Month: April 2022

Love, Grief and Compassion

by Peter Wohlleben

This was an unintentional re-read for me. And uncommonly soon, as the previous read was only five years ago! What happened was, I had written the title wrong on my previous post (now fixed). So it didn’t come up in a search, when I thought: this book is so familiar, have I read it before? By the time I realized I had, I was far enough into the narrative to be intrigued by all the parts I’d forgotten, so continued to the end. It really was surprising, what things I so clearly remembered from before (the squirrel mother nearly strangled by young she carried to safety, deer hierarchy changing when the leading doe looses her fawn) and what leaped out at me seemingly entirely new. Did I just forget so much, or did my mind skim over them when I was reading? I wonder if it’s the different voice that made other parts stand out.

Because this time it was an audiobook. Borrowed from the public library. Reader’s voice Thomas Judd. The book is full of examples of animals experiencing emotions and demonstrating thought processes or intelligence. From lab rats dreaming about their tests in a maze to goats and dogs adopting orphaned animals (sometimes of other species). Crows sliding down snowy rooftops over and over again- seemingly for fun. Horses in old age becoming fearful of lying down to sleep- because they’ll struggle to get up again. Hedgehogs apparently having nightmares when too-warm temperatures in winter rouse them from hibernation- but they can’t actually wake up. Pigs running to get their feed when called individually by name. Sometimes the examples are of limitations as well: are dogs really feeling guilty when you scold them for wrongdoing? or is it just an expression of submission that we interpret that way. There was more in here about insects, tardigrades and other tiny life forms than I had remembered. Also some musings on the possibility of plants having some kind of memory or feelings- that causes a conundrum for this author who makes it clear he thinks hunting is abhorrent and we shouldn’t be eating animals at all- but then if plants can feel, is it also morally wrong to eat them. Kind of leaves you nowhere.

Anyway, this was an odd experience for me in another way because once again I switched technologies, ha. I got into audiobooks a short while back when received one by mistake. Then started having fun listening to more books while doing household chores. But my devices kept failing. First I was using an old boom box my teenager discarded, to play books on CD from the library. The power cord was missing but it had batteries. However when the battery life ran out I didn’t feel like buying more (it need six very large ones). We tend to hang onto lots of old stuff around here so I looked and found an MP3 player (also ditched by a kid years ago- everything is on their phones now). This worked great- except it will only read certain formats, so some of the audiobooks just don’t work. So I gave up on that and popped the audiobooks into the DVD/Blu-ray that’s still hooked up to our TV. That conked out on me entirely just a few days ago. Sound gave out. Popped a movie in there, same problem. Disappointing because I did like borrowing movies from the library now and then, to watch things I can’t find on any of the platforms we use (Netflix, Amazon Prime video, etc). It was a really old DVD player though.

Then my husband said well, let’s just look here- and pulled up the audiobook I was currently trying to finish on Youtube, via our television. I had no idea you could listen to entire audiobooks on Youtube. It’s actually a nicer experience than any of the other devices, because I can use the fancy new headset he got to listen to it anywhere in the house, doing any of my tasks, without disturbing other people. But really it feels so odd to finish the book and not have an item in hand to put back on my shelf, or return to the library. I don’t know how many other books on my TBR (still sticking to nonfiction for listening) are available in this format, curious to see now.

Rating: 4/5
277 pages, 2016

A Little Dog with a Very Big Heart

by Dion Leonard

Long-distance ultra-marathon runner was in a race in China’s Gobi Desert when a small brown dog started following him. At first he ignored the dog, then he carried her across a river, then he and other race participants started giving her food and sharing their water. They were very impressed with the dog’s stamina and determination, keeping up with the runners. The dog -soon named Gobi- began sleeping in his tent, and by the end of the race he felt attached to her and determined to take her home to Scotland. He knew this would be difficult, but it turned out to be a far more lengthy process than anticipated. First Gobi had to pass health inspections in China, then a lot of red tape navigation to get her on a plane, then possibly another long wait in quarantine in the UK. The author himself returned home while most of this was going on, but then it was all stalled because the dog went missing. So he flew back to China to try and find her, lost in a big city. The outpouring of help, as Gobi’s story spread online (due to a crowdfunding effort, blogs about the race and news coverage) was pretty amazing. When he finally located Gobi, he had to sneak her into a hotel, then later find other accommodations as it seemed some people might be trying to kidnap the dog for ransom. It got kind of crazy. But it all cemented their relationship, and in the end he succeeded. At great cost, mind you. Inserted sporadically through the narrative of encountering the dog in the desert and re-locating her in China, are chapters about the author’s painful childhood, why he became a competitive long-distance runner, and why the dog ended up meaning so much to him. It’s a very touching and ultimately uplifting story. And I certainly know more about this extreme sport than I ever expected to before.

Rating: 3/5
260 pages, 2017

by Katie Green

Such a hard book to read- but I couldn’t put it down. One sitting, last night. It’s a graphic novel memoir about eating disorders and sexual abuse (from a trusted adult who was supposed to be helping the girl). The artwork is simple yet poignant, the story very expressive and honest about mental health issues. I can only imagine how difficult -and perhaps cathartic- this book must have been to write. She girl had so much to deal with. Body image issues. Skewed thinking. Obsessiveness over rules and restrictions. Hurting family that wanted to help but their efforts weren’t always helpful. Muddling through years of therapy until things finally start to get better- but even when she feels like she’s recovered, old habits and thought patterns recur- again and again. Flashbacks from the trauma. Is it ever really over? I was afraid that when she went off to college the story would take a bad turn, but she had good friends even if they didn’t always know what was really going on, or what she’d been through- and she had to find her way to be healthy. Then there’s the whole issue of this alternate “healer” guy who took advantage of her- just awful. That was another thing to overcome, to let time pass so she could feel distant from it and whole again. Painful story, but hopeful at the end and important to be told.

Brought to mind some other graphic novel memoirs I’ve read: Spinning, Stitches, Hey Kiddo and Blankets, also the book Wasted. Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
510 pages, 2013

by DK Publishing

I saw this big heavy book on display at the library and brought it home. Thought it would be about animal behavior but it’s not- mainly a book of photographs- very large size, most close-ups. Of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians and some invertebrates. It was a visual treat but with some small disappointments. The pictures are for the most part stunningly beautiful, but also uneven in quality and some had been enlarged too much, making them unclear. There’s a disproportionately large number of frogs in the amphibian section. So many frogs. Small snippets of information on animal adaptations and physical features in the captions- just enough to make me want to know more. No mention of who the photographers are unless you look for the credits in the back- which is mostly a long list from stock photo sites. It was very nice to look through, and I enjoyed seeing animals I’d never heard of before (hadada ibis, the nymphalid or brush-footed butterflies) and learning some physiological features I didn’t know either. Such as: black pigmented feathers are stronger to resist wear and tear (although an online search also tells me the way black absorbs heat also helps the birds fly faster), eagles have two large rear-facing barbs on their tongues, and leafy sea dragons have no teeth.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
360 pages, 2009

by Robyn Davidson

This book reminded me a lot of Wild, although the tone is very different there are similarities. A woman takes a very long walk across the landscape solo, to remake herself. Or so it seemed to me. That was a part of the story I couldn’t help being curious about at first, because it seemed such a strong undercurrent: what was the traumatic past Davidson was getting away from? or trying to heal from? but before many more pages I found myself respecting her privacy, especially seeing how she had to defend her need for solitude from so many people- local men in Alice Springs, tourists, National Geographic representatives . . .  She was a woman who got along better being alone or with her animals, not people- so deciding to walk 1,700 miles across the Australian desert with just four camels and a dog made sense to her. First she had to work for men in Alice Springs in order to obtain the camels- had no money, and needed some know-how. The magazine heard of her plans and wanted to do a feature on her trip, so sent a photographer to accompany her for certain legs of the journey, and of course she used the much-needed money to fund her equipment and supplies. But bitterly resented having to do so. Wanted it to be all her own effort. I admit, reading the first part of the book was difficult for me. Not only about how brutally (by neccessity, it sounds) the wild-caught camels are treated during training, but also how rough the scene was at Alice Springs. It’s very different from the picture I got of Alice Springs in other accounts. Also upsetting to read how systematically the Aborigional people were oppressed, and how racist many of the people Davidson met were.

But once she gets out in the desert, alone with her camels, things change. And not at all in the manner I might have expected. She had a lot of mental turmoil to work through, and the solitude and stress of the desert also worked upon her. She met and sometimes stayed with Aborigional people along the way- encounters she’d looked forward to, but they weren’t always as expected either. In fact a lot of things didn’t turn out as she’d planned or hoped. The way she became in tune with the landscape and learned to recognize, appreciate and use the native plants was part I loved reading about- though nearly all the plant life was totally unfamiliar to me, so I had a hard time picturing it. Very little mention of wildlife- not sure if because she didn’t encounter many animals, or just didn’t think to write about them. Overall it just sounds like it was an amazing, life-altering, and very strenuous and difficult experience- but at the same time, became very easy once she got used to the routine and rigors of the journey. She talks about social mores and niceties falling away, and how hard it was to readjust when she left the outback.

A book I definitely want to read again someday. And watch the film, though I know it simplifies the story and probably makes more of her relationship with the photographer.

Rating: 4/5
270 pages, 1980

Clicker Training and What It Teaches Us About All Animals

by Karen Pryor

Many years ago I read Karen Pryor’s book Don’t Shoot the Dog! (about using positive reinforcement with any animal and people too- not a focus on dog training) and Lads Before the Wind. This book is much more recent, and it’s about the specifics of clicker training, or when it’s applied to people, called “tag teaching” (only because coaches and teachers objected to using a method that was “for dog training”!) In basic summary, the use of a clicker marks for the learner exactly what they have done right. It has to be precise to the moment in time, and devoid of the emotional information overload that can come with verbal cues (whether you think you’re giving that information or not). The author explains why this positive reinforcement works so well, how the brain processes the click information so instantly and acutely (retention of the learned skill appears to be lifelong) and how much animals enjoy working this way. She compares it to traditional methods as well.
I really liked reading about the varied experiences- from how she taught dolphins in oceanariums (and studied some in the open ocean via fishing fleets), helped calm wild birds in a zoo, got a hermit crab to ring a bell, an oscar fish to swim through a hoop, and of course many many dogs to learn new skills- even to quit barking on cue. There’s also lots of details about how to teach people to use this method, how coaches and teachers can use it for students, and what is actually going on in the brain with this type of learning. Of course I thought a lot about the horse book I just finished reading- another way of reaching communication without us humans administering dominance or force. That book was about using verbal cues and body language. This one is about using a very short, specific marker to show an animal what you want, that will get it a reward. I didn’t understand at first, how that could turn into two-way communication, but the author’s myriad examples show that it does. This is the kind of book that makes you excited to go straight home and try it yourself- whether to get your husband to pick up his socks for once, or teach your aquarium fish a trick. I’m thinking to attempt that with my paradise fish now . . .
Borrowed from the public library.
Rating: 4/5
258 pages, 2009

A Study of Communication Between Man and Horse

by Henry Blake

I don’t recall where I got this book from, but I thought of it when I finished The Man Who Lives with Wolves the other day- I had a hunch there was a similarity here. I was right. Both books have lots of intriguing information on animal behavior and communication, but then a key point I disagree with or can’t believe is factual. So:

Talking with Horses is an older book  by a man who owned many horses and became known for his effectiveness in resolving their behavior problems. He took in or bought many horses to try and fix their issues, then returned them to their owners, or found them new homes if needed. His methods are very like Monty Roberts‘- to make a connection with the animal via its own use of body language, while gradually getting it used to new things- introducing the tack slowly, repeatedly handling a horse to overcome its fear of being touched in certain places, etc. Desensitization and verbal, visual cues. For years he studied the way his horses communicated with each other, took detailed notes, and made lists of gestures and sounds that seemed to have certain meanings. A lot of this sounded very solid and familiar to me- he even mentions the head-lowered, mouthing gesture a foal or young horse uses to indicate submission, the same signal Roberts looks for when “joining up” with a horse in a round pen (though Blake didn’t utilize it the same way).

There are many interesting and insightful anecdotes in this book, demonstrating Blake’s methods and showing what he learned from the horses in his life, and how many he helped. I enjoyed reading them, and I found his compiled “dictionary” of horse vocalizations and body language pretty interesting. What kind of put me off were a few sexual references which he carefully phrased in an attempt to be subtle, but it was pretty obvious, borderline offensive and a poor choice of comparison, in my opinion. And then there’s his conviction of ESP and telepathy- he sincerely believed he could communicate with certain horses this way. Nearly half the book is details about incidents when he felt sure he’d received mental images or messages from a horse, and experiments he carried out to try and prove it. I am sure there is another explanation for the reactions he observed- whether it’s that horses simply can hear far better than he realized (one reference I found said they can hear frequencies that bats utilize, and sounds from 4 km in distance) or just pure coincidence.

I’m shelving this book alongside The Man Who Listens to Horses, I think it’s an interesting comparison because the two have such similar methods and observations about equine communication (particularly the body language). With a huge caveat in my head for keeping this book, since I think half of it is just a load of bunk.

Rating: 3/5
172 pages, 1990

the True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession

by Allison Hoover Bartlett

Deep dive into the world of rare book collectors- in particular, one man who for years methodically stole expensive books from rare bookshops and dealers at book fairs, to build his own collection. Aggravatingly, in spite of being incarcerated numerous times for stealing credit card info, impersonating people whose accounts he used, shoplifting valuable books (getting caught red-handed at least once) and more he was very much at liberty when the author wrote this. In investigating his story, the author herself went to book fairs and shops, talked with book dealers, visited collectors’ homes, and even perused some rare copies herself, to buy a first-edition of a beloved childhood classic (a desire that often gets people started collecting valuable books, she says). She conducted interviews with the book thief, both in jail and while he was at liberty. She also spoke numerous times with a book dealer who was trying to track down the thief and put a stop to his activities.

There’s much in here about what makes certain books so valuable, with descriptions of extremely rare or noteworthy tomes that can make a reader swoon. I’m not one to gather pricey copies for my personal library- I prefer books that actually get read and handled a lot- but something about this makes me start to understand people who do collect them just for their worth as fine objects. This man compelled to constantly thieve and hoard books was something else, though. What really struck me as surprising, was how readily he explained himself to the author, even admitting in conversations and interviews what he had stolen, when and how. It was kind of shocking his complete lack of guilt, his apparent conviction that society “owed” him something, that he had a right to get things for free (not just valuable books, but hotel room stays, restaurant meals, etc). The glimpse the author had of his childhood home, and meeting his mother, hinted to me that this collector’s obsession may be, in some way, an inherited personality trait? I don’t know, but it sure was fascinating.

Have to eat my words from a comment I left on someone’s blog the other day: here is a true crime book I actually liked! It kind of breaks the fourth wall near the end too, in a way- the book thief knew the journalist was writing his story, and mused on how it would end! Side note: I was surprised to see a lot of criticism and disdain for this book in online reviews, on that site that is eating the world. A lot of readers felt the criminal was just a petty credit card thief, did nothing spectacular that deserved notoriety, and/or disliked how the writer included herself in the narrative. For my part, I didn’t at all mind the personal perspective- I appreciated it in fact. It made me reflect on my own bookish affections. And I don’t read enough crime (fiction or otherwise) to need to be impressed by someone’s underhanded skills. So I enjoyed it well enough.

Audiobook, borrowed from the public library. The voice of reader Judith Brackley was pleasant to my ear. No issues with the copy. (Still having mixed success though- I was going to listen to Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime just before this, but found the case missing the first CD. I tried A Piece of Cake by Cupcake Brown but my device wouldn’t play that one at all).

Rating: 4/5
288 pages, 2009

by Molly Knox Ostertag

I really liked this book. Read it in one sitting. It’s about a teenager living on a small island who is keeping a secret from her family and friends: that she’s lesbian. She can’t wait to get away from the small town where everyone knows everybody- but nobody really knows her. Plus there’s some family issues (divorced parents, little brother gets on her nerves). Then one night, upset about something, she runs down to the water’s edge and meets a strange girl who comes out of the ocean. Thinking it must be a dream, Morgan admits how attractive she finds this girl- and gives her a kiss. Turns out the girl is a selkie- can shapeshift from a seal form, and Morgan’s kiss gives her the ability to walk on land. Morgan is enamoured of her new friend, but also doesn’t quite believe she’s a seal, and wants to keep this relationship a secret from her regular group of friends, and her family. When they do finally all meet, things are awkward. Trying to balance her new romance with her old friends is tricky, and more issues come up with a wealthy classmate’s big party on a yacht- that might just threaten the selkie’s seal family. I thought all the parts fit together so nicely, the issues of friendships and secrets and coming out, the environmental impact and small-town life in conflict with some people’s larger dreams. Morgan’s struggles to come to terms with herself and be more honest are particularly on point when she realizes the selkie had secrets from her too, and how hurt that made her feel. The only part that made me laugh with how improbable it seemed, was how quickly the selkie professed true love- it was really immediate. It fit with her forthright, outspoken character though. I really liked the artwork, and the included sketches at the end of the book.

Very unusual, that I read this one so soon after putting it on my TBR list. But really, that list had been started early January, I just lagged in finally posting it. When I saw this come up on the library catalog adjacent to another search, I put it on hold impulsively, and am glad I did. Going to hand it to my ten-year-old, who has on her stack Fish Girl which I want to read all over again now. (There’s a slight similarity in the titles- both the selkie and the mermaid in Fish Girl can talk to seals, fishes, etc- which talk back but not in words that are portrayed in the narrative).

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
253 pages, 2021

by Shaun Ellis and Penny Junor

It’s what the title says. The book starts out describing his background and childhood on a farm, how he slept in the barn with his grandfather’s dogs, did physically demanding jobs as a young man and then spent time in the army building up stamina and endurance, learning to survive extreme environments. All of which led eventually to him living among wolves. His interest started with foxes in Europe. (Had a job working for a gamekeeper but got in trouble for observing and feeding the foxes instead of killing them like he was supposed to). Then he worked with several different captive wolf packs in wildlife parks- at first just as a volunteer, barely scraping along as he had no income. Learned some skills assisting with scientific observations and wildlife care, then decided he wanted to make contact with a wild pack in Idaho. To learn more about their behavior and communication firsthand. He claims to have lived in the forest with the wolves for two years- though much of the time was spent just staying in place attempting to gain their trust at first. He ate raw meat alongside them and communicated with body language, which meant he often got scraped, bitten and knocked over by the wolves. The number of times he had a mild concussion or internal injuries (urinating blood) is troubling. Not to mention what the diet must have done to his body.

Reading about the intimate family lives of the wolves and how he taught himself to be among them was pretty fascinating. However some of his conclusions about how diet affects the wolves’ behavior, including their role in the pack, didn’t make sense to me. He also had some ideas on teaching the wolves about humans, so that wild wolves could better avoid conflict with people, but I didn’t see how this worked really. There was a part about helping farmers avoid livestock losses by playing recordings of howling packs nearby, so they would avoid the area thinking other wolves have claimed it. I’ve heard of this method before and it was interesting to see another instance of its use.

Well, the book goes on to describe how this man acquired his own captive pack and land to keep it on, hoping to educate the public about wolves. Later part of the book relates how he fell in love and got his new girlfriend involved with the wolves. Which sounded very unsafe, to say the least. Also a film documentary and television show were made about his wolf pack, and the pressure put on them by the film crew sounds awful. Especially the drama that was deliberately hyped up. Meanwhile it becomes very clear that he was so fully dedicated to the wolves – spending long hours in the pen with them, sleeping among them at night- that his relationships with people (including previous wives and children he rarely saw) suffered for it.

There’s also parts in this book where he compares wolf and dog behavior, and explains how he used his knowledge from the wolves to help people with dog training. I think he’s written other books specifically on that topic. Which sounds like it’s met with a lot of controversy, not to mention the criticism from wildlife experts on what he’s done with wolves. All of this reminiscent of The Grizzly Maze, or GoatMan. Not sure whether to admire the man, or think he’s crazy.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
268 pages, 2009

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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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