin was filmed, along the cliffsides where Poldark was situated, and also Tintagel- site of many King Arthur legends. Also very strange but in the end amusing, was how many people mistook her husband for a poet (apparently famous, but I’d never heard of him). It got to be a running joke between them.

I liked the author’s voice, and look forward to reading her sequel, The Wild Silence. I enjoyed the bits of humor, the interesting encounters along the way, glimpses of wildlife (birds, deer, seals, occasionally a badger), and thoughtful words. Although they’d anticipated the long hike would be a time to figure things out (facing her husband’s illness, grieving the loss of their home, what to do next) for the most part she said they spoke little, reminisced hardly at all, just were. Just surviving. Experiencing the weather, the difficulty of putting one foot in front of the other when tired, hungry and footsore. Finding to their surprise that her husband’s condition improved with the exercise, in counter to the doctor’s advice- I’d really like an explanation for that! And I’m glad that it had a good ending. Just as suddenly as their world fell apart at the beginning of the book, a few things suddenly came together at the end of their hike to put them back in the functional world again. Though- did they want it, now?

Some quotes:

But on that beach it was as clear as the saltwater running over the Bideford Black that civilization exists only for those who can afford to inhabit it, and remote isolation can be felt anywhere if you have no roof and an empty pocket.

After meeting a man who was going blind from glaucoma:

The light grew, prizing the sky and the sea apart. Had I seen enough things? When I could no longer see them, would I remember them, and would just the memory be enough to fill me up and make me whole? 

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
271 pages, 2018

More opinions:
Book Chase
Read Warbler

A guide to eating well and saving money by wasting less food

by Dana Gunders

I read this book in between the last four. And took lots of notes. It’s about saving food in the kitchen. Planning better to buy only what you need, being organized so you don’t forget what’s in the back of your cupboard (or fridge), storing things properly so they stay fresh longer, and lots of tips on how to use up leftovers, salvage a dish that got slightly burnt or over-salted, or tell if your slightly-off-looking produce is still okay to eat. What you can freeze and for how long. There’s a chapter on how to start composting, a list on what you can safely feed your pets, and more on making household use of food items you won’t eat (banana peels to shine shoes, onion skin to make egg dye, etc). Facts on food-borne illness, what exactly causes it, how to avoid it.

Some things in here I’ve already been doing for years- I try to plan meals to stretch the ingredients- for example, I often make a meat pie dish with whatever vegetable bits are leftover in the fridge, and I nearly always make enchiladas using sauce from a chicken mole the day before. I usually peel broccoli stalks and dice them up to add to a soup or the meat pie, but never thought of doing a salad with them. There’s a section of recipes that give general guidelines for using whatever you have on hand that needs to be eaten- soup, fried rice, shepherd’s pie- and I’m going to copy some of them down. Also others that sound like great ideas but I’ve never tried before- brownies with black beans in them, a chocolate mousse made out of slightly-overripe avocado. Disappointed that the directory mentions using cooked quinoa to make a flour-less chocolate cake, but there’s no recipe for that so I’ll have to look for it elsewhere. The directory is a list of some 80 common foods, with notes on how to store them, how to tell if they’re still good, and how to make the best use when they start to go bad or you have too much extra. (No notes on cabbage though. I had to look online: cabbage goes in the high-humidity crisper drawer. Yes, my family eats cabbage- I have half a head in there right now!)

In the middle of reading this book I put it down, went and adjusted my crisper drawers (I’d been using them wrong), moved my oranges in there, put my grapes and fresh-picked green beans in paper bags. I’m sure there’s other things I’ve been doing sub-optimally all this time! Not all the instructions work for me, though. This book says that potatoes, onions and bread shouldn’t be kept in the fridge. But where I live we have high humidity. I’ve found that onions kept under my sink will spoil, bread wrapped on the counter goes moldy before we eat it all, and potatoes in my basement storage room (where I thought it would be cool enough), go bad. So I do keep all those in the fridge.

Borrowed from the public library. I found an article by the author here, on why she wrote the book. Notes I took for myself below. There’s more on my garden notes blog.

  • Freeze leftovers if you think you won’t use them soon, and label with a date.
  • Don’t overcrowd the freezer, it needs air circulation to work well.
  • Rewrap meats brought home fresh from grocery store, before freezing portions.
  • Burnt pan of food? put in a larger pan of cold water, then scrape off what’s salvagable.
  • Eggs are good three to five weeks past the ‘sell by’ date.
  • Whole wheat flour and brown rice should be kept in the fridge in an opaque, air-tight container.
  • Use yogurt instead of milk in baking: add half teaspoon baking powder for every cup yogurt.
  • Save peach, plum, nectarine etc pits in freezer. Make syrup w/them later.
  • Save butter wrappers, freeze, use later to grease pans
  • Scrape clean the base of a pineapple top, remove lower leaves and root in water for a houseplant!


Rating: 3/5
200 pages, 2015

by Nancy Caffrey

Twin siblings care for an older horse that was taken from an abusive owner. They’re from a very horsey family- I gather the book is part of a series about these kids because not much information or background is given there’s just a lot of things it’s assumed the reader will know. That the kids have a handful of show ponies, the parents are both competitive riders, etc. Anyway, the children are put in charge of this old horse. They name him Charlie and under a veterinarian’s guidance, carefully nurse him back to health- dosing him with medicine, gradually exercising him, until he’s able to be ridden. Then they find out he’s terrified of approaching a simple jump in an exercise ring, but later discover he’ll readily jump natural obstacles out on trail rides. They grow very fond of Charlie and imagine he must have a distinguished history (before the abusive owner).

Soon after there’s a prestigious Hunt Trial, that uses teams (I don’t know much about this kind of thing). One of the horses goes lame and they’d have to withdraw, but the team owner has heard about Charlie and he’s a perfect color match to the other horses (I guess this is important). The parents are reluctant because the competition is rigorous, but finally they agree, and then it turns out the rider doesn’t want to be on a strange horse, so they let one of the kids go! He’s supposed to stop if the horse shows signs of strain, but doesn’t want to disappoint the team so continues even though it’s too much. The horse finishes the competition but has overdone it, so then he has another long convalescent period. Meanwhile the old horse caught some attention in the Hunt Trial, and an older gentleman comes asking for him, claims to have known Charlie in the past. Now the kids will finally know some of the horse’s individual history, but this also means they have to decide: will they keep him, or give him back to the previous owner?

This is a really nice horse story, and the admirable illustrations by Paul Brown are so crisp and expressive. I enjoyed it very much, although it moves at such a quick pace. It’s well-told, but the author doesn’t linger long on any details. I would really like to read more of her books- she wrote quite a few about these kids and their various ponies- but they’re not easy to find! (or afford, being rare). Mine is an ex-library book with very worn edges, torn pages, scribbles in various places and dogeared corners- so would be considered a “reading copy” only- but still I felt a bit faint when I looked online and saw a few prices. Well, another author to keep my eye out for now, when I’m at secondhand shops, library sales and the like! Maybe another beat-up one will come my way someday. Worn out just like this old horse was, but still good for a read.

Rating: 3/5
95 pages, 1955

the Story of an Indian Pony

by Forrestine C. Hooker

From the viewpoint of a pony, this tells about the lives of Native Americans in the Comanche tribe, when white settlers were starting to encroach on their land. The young pony Star belongs to the daughter of the chief, and his mother likewise is the chief’s favorite pony. The ponies are well aware of their owners’ status, and feel keenly the importance of proving themselves brave and capable. When the story begins, the tribe is upset by approach of European settlers in a covered wagon caravan, protected by a troop of soldiers on white horses. Unsettling stories abound of how the white men not only kill their people and take captives, but also kill all the game, and they see firsthand how large numbers of bison are slaughtered and left to rot. Alarmed that their land is being ruined and overrun, they set out to fight, sweeping into the invader’s camp at night to take their horses, thus crippling their mobility. The pony Star is part of these engagements, sometimes well aware of what’s going on, other times confused and just trying to stay with his familiar people, or fellow ponies. He meets the soldiers’ horses that are mingled with the pony herd afterwards, and talks eagerly to them, hearing of strange things. Some of the Native ponies shun the white men’s horses, others are companionable realizing they have no conflict, even if their owners do. For the most part the horses don’t understand why the humans fight when the land seems big enough for all.

After the first bout of fighting, all is peaceful for a while and the story falls into describing daily life of the tribe. Then the chief has to go confront dangers again, leaving behind his daughter and the pony Star. The girl misses her father and wants to fight too, stoutly claiming that she can shoot arrows as well as any of the young men. She sneaks out in the middle of the night with Star to join the fighters, but gets lost and there’s several chapters of survival story as girl and pony traverse a desert region, return alone to find the camp deserted, fight off coyotes, and then track down the tribe at their new location. I found the ending a disappointment- it made it seem like there was now peace between the Comanches and the white men. The tribe was relocated close to a fort for protection, the people now happy they could trade for new goods, that their children would learn the same things as white children, etc. It seemed too simple and optimistic to me.

This is one of those books I would have probably loved as a child- but I’m just too critical a reader as an adult. Not sure how accurate the cultural depictions of the Comanches are (they call themselves Quahada), but I feel like some of the animal behavior is off the mark. I liked reading about the wildlife the tribe lived among- the pronghorn antelope, the horned toads and birds. The chief’s daughter had a pet fawn and a captive bison calf. But did coyotes really hunt their prey in packs hundreds strong? Even as an exaggeration that seems extreme. The ponies all lie down on the ground to sleep at night, and when threatened the horses, antelope and deer all made circles to protect their young in the center- like musk-oxen. I’ve never read elsewhere of horses doing this. Don’t they usually just flee. I could be wrong though! but it was little things like this that kind of threw off the reading experience for me. That and the slightly stilted prose- I’m not sure if because it was written for children, or because the author was imitating how the Native Americans spoke English. And as always, I don’t mind when animals talk in stories, but it does annoy me when their understanding goes beyond reasonable. This one was uneven in that regard. Sometimes it made sense what the horses could comprehend, other times it didn’t.

Rating: 2/5
166 pages, 1964


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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