by Mark L. Cushing

Written by a lawyer who specializes in regulations and policies regarding animal health and welfare, this book is about how pets have become so overwhelmingly popular and pampered over the last few decades. While most of the focus is on dogs and cats, one of the final chapters also highlights birds, reptiles, fish, small mammals and other exotics. It’s got a lot of history and in-depth looks at current trends too. There is a little overlap with the last book on domestic dogs that I read, interestingly. Telling how important dogs were to primitive man, native peoples and early settlers- doing important tasks on farms and in fields. When such jobs for canines became more or less obsolete, they were relegated to backyards or left roaming the streets. Only relatively recently have they become members of the household- receiving special food and sleeping on people’s beds, with their antics and cuteness displayed online. The look at their rising popularity was not particularly new to me, although the numbers are telling. Of more interest was the chapter about how veterinary care has changed, and the one about what seems to be a shortage of dogs in shelters for adoption- this author argues that the spay and neuter campaign of past decades was actually too successful, so that now shelters import dogs from other places that have surplus! He also states that commercial breeders have an unfairly bad reputation, puppy mills are not the norm, and if breeders were regulated and felt comfortable to open their doors and show the public their operations, that could quickly turn around. There’s also a lot touting the benefits of pets in these pages- so much so, that it becomes clear that the goal of the book is to encourage more people to keep more animals, urging us to reach a hundred percent of homes owning dogs or cats, which should be allowed to accompany us anywhere in public. I could not really tell if this was tongue-in-cheek or not.

The book is certainly well-researched with lots of data supporting the author’s views. So why the low rating? Sorry, but I really found it hard to read. The writing style and humor just did not work for me. (I know cleaning the litter box can be unpleasant, but I don’t think of it as torture). There was just so much in this book, presented in brief to-the-point chunks with bold headings that made it feel jumpy. The frequent use of lists, bullet points and pop culture references (some I got, some I didn’t) did not appeal to me. I felt that some things were explained unnecessarily, but then stumbled over acronyms that I had to look up. More than once I was left scratching my head over a conclusion, or having to read a phrase a few times over, because it didn’t click. Overall, I think I just wasn’t the right kind of reader for this book.

Seems this is an updated issue, just a year after the initial publication. To include new snippets of data on how covid affected pet ownership, I suppose. Personally I think the original cover was more appealing, but the current one visually matches the style of the book, so I’m showing that. The subtitle has also changed. Originally it was The Love Affair That Changed America. Now it says on the front The Inside Story of How Companion Animals Are Transforming Our HOMES, CULTURE and ECONOMY. (Yes, with bold caps).

I received a copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 2/5
323 pages, 2020

by Lucy Knisley

Another kid’s graphic novel I picked up off my daughter’s library pile. (I’m actually reading a nonfiction book right now, Pet Nation– but keep putting it aside for something else in between chapters!) This one is about Jen, whose parents have recently divorced. She and her mom move to the country, where she has to tolerate her mom’s new boyfriend, and share her room with his two daughters when they visit on weekends. The oldest Andrea (Andy) is her age, the other girl is younger. They have trouble getting along at first. Andy is smart, brags about her good grades, and is kinda bossy. Jen likes drawing pictures and struggles with math. But she knows a lot about animals, and it’s annoying (to me the reader as well!) when Andy insists she’s right about animal facts (chickens, frogs, snakes) when she’s obviously not. I liked all the details about life on their farm- Jen has to do chores taking care of the chickens, loves hanging out with the barn kittens in the empty hayloft (her secret space) and trying to catch frogs in the pond (though this incident turns into a fight with Andy). Her mom struggles to keep a garden going while the pesky deer keep eating parts of it. A big part of the story is their farm stand at the local market, though. Jen has trouble making change for customers when her mom steps away. Her frustration and shame are very palpable- and heightened when Andy flippantly takes over the task and the adults point out she needs to practice her math skills more. I was really gritting my teeth at the attitude of Andy’s dad! Didn’t like him at all. However by the end, Andy and Jen have found some common ground and companionship, and Jen’s proved herself to have another skill set useful at the farm stand as well. Apparently this book is part of a series about the Peapod Farm. I look forward reading the next one!

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
218 pages, 2020

More opinions:
Waking Brain Cells
anyone else?

by Raina Telgemeier

Another graphic novel, this one set in middle school, that I read because my kid brought it home. It’s about drama, both literally and figuratively. The main character, Callie, loves theater. Her school is putting on a musical production, and she can’t sing, so she works backstage. More than anything, I like how this book gave me an appreciation of all the hard work that takes place behind the scenes to put on a play! Callie works side by side with the costume director, lights and sound crew, herself taking charge of building the set. In particular, she wants to make a cannon that looks like it really fires (confetti), coordinating sound and lights to make an impressive moment. Of course it kinda goes wrong at the last minute… Meanwhile, there’s the usual high school story of friendships, good and bad moments, dating mixups (constantly switching around who’s interested in whom!) and there’s two new boys (twins) everyone’s getting to know. They’re both into theater but one is very shy. Later in the story it’s revealed that one of the characters is gay. Not a big deal- I like how the story made this so normal, once a friend found out (then respected their privacy and didn’t tell others). There’s other little snippets that make this so true to life: annoying kid brothers, parents who make wrong assumptions about friends, trying out for sports that aren’t quite your fit. . . My favorite part, though? When Callie goes with friends to an amazing bookstore. That was just so perfect.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
238 pages, 2012

A friendship story. Period.

by Karen Schneemann and Lily Williams

Junvenile graphic novel about friendships, and girls having their period. One girl is new to the high school, and joins a group of three friends when she has an accident in the middle of the hall (her period comes unexpectedly) and they do their best to rescue the situation. The girls are outraged to find that dispensers in the girls’ bathroom, supposed to hold feminine products, are empty. What if another girl needed something, and nobody was around with an extra pad or tampon? Appallingly, this school doesn’t even have a nurse, due to budget cuts (seriously? I can’t imagine there not being a school nurse on staff!) Most of the girls shrug this off: what can you do- but the redhead goes full activist mode. She tries to speak to the principal, makes art to bring awareness to the normalcy of menstruation (after all, half the population has to deal with this), and finally stages a huge demonstration- but this draws unwanted attention to her friends, who didn’t intend to do anything quite so radical. But it’s also a story just about high school life- mean girls that pick on others, first crushes, cramming for tests, awkward dates that don’t turn out the way you’d hoped. One girl seems to like girls instead of guys, but isn’t sure how to let anybody know. There’s also more issues with bodies addressed- some girls develop sooner than others, one of the friends has particularly painful cramps and is seeing doctors to find out if something’s wrong. And plenty of jokes and the ordinary embarrassing or frantic moments that can happen when you’re dealing with having a period.

I think overall this book would be a great discussion starter, if your kid (pre-teen or older) isn’t put off by the subject matter! My ten-year-old picked it up off the library shelf on her own, and wasn’t shy about bringing up funny moments or questions to ask me. I read it when she was done, and glad I did. Personally, I wasn’t too keen on the artwork, but that’s a minor quibble.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
332 pages, 2020

More opinions:
Pages Unbound
Reading Rants

by William Pferd

This book is about the dogs that were kept by Native American tribes. The author estimates that among all the tribes, there were at least seventeen distinctly recognizable breeds or types. Some were widespread, others very unique to a small area or only one tribe. Most of them are now gone- they disappeared when their owners were exterminated, or were killed by conquering peoples who saw them as useless. Remaining extant are Malamutes, Eskimo dogs, and the Xoloitzcuintle (although the author thought this one had disappeared as well). The first third of the book is rather dry reading (at least for me) it’s on archaeological evidence of early dogs, and how very very far back they were already being bred to type. (I’m not sure how much the info presented in that section has changed with newer findings). The rest of the book is much more readable- detailing what was known of the natives’ dogs through early written accounts, paintings, and a few photographs. Most of the dogs’ roles in Native American societies were what you might expect- as hunting partners, to protect and give warnings, or to carry and haul burdens (especially before they had horses). In some tribes they were regularly used as food, in others this was only in times of starvation as a last resort. What was new to me: they were often a valuable source of warmth in cold climates- dogs have an average body temperature higher than humans, so sleeping with them kept people warm. One tribe had a special breed of dog with a very thick coat they kept just to shear the fur, spin it and weave with other fibers to make cloth. Another tribe reportedly had dogs that were trained to dive into the water and herd fish into their owners’ nets. Although they were sometimes treated callously, more often the people treasured their dogs and valued them highly. This book was more interesting than I expected at first, and gave me a new picture of how dogs lived with people in early times.

Rating: 3/5
192 pages, 1987

in Life and Legend

by Maxwell Riddle

This book is rather like Ravensong, being a mix of factual information and fables or folklore surrounding the animal- but in this case, much better written. And rather like Wild Heritage or Of Wolves and Men, though not quite as in-depth as the latter. In short, it is about all the wild members of the dog family. Wolves, foxes, coyote, jackals, dhole (red dog of India), dingo, bush dog, maned wolf, raccoon dog (of Asia), African wild dog and one oddity: the aardwolf. Also I have no idea why, but the author included a small section on prairie dogs. Maybe to clear up misconceptions about the animal, due to its common name?

Each section starts off telling stories: mostly legends and myths about the animals, but sometimes firsthand accounts that are quoted (with permission) from other books. There are creation stories, trickster tales- especially about foxes, coyotes and jackals- and moralistic fables. Some of these I had heard before, many I had not. I was particularly interested in the ones from other cultures that I’m not as familiar with. I’ve had some exposure to native American legends about coyotes, but the tales of foxes that change into women or raccoon dogs playing tricks on people from Japan, were new to me. After each section of legends or tales, is a chapter of factual information on the animal. While this was current info when the book was written- late seventies- now it’s quite dated. Of the lesser-known wild canines, there’s not much information here: mostly an admittance of how little was known. I was really intrigued by the brief mention of a smooth-coated canine from the Amazon called the short-eared dog or short-eared fox, Atelocynus microtis. Never heard of it before! This animal was practically unknown in the author’s day, and he feared it would soon go extinct. I’m happy to tell you it hasn’t, and I was able to read more about it online. It’s certainly still very rare.

For a lot of the accounts quoted and related in this book, I had already read the original material myself. There are summaries about the Custer Wolf, and of the wolf children from India. Very good summaries, but the original books give you so much more. However, I was delighted to find extensive quoted material from Solo by Hugo van Lawick, about a young African wild dog. I’ve been wanting to read that book for a long time, so I was happy enough to read a large excerpt of it here.

Rating: 3/5
299 pages, 1979

by Raina Telgemeier

My ten-year old has been bringing piles of graphic novels home from the library lately. If one snags my eye, I’ll hold onto it longer to read myself. Finished this one a few days ago but then didn’t really feel like writing about it. At first I wasn’t sure why- assumed because it’s a ghost story, and I’m not keen on ghost stories at all. However I think there’s more to it than that.

Ghosts is about two sisters who move with their family to a northern California seaside town. This is supposed to be better for the younger sister’s health- as she has cystic fibrosis, a degenerative lung disease. I know a little about CF; when I was a teenager I read a memoir by a father whose daughter died of it. That was ages ago, so I had some curiosity about how it was depicted in this book- surely treatment is better in current times, and the prognosis not so dire. Well, the story makes it clear this family sees CF as an ultimately fatal disease. The younger sister Maya has questions about death. When the two girls meet some ghosts in the town, the older girl Catrina is afraid of them, whereas Maya just wants to talk to them- to ask her questions. The girls soon discover that a lot of people in town have seen the ghosts, they view them as friendly spirits of their ancestors and look forward to Dia de los Muertos, when they celebrate the lives of those who have gone before, and interact with the ghosts. This was depicted as basically a big party. While I liked how it made the ghosts seem very friendly to kids, and how Maya’s interactions with a child ghost answered some of her preoccupations about death, I felt a bit unsettled by it too. I didn’t know enough about the holiday to be critical or recognize where the depiction in this book gets it wrong, but plenty other readers did and some of their reviews are linked to below. I did like how parts of the story fit together- the presence of the wind, Maya’s difficulties breathing, how the ghosts respond to her breath, how spirited she was even though so unwell. But other aspects just didn’t work for me at all.

For what it’s worth, my ten-year-old really liked the book. Raina Telgemeier is one of her favorite authors now. I am sure she didn’t notice any inaccuracies in the portrayal of Dia de los Muertos but that’s arguably more problematic if it means kids absorb the ideas put forth in this book, to the cost of the truth.

Rating: 2/5
256 pages, 2016

by Raynor Winn

After their long hike on the South West Coast Path, the author and her husband finally settled. No longer homeless, but not completely at ease. First they lived in a small apartment behind a church, where Raynor did research into his illness and started writing, while her husband attended university, working towards a degree. He struggled constantly with worsening symptoms, while she had her own issues with anxiety at being around so many other people after their long walk mainly in solitude on the path. The success of her first book’s printing was encouraging and brought them some much-needed income, but it was also stressful for her to deal with the public events and travel for book signings. Well, then someone local who read their book offers them another place to stay- on a farm that had been run into the ground and neglected. They’re supposed to restore it, and do work hard at that. It’s just starting to show signs of recovery when they decide to go on another long walk with two friends- in the barren and difficult landscape of Iceland. I didn’t realize how many volcanoes Iceland has- or at least, in the area where they hiked. This part of the book was a lot more like the previous one- focused on the rigors of the hike, interactions with people on the trail- in this case much younger fellow hikers who seemed to scorn them for their age- and remarkably, another visible improvement in her husband’s condition. The scholarly lifestyle he lead at university apparently was bad for his health, whereas the intense physical exercise on the steep paths soon had him limber and full of energy again. Still no explanation. But convinced by the results, they return to the farm ready to dive into outdoor work again.

It does have a lot more than I’m letting on here- musings on assumptions of strangers, interesting little exchanges, signs of the wildlife on the farm returning, incredible almost surreal landscape in Iceland, where the world seems to be continually coming into being. Also many segments about pieces of their lives from the past, and a very touching, sometimes hard-to-read piece in the beginning on her mother’s death in a hospital where she had to make difficult decisions for her care (which made me think of this book a lot). Somehow it all didn’t feel as intense as The Salt Path, or I’ve just been too busy this past week and a bit distracted from reading. I liked it, I just didn’t feel quite as deeply moved.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
278 pages, 2020

by Sarah Stewart

After reading Stitches I wanted to see more by the artist, David Small. His illustrations have a slightly different feel in this book- they’re feel softer, more gentle. Still just as vivid, with the expressive line I admire so much. Story is of a young girl in what I assumed was Depression era, but not sure. She has to leave the family farm because times are hard (I guessed they were having trouble feeding the family) and goes to stay with her uncle in the city. He runs a bakery. He never smiles. She wants to work hard and prove herself useful, but also longs to see her uncle smile. And brings her love of plants with her, packets of seeds from her grandmother’s garden. Gradually through the pages you see green appearing then filling the pages- first in a corner here, on a fire escape there. She grows flowers in window boxes and more people stop to look at them from the sidewalk, drawing customers into the shop. But she’s really making a huge surprise for her uncle up on the roof of the building. There’s a double page spread near the end that’s just a glorious riot of flowers, bold and free with color. Lovely. It’s all told in brief letters the girl writes home, so not a lot of detail in the words, you have to gather it visually through the images, but it’s one you want to linger over anyway. The art is a bit loose and sketchy but I enjoyed trying to identify some of the species pictured anyway: daffodils, amaryllis, tulips, sunflower, zinnias, daisies, morning glory, cosmos, marigold, astilbe . . . Really nice story of a girl facing a hard situation, bringing some cheer into a dingy place with her ‘green thumb’.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
40 pages, 1997

translated by Mercer Cook

by Djibi Thiam

A story from Guinea, set in a small village called Koundjea. The protagonist is a man named Bamou, who lives with his wife and young son in a hut. One night a leopard kills their dog, right outside the door. Next morning the man tracks it, confirming the predator’s identity and locating where it is hiding- in a sacred part of the forest. The people are deeply troubled, as the leopard is their tribal totem, they believe the animal is supposed to protect them. Never had conflict with one before. This particular leopard appears to be injured and soon they hear of a hunting party from another village seeking the leopard, that it’s been killing people. Bamou knows the leopard is a serious threat and must be dealt with immediately, but he also feels compelled to treat it with the utmost dignity and respect, because of their tribe’s reverence for the animal. He meets with a village elder for advice, performs sacrifices to appease the gods and spirits, then drinks tea with a special herbal concoction to keep him alert. Then tracks the leopard down. Alone.

Reading this book was an odd disconnect. The style of it reminded me very much of Things Fall Apart (which I read long ago in high school)- simple words and plain sentences, which belie the actual depth of the story. I liked the glimpse into everyday lives in this small settlement deep in the bush, the people’s deeply held superstitions and beliefs, their formalities and kindnesses, supporting each other. The role of the blacksmith was particularly interesting. It’s full of details on the natural surroundings and wildlife Bamou encounters as he follows the leopard- keenly aware of all the animals, their usual habits, what their behavior tells him, and what the leopard herself is doing. A lot of the narrative is the main character talking as if musing to himself or relating what happened to a listener. I found it a bit difficult to connect with, as if I read it all at arm’s length, interested but unable to really sink into it. Bamou does face the leopard in the end, armed with several weapons- including poison-tipped arrows which he doesn’t use, thinking this isn’t fair to the animal! though he well knows the leopard holds the advantage in speed and strength, even with her injury. This book reminded me a lot of The White Puma, and I also kept thinking of The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag, comparing the two different leopard encounters in my mind, with their contrasting hunting styles and attitudes of men, towards this dangerous and beautiful predator.

Borrowed from a person I know.

Rating: 3/5
205 pages, 1980

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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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