Month: July 2022

A Memoir of a Unique Journey to True Health

by Dee McGuire

I found this book browsing. I picked it up out of curiosity- how could health be accidental? The blurb on the back gave me no indication of what health issues the author struggled with, or how she overcame them- it sounded inspiring, but vague. Oddly none of the reviews online mention the conditions that were debilitating the author’s life, so I will tell although with a note of spoilers if you want to be surprised. Because I didn’t see where this story was going, and then it sure made me sit up and take notice. (And this post gets a bit personal because of how I related to it).

She suffered acute back pain, for many many years. It became more severe with pain in other joints, skin problems, difficulty concentrating and lots of other symptoms that just seemed to pile up. Visits to doctors and specialists, multiple surgeries on her back, neck and knees, pain medications and physical therapy- none of it really did any good. In the middle of all this was a frightening time, suddenly learning she had breast cancer, getting surgery, and just as suddenly told it was completely resolved. Really I was appalled to read how callously and brusquely the doctors treated her, with her concerns about conditions that were undermining her whole life they seemed to think unimportant. Unless she was leaving something out, I can’t imagine meeting doctors who give you so little actual consideration.

I started to suspect one of the major answers she found to her health issues, when I read that after a certain proecdure, she was unable to eat for a number of days, and her body aches and some other complaints instantly disappeared. Only to return later. I skipped ahead to see if gluten was mentioned in future pages and stared at a sentence in the beginning of chapter thirteen: My goal was to avoid wheat, rye and barley, the grains containing gluten. It was celiac disease (or a gluten intolerance?) Discovered when she noticed a friend at work avoiding certain foods, and asked about her diet- the friend was gluten-free which sparked McGuire’s interest. She decided to just try eating differently for a few days, and was amazed at the difference in how she felt. Her pain was gone.

I know exactly this feeling. I’ve been there: so delighted in the flexibility and ease to move my body that I laugh out loud to my family: “look, I can touch my toes! I can walk barefoot and my feet don’t hurt!” It’s just so shockingly wonderful to have that chronic pain gone that you’re stunned at how good you feel- it’s like a miracle, and yet that’s how you ought to feel every day, ha. So I could relate well to this part of her story. Her frustration in trying to make new food selections in the grocery store (yeah gluten-free on the label doesn’t always mean what you hope it does). Her quest to figure out what other foods bothered her digestive system and caused flareups. She moved on to visit a fuctional medicine doctor. (I had to look that up- seems to be another kind of alternative medicine) and then did a detox. To be honest, I’m skeptical about detox, and some of the other measures the functional doctor recommended (not to mention the staggering expense, and all those tests!)

But this story resonated with me because I could relate to all the stuff about how gluten had affected her autoimmune system and caused her joint pain. I’ve had those moments, when suddenly my wrist hurt so acutely I’d drop something, or my knee so I’d have to stop walking and hold onto something, or my lower back so I’d need a cushion or heat pad behind it to drive. I’d wake up in the morning with my body hurting and have to roll out of bed and lever myself up from the floor, because I couldn’t just sit up in bed. At one point I could barely bend to tie my shoes. I was on the verge of going to the doctor to find out if I had arthritis or some joint issue when I stumbled on the idea that gluten could be causing another chronic issue I had (insomnia) so I tried going gluten-free for a few days. Just to see. It was a shock and delight, to find that my insomnia, joint pain and many other symptoms disappeared. Most have never come back, except for the few times I accidentally have gluten exposure again.

So I’m there with the author on all this. The need to clean out your kitchen, to be super careful in restaurants, to ask people about ingredients if they make you food, to read labels on food packages more discerningly. I’ve found cross-contamination and trace amounts really do affect me. I appreciated reading the particulars on how her family found ways to eat healthier and avoid the foods that gave them problems (her kids had minor issues that were resolved when they avoided gluten too).

The whole book is kind of a wake-up call, that the things you put in your body really do matter. That having good health could be as simple as giving your body the wholesome foods it needs to maintain itself properly. Not all the author’s health issues were resolved when she went gluten-free, cut individually problematic foods and did her detox. But the worst ones dissipated and she felt increasingly better as time went on. I’m glad she was determined to keep seeking for answers, and that she shared her story.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
201 pages, 2021

How Kes, My Kestrel, Changed My Life

by Richard Hines

Memoir by a man who grew up in a small coal-mining town in Yorkshire. Where most men were employed in “the pit” and some never came out alive again. Prospects for the future seemed slim when Hines failed to pass a test for better education, he was shunted into a public school that didn’t seem to teach much. Corporal punishment and petty cruelty from teachers was all over the place. Kids were prepared to take jobs of manual labor, or at best learn a trade. Hines’ older brother moved on to the better school and became a writer. The author himself often spent time roaming the fields and hedges, when he happened to find a nest of kestrels in an abandoned building, took a young bird and then taught himself falconry from old books. His fascination with the archaic terms and the methodology of teaching hawks became an obsession, he would talk about it with anyone he met. Reading about his patient success with the kestrel was lovely. Especially the little close observations on its behavior and wild beauty. After schooling, the author took a few jobs he didn’t care for (plumber’s assistant, office worker for a housing council, etc) but was fired to move on with his hawking experiences. He wanted to man another bird of prey species, but goshawks and others were very scarce in England at the time only kestrels were commonly found. The only way back then to obtain a bird, was to catch a wild one. He decided he’d have to travel to find other avenues for his passion, so volunteered to do chairty work abroad and ended up in Nigeria. He didn’t find any opportunities there to catch and train a wild hawk, but did discover that he liked teaching when his assigment changed. Returning to England he went back to school to get liscenced as a teacher.

Meanwhile, his older brother wrote a fictional book about a boy in a mining town who finds and trains a wild kestrel. While the home life and trajectory of the story in Kestrel for a Knave was completely fictional, details surrounding capture of the falcon and its training were patterened after reality. In fact Hines’ older brother questioned him closely about falconry, borrowed some of his books, and watched him work with the bird. Later when a film was made of the novel, Richard Hines also worked on the set, he was the person who (of course) trained the three falcons used for filming, and taught the young boy actor how to handle the birds and fly them to the lure in scenes. It was fascinating reading about the filmmaking. Of course there were some frustrations involved, and disgruntlement when Hines found out his brother was taking more credit than he felt was due.

The latter part of the book tells how the author lost his desire to keep a hawk after he met a falconer at a demonstration and experienced some class prejudice. He felt he’d never be accepted among elite falconers, but didn’t want to just keep flying kestrels, so he gave up on it for decades, though still always had a keen interest when he saw birds in the wild or read about them. Also growing concern for environmental issues that impacted birds of prey. He’d read and gushed about T.H. White’s Goshwak as a boy, and now discussed many times J.A. Baker’s Peregrine. Which delighted me as I own, and highly regard, both these books- but of course there are many other works he talks about in this memoir, which I haven’t had the pleasure to read yet.

And then, thirty years after abandoning the hobby, the author began making film documentaries about the lives of working-class people. In his travels and interviews, he met more upper-class men and realized they didn’t intimidate him as in years past. He attended a falconry demonstration and realized that things had changed- talked to the man and learned that birds of prey were now bred in captivity, anyone could buy a bird to train, methods were a bit different now, it would be easy to join a falconry club, etc. So he obtained a captive-bred merlin and once again trained a bird to fly. Reading about the differences in this experience to the ones in his youth was enlightening, and I’m not even involved in this hobby! I’ve just always been kind of fascinated by it.

There’s much more in here about his family, life in the mining town, amusing incidents between friends, the volunteer work in Africa, teaching experiences, what it was like working with the film crew, his growing concerns about wildlife and so on. It was very interesting to read about the film and then watch it, even though I’ve never read his brother’s novel (though it’s been on my TBR for many many years). Enough is patterned after real life that I could follow what was going on in the film, though I struggled a lot to comprehend the dialect and slang. The film was made in the author’s hometown, in the very fields where he flew his kestrel as a young man. But not having read that book, the film’s ending took me by surprise, and it was very sad. It made me think a lot of stories by Helen Griffiths. With the bitter, gritty reality.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
275 pages, 2016

Found at my public library

An Immense World by Ed Young- Curiosity Killed the Bookworm
The Search by Nora Roberts- Read Warbler
Breathe and Count Back from Ten by Natalia Sylvester
The Story Girl by L.M. Montgomery- Indextrious Reader
Pat of Silver Bush by L.M. Mongomery- ditto
Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez – Curiosity Killed the Bookworm
Making Bombs for Hitler by Marsha Skrypuch- Indextrious Reader
Fiebre Tropical by Juliana Delgado Lopera- Opinions of a Wolf
The Bird’s Nest by Shirley Jackson- Shelf Love
The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen
Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty
Flamer by Mike Curato
Banned Book Club by Kim Hyun Sook
Confessions of an Alleged Good Girl by Joya Goffney- Curiosity Killed the Bookworm

and Not

Lost Magic by Berthe Amoss
Overdue by Amanda Oliver- Captive Reader
The House of Marvellous Books by Fiona Vigo Marshall- A Bookish Type
Needle by Patrice Lawrence – Curiosity Killed the Bookworm
Coward: Why We Get Anxious by Tim Clare – Curiosity Killed the Bookworm
Memory Speaks by Julie Sedivy- Captive Reader
Jellyfish Age Backwards by Nicklas Brendborg – Curiosity Killed the Bookworm
Spring Tides by Fiona Gell – Curiosity Killed the Bookworm
Solo Dance by Li Kotomi- Opinions of a Wolf
Undercurrent by Natasha Carthew – Curiosity Killed the Bookworm
The Ponies at the Edge of the World by Catherine Munro – Curiosity Killed the Bookworm
Book of Minds by Phillip Dal- Curiosity Killed the Bookworm
Where the Wild Flowers Grow by Leif Bersweden- ditto
Wonderdog by Jules Howard – Curiosity Killed the Bookworm
Into the Tangled Bank by Lev Parikian- Read Warbler
Conversations on Love by Natasha Lunn – (Sandy Nawrot)
Outlandish by Nick Hunt
When the Mind Hears by Harlan Lane

Adventures in Taxidermy

by Melissa Milgrom

This book is just as fascinating, macabre and illuminating as I expected it would be. Reporter Milgrom delves into the world of taxidermy. She visits a taxidermy lab for the Smithsonian, goes to the World Taxidermy Championships (twice), attends a guild meeting of taxidermists in the UK, tours behind the scenes at natural history museums and interviews staff there, meets “commercial” taxidermists who mount trophies for hunters, visits with a woman who taxidermies specimens for Damien Hirst’s modern art sculptures, travels to the three-day auction of a Victorian museum of “curiosities” collection (including the famous oddities preserved by Walter Potter in humanlike scenes with quirky humor – think kitten tea parties and baby rabbits at school desks), and observes the process of Ken Walker at work, who re-created the extinct Irish elk (a large deer species more closely related to modern fallow deer) patterned after fossils and depictions on cave paintings. Through all this she explores the history and artistry of taxidermy- how the skill developed (and is practiced today) so differently in the UK and the United States, how taxidermy had its heyday in the Victorian specimen collecting craze when natural history museums first became a thing, but such displays have now fallen out of favor. Reading about meticulous dioramas and incredibly detailed anatomically-correct pieces being dismantled for newer displays made me feel very very sad. Some are kept and preserved, others sold or simply taken apart and destroyed, if they’re in poor condition or there’s no room in storage for them.

In the end, the author herself attempts to stuff a squirrel, under the guidance of artisans in a taxidermy shop, and even enters her squirrel in a taxidermy competition under Novices, accepting the frank and exacting critique offered by a judge. I am really intrigued by the whole process, mostly because I used to love attending natural history museums to draw and sketch the specimens- so lifelike but they don’t move! I am in awe of people who would spend the hours of paintstaking work, research and knowledge about particular animal species to make them appear so lifelike. But I’m also rather squeamish, so doubt I could ever do that kind of thing myself. I found it really interesting to read interviews with Emily Mayer and other taxidermists, which makes it clear most of them have respect and admiration for the animals, would never kill an animal just to stuff it. (Their sources are varied. And yes, some of them are hunters and eat the birds, deer, etc) A lot of them had as kids a fascination with how things were made and articulated- wanted to disassemble stuff and put it back together- just with animals.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
285 pages, 2010

made by RoseArt ~ artist Carl Valente ~ 1,000 pieces

I found this puzzle to be a bit difficult, mostly because the colors are muted and the pieces quite small- so I wasn’t at all surprised to encounter a piece with a torn off “arm”!

At the end, there were two pieces missing. I made replacements. Not my best job ever (see the closeups below) but still my eleven-year-old couldn’t find them in the finished puzzle!

torn piece:

 replaced pieces:

a thrift store find

by Oliver Sacks

This book, following Uncle Tungsten, was fascinating to me just because of how much I didn’t know about the man. It starts when he was about fourteen, tells about his young adult years, univeristy education, how he figured out his career, his experiences writing books, his intellectual family (and schizophrenic older brother), many lasting friendships with colleagues, his compassion and concern for neurologic patients, and so much more. I would have had no idea (apart from the cover image) that Sacks was very much into motorcycles as a young man, and loved to travel the country on his bike. That he was seriously into weight-lifting. That he was gay, fell in love a few times, it never quite worked out. That he wanted to do research but was kind of a “walking disaster” in the lab- loosing items, breaking things, etc- until he was politely told to leave (this during university years). His passion was people- learning about their lives and how everything interacted with or influenced their neurological disease. He was vividly interested in the case histories his mother would tell (she was a surgeon) and put this same passion into telling stories, only in book form- and after gaining the consent of patients, many whom wished their stories told, because they felt forgotten and ignored. These were often patients who lived in long-term care facilities or hospitals. Sacks tells of his writing process, his many frustrations in bringing books to press, his travels and the thrill of new discoveries in the field. It was wonderful to read the “backstory” as it were, of his books that I’m familiar with, and has fired my interest to read all the others. The last chapters of this book were difficult for me to get through- they go into more detail on the workings of the brain, which I struggled to understand. But this one’s staying on my shelf, maybe I’ll comprehend more with a re-read someday.

Rating: 4/5
398 pages, 2015

by Robin Ha

Graphic novel memoir about moving to a new country, getting used to a new culture, and finding yourself. The author (Ha Chuna, with chosen American name Robin) was a teenager when she accompanied her mother on a visit the United States- only they never went back home to Korea. She was abruptly plunged into a new life, going to regular middle school but unable to speak the language, separated from all her friends and favorite activities back home. She felt so isolated living among strangers in a sprawling suburb in Alabama. Kids at school teased or ignored her. But gradually things began to get better. As her English improved, she started to stand up for herself and make friends. Her mother enrolled her in an art class specifically for drawing comics, and she found joy in something she’d always loved- Korean and Japanese manga. Made her best friend at the comic bookstore. But the clash of Korean and American culture was still a big part of her life- even though she’d moved to a new country, her mother still experienced pressures from her new Korean family members (having by this time married a Korean-American man). Chuna hated the pressure put on her to perform piano pieces in competitions or even just in front of family members and visitors, but as she learned more of her mother’s history, she realized how much pressure her mother faced as well. How much social criticism she’d lived with back in Korea, being a single mother raising a child alone. One of the reasons they came to America. The story is just as much about the struggles her mother went through, and the strength she showed, as it is about Robin herself. And when Chuna finally goes back to Korea to visit old friends, she realizes that she doesn’t quite fit in there anymore. It’s a relief to read that at the end, she’s coming to accept her new identity as Korean-American and has found her old love (manga) in new places with new friends.

I really liked seeing the samples of the manga she drew herself as a teen, in a backdrop on some of the pages. Wish I could see the whole story of that! Side note: I also really liked how the text indicated if the characters were speaking in Korean or English, by using a different color text, or English words Chuna couldn’t understand, with undecipherable scribbles!

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
236 pages, 2020

Memories of a Chemical Boyhood

by Oliver Sacks

I was about halfway through reading On the Move by Oliver Sacks when I realized it was his second memoir. I wanted to understand more of where he was coming from, as he hinted at some incidents from early years that seemed significant so I put pause on that book and read this one.

Uncle Tungsten is about his early life in London during the 1940’s (the book ends when he’s about fifteen). He was from a very large and intellectual family- his parents were both surgeons, he had an uncle who owned and ran a lightbulb factory (thus the title) and many others involved in the sciences or entreprenuership. It was lovely reading how avidly older family members would explain scientific phenomena to him as a young boy. Incredible to read about the lab he eventually set up in a back room, where he did all sorts of experiments re-enacting what famed scientists had done- as he read and learned their histories (which are recounted in plenty of detail). In fact nearly as much of the book is an explanation of chemistry and physics as it is stories of Sack’s childhood. I didn’t mind so much, as his enthusiasm for the subject is contagious, but near the end when it gets more advanced I was a bit lost. I found the personal chapters much more engaging- telling how he was sent away to an awful boarding school during the war, or how the community of Jews that he lived among changed after, so many of them were lost. For the rest- it’s an enthralling account but also a rather remote one- on many pages the author seems to talk more about the chemistry he admired, than about himself. I’m glad I read this book because yes, it gives me a better understanding of the second one, and I can start to see how he became the remarkable nerologist I have so admired. I think anyone growing up in such a household, mentored and taught by so many highly skilled, critically thinking scientists and doctors, would have become a remarkable person no matter what their field of study turned out to be.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
338 pages, 2001

made by White Mountain ~ artist unknown ~ 1,000 pieces

This brand seems to be very popular, but it’s one I’d never done before. Older puzzle (made in 2005) I found at a thrift store. Nothing missing! That always seems like a bonus, with a thrift store puzzle. Felt like a visual education, putting this one together. Odd that the top of the image (where the title was on the original picture) is cut off- tail of an f visible just above a pinecone. No mention of the artist on the box- a shame, all those lovely tiny portraits of trees and I can’t give credit to who painted them.

a thrift store find

by Jonathan Evison

Don’t remember how this one came to my attention. Another audiobook to fill space in my head while I’m doing chores- but for a while there I thought I’d made a mistake. Put off by the frequent use of the f-word. And some of the crude humor- not by the main character, but one or two of his um, negatively opinionated friends. I was going to stop before even through the first cd, but kept listening, and somehow this started to grow on me. In the end I was glad I heard the whole thing, it gets much better further on and I even liked the ending. I appreciated what it was trying to say. But I also get why lots of people have protested this book, because yeah, it made me uncomfortable at several points.

Story (apparently semi-autobiographical) is about a half-latino guy from a poor neighborhood in Washington State. (This made the environs of the novel very familiar to me, but also so very different- a whole other side of the place I knew, a reverse reality I was never very aware of). Mike Muñoz is 22 but still lives with his mother, his older mentally disabled brother, and a tenant who at first lives in the backyard shed but then moves into the house. They’re always struggling to make ends meet. Mike has a job with a landscaping crew, he’s proud of making very tidy clean edges and aspires to be a topiary artist. Gets sick of the low pay and degrading way clients treat him- looses his job after refusing to clean up after someone’s dog. Drifts around looking for new employment, nothing works out. One old acquaintance has a big scheme with no real plan. Then an old high school friend ropes him into preparing properties for resale in a wealthy neighborhood, and he starts rubbing shoulders with different kind of folks- but pretty soon realizes he doesn’t like where that’s going.

And there’s the annoyance that this old high school friend won’t admit to something that happened when they were kids. This is what people are all upset about. There’s a scene from the past mentioned briefly in the book (and referred to a few times afterwards in the narrative) where Mike and the other guy, as ten-year-old kids, handled each other’s privates. No it was not actually pedophilia (as some people are saying in negative reviews). The disturbing thing is that Mike wants to discuss what happened in the past, but the other guy won’t admit it even occurred. Meanwhile, Mike is halfheartedly trying to impress a girl he admires, and finds stress relief at the library. I loved reading about the books he was reading. And his growing friendship with the substitute library guy Andrew, who’s also an activist in his spare time.

Mike and Andrew gradually become more than friends, and by the end of the book he realizes what he’d been denying to himself all along- he’s gay. His mother knew, apparently, his friends are less shocked than he’d expected. Yes there’s a scene where Mike finally spends the night at Andrew’s house, it stops short of being too detailed about their intimacy. No graphic descriptions. You’re mostly aware that Mike has come to realize something about himself, has found a place where he feels both respected and encouraged, has found someone he admires and enjoys being around- in spite of Andrew’s flaws. I felt this was a very honest portrayal about someone’s ordinary life that went through a bunch of crap and then started to become something better.

By the end of the book, Mike has gone from working for barely minimum wage, to feeling walked all over by rich people, to being in his own little company and actually getting to sculpt hedges in people’s front yards. Having appreciation for the good work he does, expanding his artistic talent, finding a better understanding with his family too. I admit there’s plenty of incidents in this book that made me cringe, others had me laughing out loud. I really could have done without all the f-words personally. But I found the musings on social inequalities, environmentalism and the like rather refreshing- he points out so many times that things like eating organic don’t matter to the poor, if they can just barely afford to eat a sandwich at all. There’s more, but I have to stop writing or this post will get way too long.

It’s really unfortunate that this book has the exact same title as a middle-grade Gary Paulsen novel (which has no objectionable content).

Audiobook, voice is P.J. Ochlan, 8.5 hours listening time. Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
320 pages, 2018


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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