Month: June 2022

by David Attenborough

This book is great- everything the previous read on insects was not. It likewise has lots of brief sections about varied insects (and other invertebrates) but there’s better organized connections between the segments, more details, easy to understand explanations on evolution and behavior, and best yet great photographs (unless creepy crawlies make you feel uncomfortable). The book was written as a companion to Attenborough’s television series about wildlife. I’ve seen many of his documentary films but not this particular one. I actually have three of his other books, but hadn’t read any yet, kind of funny the first one I read was borrowed from the library! I had a bit of trepidation thinking it would be a word-for-word reproduction of what Attenborough had said in the film (and thus maybe not stellar as speaking comes across a bit different than writing), but not at all. The book was written in tandem however the author clarifies that he wrote it as a separate account, and the material is not all the same. (Thus I’m now more eager to read the ones I have that correspond to films I’ve seen).

So, this book tells about some tiny and remarkable creatures. It starts with the oldest known invertebrates, ones that were here before mammals even existed (and are still with us). Horseshoe crabs, scorpions, velvet worms and amblypygids- a creature I never heard of before!- it has traits like both spiders and scorpions. There’s other animals in here that seem a bridge between species, and point to common evolutionary ancestry- like wasp ants. And so many familiar ones- worms, slugs, centipedes, mites, beetles, mantids, grasshoppers, dragonflies, fleas, butterflies, bees, termites and ants etc etc. But in each case I learned new details about their lives that astonished. Months that mimic the scent of dangerous bees and sneak in to eat their honey. Butterflies whose larvae are cared for by ants but then parasitized by a wasp instead. Spiders that sling a silk lasso at passing flying insects. Another that lives underwater in a chamber made of air bubbles. Fungus gnat larvae that glow in the dark (electric blue)- now that’s something I would like to see one day. They reside in caves in New Zealand. Ants that attack other colonies and keep slaves from the rival species. I am already familiar with monarch butterfly migrations and the seventeen-year cicada (they emerged where I live last year)- but it was no less interesting to read about them. There’s so much more in this book. Insects that lay traps for or deceive each other. Others that cooperate and communicate in ways we still don’t understand- the well-designed buildings of termites are a good example. Looking up more about that led me to this. Fascinating stuff all round.

Rating: 4/5
288 pages, 2005

I am not quite sure how to review a cookbook. I have so many, but have never yet attempted every single recipe, or probably even half, from any of them! What sample size gives a good idea of the quality, or compatibility with my tastes and my family’s? Hm. Well, a while back my kids complained that I was “going about it all the wrong way” attempting to adapt my habitual handful of recipes to be gluten-free (I admit the results were not always good). So I borrowed home a pile of cookbooks of specifically gluten-free recipes. Much better results. Held on to them as long as I could, but now they have to go back to the library. I copied out a few dozen more recipes I really want to try, that I haven’t got around to yet. Then I had to plan for my younger daughter’s birthday in May. She wanted a gluten-free cake. Late April I started baking half a cake a week, to test some recipes. We tried four. The last was the winner.

Gluten-Free Family Favorites

by Kelli and Peter Bronski

This is a really family-orientated cookbook. It’s about making the kids happy, food that pleases everyone at the table and isn’t difficult to prepare. The introduction is quite comprehensive, discussing why gluten-free cooking was important for this author’s family, especially her children. How to get kids involved with the cooking. Tips on shopping wisely, parsing ingredient lists on labels for hidden gluten, avoiding cross-contamination in the kitchen and so on. Lots of familiar recipes easily made gluten-free like pancakes, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, sandwich bread, snickerdoodle cookies. I really want to try the pupusas, “fig einsteins”, lemon bars and spanakoptia hand pies. The chocolate birthday cake I made from this book was fantastic- moist and light. My daughter’s eyes actually bugged out when she took the first bite (previous cakes I tried had come out too dry, or were dense). She even insisted I make it twice, as we had two celebrations. The flour blend that’s a staple for recipes in this book uses brown rice flour, sorghum flour, cornstarch, potato starch, potato flour and xantham gum.

232 pages, 2013                           Rating: 4/5

 

Gluten-Free Girl American Classics Reinvented

by Shauna James Ahern
Instead of telling a personal story about how hard it is to avoid gluten or going into details on medical issues, this book just dives right into enjoying good food. The author wrote it with her chef husband, together they experimented with cooking to make new recipes. They had a food blog where they asked people what kind of things they missed eating since going gluten-free and they traveled all over America to experience regional dishes which they then converted into gluten-free versions. It’s an amazing undertaking.

This book seems to have everything, from basic bread to homemade pretzels and pizza, corndogs, scalloped potatoes and lasagna, fried pickles (!! my kids say these are good but I’ve never tried them), pound cake, Navajo fry bread and whoopie pies, to name just a few. The recipes use one or the other of two custom-made flour blends the author came up with after lots of trials. I made a batch of her all-purpose blend (millet flour, sweet rice flour and potato starch) and have used it for other recipes, too. I tried the yellow cake recipe- it was not great honestly, came out too dry. But I think that might be because I didn’t weigh the flours but guesstimated with measuring cups as my digital scale was dead, and I substituted plain yogurt instead of the sour cream it’s supposed to have. My scale is now fixed (it just needed a new battery). I’ve also made the cornbread and the Indian corn pudding (like a hasty pudding but made with cornmeal instead of wheat flour) – both pretty good. Yes, the recipes in this book call for measuring stuff in grams, and a lot of them take quite a bit of time- for some the dough or batter has to sit overnight. There’s so many more I want to attempt making. It’s lovely that every recipe has a bit of a story attached to it, telling where it came from, who inspired her to put it in the book, how it was requested, or the particulars of making it work gluten-free.

320 pages, 2015                           Rating: 4/5

 

I had a few other gluten-free cookbooks checked out, with more recipes from them copied down to try later, but from one I only made one item so far, and the other none yet at all yet. So I don’t feel like I can say anything about them until I’ve done more work in the kitchen.

1,000 piece puzzle by Pink Sky. Never heard of this brand, liked this puzzle better than I expected so I looked it up. Appears to be print-on-demand, and none of the other images really appeal to me. Oh well. It’s ribbon-cut, standard kind of piece shapes with just enough variety. Really shiny surface which I didn’t mind this time. Cute kitten, however I started thinking of this puzzle as the “cat surrounded by fried eggs” because those blurry daisies looked just like that after a while. They were rather maddening to put together. Even more so the green background which I did last, and it took a lot of trial-and-error just one piece after another until I found the one that fit. Phew- a relief to finally complete it! This was a thrift store find, very pleased there’s no missing pieces. (I’m a bit baffled at the title though- who’s the pal to this kitten? the puzzler? there’s no other creature in the picture- not even a ladybug.)

by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

This book caught my eye months ago when I was at a local bookstore with my kids. I was intrigued, but not quite enough to buy it, or even put it on my TBR list. More recently my kid brought it home from the library, so I pulled it out of her stack for a few hours’ reading outside in the garden. It was a story that definitely kept me turning the pages, but also puzzled me somewhat.

The main character and narrator is a youth simply called Boy, who lived on the grounds of a large manor in medieval times (1300’s I think) and was a goatherd. He was feared, mocked and reviled by others for having a hunchback, but also had a strange ability to talk to animals, and an innocent trusting way of looking at the world. One day a travelling pilgrim appeared, took a liking to Boy (for his ability to climb trees apparently) and demanded that he come along on the journey as his servant. Boy protested at first but was compelled, and after a while found that he liked feeling useful, serving this man by carrying his pack. The pilgrim Secundus was on a quest to gather seven relics of Saint Peter and then visit Saint Peter’s tomb in Rome. Their journey took them many different places, with various adventures and mishaps. Most of which had something to do with finding the relics, and before long Boy realized there was something shady about Secundus, as he was bribing people and committing thievery to obtain them. Boy struggled with the morality of helping this man steal sacred items, but he wanted himself to visit Saint Peter’s tomb, in the hopes of a miracle that would “make him into a real boy.”

At first the reader assumes this means loosing his deformity, but pretty soon you start to realize maybe he’s not deformed after all. Or not in the manner you suspected. I did guess for a while that perhaps he was a girl disguised as a boy, but I was wrong. Anyway, it was a good read but not stellar. Some aspects of the story verge on fantasy which was an odd mix, the people are obsessed with relics all over the place, and there’s a few very dark incidents. It’s full of grime, ignorance and bad smells (that people remark on all the time!) but also wonder and kindness in the least expected places. Oh, and a very brash donkey. I did like the donkey.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
278f pages, 2018

More opinions: Waking Brain Cells
anyone else?

Why We Need Insects

by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson

I think I prefer the original title, which I think translates to Planet of the Insects. From Norwegian. The English title makes me think of all the annoying things insects do that we don’t like, this book is really about how important they are to making the world go round. Pollination, feeding other animals, even mundane things like coloring our lipstick. Or making shellac. Which is used in so many things. Did you know that comes from the lac bug? Did you know that cacao is pollinated by the chocolate midge? a tiny tiny insect. What about the existence of the fairy wasp- smaller than a pinhead. This book is crammed with such facts- presented adroitly and with a good dose of humor, but it jumps so quickly between tidbits of information that I didn’t really feel like I got much out of it. Wished for something more detailed, in all regards.

Most of the factoids- discussed in just a paragraph or two- were so lightly touched upon I wanted to go look up more about them, but by the time I finished a chapter I’d forgotten most of it. Some of them I already knew- like how buildings that regulate their own temperature are designed after the air circulation engineered by insects in termite mounds. Lots I didn’t, but I don’t know if much of this stuck. Most is about how important insects are to our world, so we better take care of the planet for their sake and ours. Their role in the food chain, their intricate relationships with plants, their specializations. How crucial they are to recycling materials into nutrients that can be used again. A lot about dead wood, because the author extensively studied the thousands of beetle species and other small critters that live in dead wood and break it down. Crazy facts about how insects go about their daily life and procreation, plus some really interesting stuff on how insects have inspired scientists or contributed to discoveries. I liked this book, it was just all too rapid a pace for me to really feel engaged.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
235 pages, 2018

This year it was my daughter who got excited about our local library’s summer reading challenge, and encouraged me to sign up with her. So here’s my list of things to do!

For any one item, you can count reading for half an hour instead, and I’ve already done that for two, but I did watch a ten-minute video. I didn’t even know my public library had a Youtube channel (though I should have guessed). I watched an instructional video on how to make a hidden “book safe” by cutting a cavity out of an old hardback book. Just like what I’ve done to make a book case for my kindle (four times now, I recently made another one as a gift for my teenager who just graduated high school). I was curious to see how the library representative did this- pretty much the same method, except he didn’t spread glue on the outside of the page block, just the inner edge. And I thought it kind of funny he weighed the book down with a brick, not a stack of other books. I was surprised at first that he said nothing about the sacrilege of destroying a book like this, but at the end he does mention that they did this with a book that had been damaged enough it couldn’t be resold in a used sale, “or even given away”.

So that was fun!

by Maude Julien

I don’t know how to rate this book- it was riveting, but also horrifying. I can’t say I enjoyed it. Several times I had to stop listening (audiobook) and come back another day. Very eerily similar to previous audiobook Educated, in that the father was paranoid and abusive, though in a completely different manner. This is also a memoir, written by a French woman whose father had survived atrocities of World War II. He had a deep-rooted conviction that he must teach his child to withstand any kind of privation or torture she would face in the future if Nazis overtook the world, so he trained her very strictly. He was also apparently a member of the Freemasons and had all kinds of weird ideas due to that- some of the strangest things I’ve ever heard. Mixed together it was just awful. Plus with the paranoia, secrecy and emotional manipulation he wreaked on his family (the mother was also controlled and brainwashed by him) I seriously think this man had mental health issues. Sadly his wife and child suffered for it. And being brought up by this severe controlling man, she believed it all from the beginning.

That she was being prepared for some special destiny. But in reality she was kept shut up in the house or on the grounds nearly all the time, sometimes even the windows were shuttered for months on end. Nobody around but her parents and workers who came to fix or build things, no other children, no school- taught at home by her parents. Endless lessons, forced to work on the grounds with the builders, laying bricks or hauling things- even as a small child. Made to sleep in an unheated room, deprived of comforts, no affection, often had her food restricted, made to do strenuous exercises, sit in the dark, abruptly thrown into a pool to learn to swim- the atrocities go on and on. Berated for the smallest things, punished by getting silent treatment for weeks on end- it was just appallingly unbelievable. And the psychological and emotional abuse even worse. Don’t get me started on the way her mother was brought into everything, or the worker who molested her for years (and her mother saw it and walked away) or the absurd psychobabble her father lectured her on for hours- really it made my head swim and I tuned out listening sometimes.

What made it bearable was the animals and her books. She loved the family dog, a pigeon she was allowed to raise, a particular duck in the flock, a pony her father got to teach her to ride. Miserably, the animals were mistreated by her father as well, but she gave them what friendship she could and took comfort in their companionship. When she was older the words of literature started to sink in, comprehension grew (at least her parents gave her a somewhat decent education, with long music lessons too) and the books really helped her withstand the horrors of her family. It’s appalling how much the father’s attitude had weighed on her- even when she figured out where she could climb over a wall to escape the grounds, she couldn’t bring herself to leave because feared his punishment, that he could really see everything she did in his mind like he told her. But then she started to practice little deceits and lies and found out he wasn’t all powerful after all. And two things happened to finally allow her to escape the place- a music teacher came who treated her kindly, encouraged her, and finally set her up with employment outside the home (previous tutors and music teachers had been harsh or unkind). Secondly, she was sent to take some exams by her parents, met other students at the testing place, began to have glimpses of what life outside could be like, and one girl even wrote to her (though her parents quickly squelched that).

She did, at last, escape by marrying. And this was disappointing- that the memoir didn’t describe much of how her life changed when she left this dismal household. (I am leaving so much out, you have no idea how bad it was unless you can bear to read this book). The story ends rather abruptly when she leaves. There is an epilogue that discusses very perceptively how much she had to learn, change and overcome to function in the real world, how at first she tried not to think of or talk about her past, but things continued to affect her. How she had to go through a string of therapists and psychoanalysts before finding someone who could actually help her, and how she became one herself. I wondered about her young husband, how her strange and torturous upbringing would have affected their relationship, but she says nothing of that. Probably it was too personal. It’s hard to believe this ever happened to someone, much less that she could overcome it and be mentally healthy and whole again- there are several parts where she describes wanting to end her life, or how she would self-harm in order to feel some modicum of control over pain- as opposed to all the pain caused by her parents which she had no escape from. Terrible that for the first time in some dim way I can comprehend that now. The mental games she played with herself in order to withstand the debilitating treatment her deranged father meted out- it’s extraordinary and very very disturbing. I don’t think I would ever want to read this in print.

Audiobook, borrowed from the public library. Read by Elisabeth Rodgers, 7.5 hours listening time.

More opinions: I’ve Read This
anyone else?

the Curious, Exciting and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid

by Wendy Williams

Octopus are fascinating, and I’ve read a few books about them. But I don’t know much about squid. So I was really curious when I saw this book on a library shelf. Sadly it wasn’t a great read for me. Felt like I kept picking it up and putting it down again. Maybe because it was a bit scattered- the narrative jumped around quite a lot which was hard for me to follow (again, could be due to my gradual recovery). It’s not just about squid, but also cuttlefish and octopus. Some of it is about popular perceptions of cephalopods- why we’re so afraid of them (sea monsters! from the deep!) and then it switches to field studies on the open ocean. From where the animals live and how they navigate the world, to how we try and study their intelligence, to what they have contributed to science. I didn’t realize how important squid were to scientific work on the cellular level- especially in understanding neurons. Because squid have giant neurons that are easily visible, and stay alive for a short time when carefully dissected from the animal. And they are pretty much identical to human neurons apart from the size, so are incredibly valuable for studies. I found the descriptions of squid and cuttlefish in this book more intriguing, because I know less about them, but no matter how many times I read explanations of it, I still can’t comprehend how an octopus might process information and make decisions- as most its brain resides in the individual arms. It’s just so strange and alien. And now I want to go watch videos online of octopuses solving puzzle boxes.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
223 pages, 2010

More opinions: Truth, Beauty Freedom, and Books
anyone else?

by Tomohito Oda

I don’t remember how this book came to my attention. Gave it a try last night, read most of it and skimmed the last fourth. I liked the premise but it was a bit hard to focus on (maybe I’m just not fully recovered yet) and I was baffled by some of the characters’ reactions to things. Not sure if this is due to something lost in translation, a Japanese sense of humor I don’t quite get, or that I’m simply not a high school student anymore. There are two main characters: Tadano and Komi. Tadano is a very ordinary guy who just wants to avoid attention and blend in, after a bad experience in his previous school where he was bullied. He soon notices Komi, whom everyone admires. Komi is beautiful and aloof- but Tadano realizes she’s actually not snobby, she just has extreme social anxiety, so she never talks. She literally freezes up in social situations, and can’t get any words out. There’s a nice scene where Tadano and Kmoi start a conversation by writing all over a classroom chalkboard. Tadano makes it his goal to help Komi make friends.

I thought this was all pretty intriguing, but the presentation just didn’t work for me. The chapters are very short, the jokes didn’t make me laugh, the different character’s attributes were exaggerated in a way that made it seem that was the only thing about them. Another girl who’s very nervous, that’s all you ever see of her- having the jitters. Another character is gender fluid, but the way this was presented made think the author thought it was a joke? I really didn’t get it. Oh well. This is one I don’t think I’ll be continuing. It’s a series with twenty-five volumes! I wonder if it gets better further on. Or if I’d get used to the tiny panels and comic facial expressions.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5
190 pages, 2016

This 750 piece puzzle was made by Lang, a company I never tried before. Artwork by Jane Shasky. I think it’s pretty (and I like that I recognize most of the flowers: borage, chicory, lavender, rose campion…) but the colors are a bit on the pastel side. Kind of delicate. It’s a puzzle made in China, but this one didn’t actually irritate my skin, just made my fingers feel like they were slightly grimy, so I had to wash my hands after each sitting. It was a bit aggravating that lots of pieces were “false fits” – took me several tries to get the border figured out, and I had some interior pieces in the wrong place for a long time, too. Nice enough, but I don’t know if I’ll buy another Lang puzzle (this one was secondhand)

DISCLAIMER:

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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