Tag: 2/5- Just Okay

Sitting with the Angels Who Have Returned with My Memories

by Alice Walker

The chapters are very short, taken from the author’s blog (I didn’t know she had one). Mostly they’re about her chickens, but veer into other subjects as well, such as visiting the Dalai Lama. The quality- or at least my personal reaction to them- varies widely. On the one hand, her observations of chicken behavior, relating little incidents, bemoaning the death of some (one got its head shut in a door, another was eaten by a predator) and extolling the beauty of their feathers, made for a nice read. I even learned some things (chicken combs get brighter in color when they are laying eggs, which makes me think how fishes color up vividly when they’re breeding). On the other hand, she gets so effusively enthusiastic and emotional about the chickens I’m either scratching my head or feeling a tad uncomfortable. She ties chicken musings into spirituality and life lessons- some of which seemed spot-on to me, others left me baffled. I felt like I was reading a book written by someone whose life experience and though process are very different from my own- something to respect and admire, but I just couldn’t connect sometimes. Interesting that for all the love she has for her chickens (she writes them letters from her travels and calls herself their ‘Mommy’), the author will occasionally eat chicken. Sometimes she feels guilty about this, sometimes not. She writes a bit about the morality of eating animals, mostly leaning to the opinion that if they were treated humanely, it’s okay (as far as I could tell).

Some things that made me laugh, or sit up and think: she says gophers eat chickens (I don’t think this is true). She has a favorite emotion: astonishment. I have favorite books, foods, people, places to visit- but emotions to feel? Honestly I never thought about this before! She also kept using this term “space nuts” that she made up (referring to people) which she explained but I didn’t really get it.

Audiobook- read by the author herself, which was lovely. Three hours forty-five minutes listening time. Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5
208 pages, 2012

More opinions: Farm Lane Books Blog
anyone else?

The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther

by Craig Pittman

Found this book browsing the shelves, it was right alongside Path of the Puma. Not nearly as good, though- at least for me. I had a good inkling from the jacket and flyleaf descriptions that this one was going to be more about people and politics surrounding efforts to save Florida panthers than it would be about the cats themselves, but I was still willing to give it a read. I never got settled into the pages, though. It has a ton of detailed information about policy-makers, panther trackers, early studies on their whereabouts and land use, captive breeding efforts, why development was allowed to happen in crucial panther habitat lived, how Texas cougars were brought in to diversify the gene pool, and so on. But there’s far more about the people involved- and I just did not care about all their background histories and physical appearances. There’s lots on politicking and how data was wrongly presented, with long-reaching consequences, but not enough of the facts I actually like reading about animals. Plus the humorous asides and wordplay here just did not appeal to me. I actually skimmed the entire book, slowing down for the final chapter which had a bit more of interest for me.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5
336 pages, 2020

by Forrest Carter

Story of a young boy who is left orphaned and raised by his grandparents in Appalachia. His grandmother is Cherokee and his grandfather half Cherokee. They live in a small house up on a mountainside, with a bunch of hound dogs that protect their corn patch and trail foxes (for amusement). They mostly live off the land, gathering herbs, acorns and wild greens, hunting deer, catching fish etc. But the grandfather also makes whiskey in an attempt to earn some cash, and young Little Tree is learning this skill. Something I never thought I’d read the details of, making moonshine! Most of the story takes place while Little Tree is six years old (he seems older than that though), and there’s other stories told by visitors and friends, or shared family history. The kid does his best to learn what his grandparents teach him- not only to live off what the land gives them, but also to read (his grandmother reads Shakespeare from the library, and has him studying the dictionary) and do simple math. He’s pretty well taught for a kid who’s never gone to school, but when out in public with his grandfather- at the store, on the bus, or sitting in church- it’s apparent that the white folks around them look down on his family for being poor in material goods, for going barefoot or wearing deerskin clothing. Although the kid himself never really catches on that he’s being mocked. Different kinds of people come to their little house- those representing authorities that don’t have good interests at heart, are given the runaround (in some very hilarious scenes). Relatives, friends, and one Jewish peddler however, are welcomed into their home, and Little Tree learns compassion, patience, and other bits of wisdom from them.

Things happen, up and down the mountainside, and I was settling into the rhythm of their days, the picture of life in the backwoods this gave me, when suddenly authorities find out this kid is living with his grandparents and not in school. They pull him out of his home and send him to a religious boarding school. Where things are very unpleasant and oppressive, to say the least. I’m glad the kid made it out of there, but the ending had me feeling really sad.

This book brought two others to mind while I was reading it: Where the Red Fern Grows (because of the hound dogs) and Where the Lilies Bloom (the setting and overall style). But once again, it’s one that makes me grit my teeth when I look about online after and learn some facts. When this book was first published the author said it was autobiographical. Nope. He’s not even Native American. Before I was aware, I was enjoying the read and thought it a good story, but now I cringe at the things I didn’t question in the narrative, that are so blatantly wrong or stereotypical. Have to read with  doubt in mind now: American Indians in Children’s Literature made me aware of some issues with this one. I feel like I should remove it from my personal collection.

Rating: 2/5
216 pages, 1976

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 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

the Story of an Indian Pony

by Forrestine C. Hooker

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

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

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

Rating: 2/5
166 pages, 1964

by Patricia Cecil Hass

Found this one at random in a thrift store. It was an entertaining read for one afternoon- I’m sure kids would enjoy this adventure story from a different era, when kids ran about exploring freely, but for me as an adult reading, there were just a few too many plot holes. It’s about two kids who visit a relative that has a peanut farm on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia. They’ve made friends with a local boy, from a poor family that lives more or less off the land nearby. Eager to learn about the swamp from him, they plan to go camping. Just before setting out, hear from other locals about a ghost in the swamp. The children scoff at the idea of a ghost and are determined to find what it is- certain it must be an unknown animal. They find a stray horse, and also the game warden tracking something with dogs. So of course their focus switches from just camping out, to catching the horse, evading the dogs, and then fighting off and escaping a fire in the swamp, when one kid gets injured and nearly trapped. The horse saves the day (not of his own accord).

Actually, I liked how realistic the horse was, when so many other things were dubious. At the start of the kids’ outing, I was reminded of Two Little Savages, but this book has far less detail on survival skills- they do make a fire, catch and cook fish, gather berries to eat, etc- but I was baffled at how they strung hammocks to sleep up high in a tree, somehow it skipped the specifics of that. They also have wildlife encounters- a bobcat, a snake, then later a black bear- it was astonishing how easily these kids fought off the bear with sharpened sticks. And the confrontation with the fire was something else, too- even though the horse was kind of used to them at that point, I doubt it would have really trusted them enough to get so close to the flames. Willing to overlook that for the sake of an exciting kid’s story, though. What puzzled me more, was the secrecy- the kids were so convinced they had to hide the horse from the game warden- what did they think would happen when they got it to the farm? Of course they want to avoid finding the horse’s real owner (it’s obviously a valuable animal) but then very conveniently for a happy ending, it turns out the owner is tired of her horse running away, and perfectly happy to let them keep it at the peanut farm. Yay.

I have to mention a good part of this story is the kids’ interactions- mild squabbling between the brother and sister, the quiet local boy admiring their easy way of talking while they in turn admire his knowledge of the swamp and skills there. The brother is interested in bird-watching and thinks he sees an ivory-billed woodpecker (extinct). The local kid has two nearly-invalid parents he supports at home in the swamp, stubbornly refusing assistance. I kind of wondered if there’s a later book that continues some of those threads.

Rating: 2/5
187, 1973

by Elizabeth Hall and Scott O'Dell

Note: there are probably some SPOILERS below.

A wild dolphin named Coral leaves her pod with her younger brother to seek their missing older brother and find a safe place for the dolphins to live away from threatening orcas. On the journey they encounter many natural dangers- orcas, sharks, bad weather- and also those from mankind: fishing nets and whaling boats. They befriend a whale who warns them about humans, and rescue another dolphin (different species) from a drift net, before running into serious trouble: getting caught by humans. Long before this point in the story I was dragging my way through the pages, but I was curious to see how it would depict the dolphins’ encounter with humans, so I kept going. It was frustrating.

Initially the dolphins are kept in a facility that trains them to perform for shows- first they don’t get it, then they go along, then some of them start to enjoy it and become complacent about their capitivity. One of them gets ill and is removed from the pool, causing that dolphin’s mate to become depressed and then resentful towards the humans. Then the dolphins are tested to see if they can use their sonar while blindfolded, and the one narrating the story, Coral, is moved to an ocean pen. She follows a small boat her trainer goes out to sea in, and is taught to use her retrieval skills for saving divers (or people lost at sea?) Even though she could easily run away while working in the open ocean, or jump out of the pen, she stays because feels attached to her human trainer and caretaker. The story even depicts her feeling jealous and aggressive towards a woman the trainer interacts with. There’s a very interesting scene where she starts carrying the human trainer further and further out into the ocean, turning what was a game into a frightening experience, as she wants him to stay in the water with her forever, and forgets he can’t breathe without his diving equipment. In the end, some of the other dolphins at the facility escape during a storm, and encourage her to leave the pen and join the wild pod back in the ocean- reminding her that her place is with them, not the humans.

Overall this book didn’t really work for me. What could be better than a look inside the lives of wild dolphins, brought to entertainment venues and scientific experiments? I am not sure if it’s that the older me gets bored with the dry, simplistic writing style typical of Scott O’Dell (which makes sense for an animal’s inner voice, and of course the book is aimed at younger readers too), or that because it’s is co-authored, it all comes across as slightly awkward. Part of this was how the dolphins communicated- sometimes in short but complete sentences, sometimes with single words and an explanation for how much else was conveyed via sonar pictures or dolphin noises. It just didn’t feel smooth. Also the amount the dolphins could understand about what the humans were doing, and even their gradual understanding of words, went far beyond what I think they’d be capable of, even in the realm of a talking animal story. Information they apparently picked up from listening to humans talk, made no sense compared to how much they comprehended in other scenes. I found the inconsistency distracting and my interest degraded quickly. I ended up skimming most of the book to see how it ended, without enjoying it a whole lot.

However, that all said, I still think this would be a good read for middle-grade kids who are interested in dolphins and won’t notice the things that bothered me. It shows very clearly how the dolphins live in close family groups, the threats they face in nature, the stresses they experience when living in captivity, training methods that have been used with them, discoveries made about their abilities, their playfulness, creativity and intelligence, and more. I admire that it tried to do so from the animal’s point of view, I just don’t think it worked very well.

Rating: 2/5
144 pages, 1995

by D.E. Stevenson

I’m not familiar with this author, and I’m afraid this book I picked up at random somewhere is probably not her best work- I think it was the last one she wrote. It’s sequel to Gerald and Elizabeth, and since I haven’t read that one, it was slow going at first because I didn’t have a previously built up interest in the characters. Gerald is the main one in this story- a young man who works in an important shipyard and has been helping with security measures there. He goes off on vacation to the highlands of Scotland, where he stays in a curious old hunting lodge with the landed family and some other guests. They are going out on hunts to cull the local deer herd, which has grown larger than the land can support. Gerald is encouraged to go along and given opportunities to make a good shot but he really doesn’t want to shoot any deer, which nobody else understands. He shares stories of having shot lions in Africa, from necessity, and how unpleasant he found that- even while the younger boys listening are in awe at his “bravery” and want to hear all about how “fierce” the lion was (it was starving). Gerald is interested seeing how the deer are managed, but later he’d rather spend time at the lodge, being infatuated with the daughter of the household, Phil. He’s a very nice, mild-mannered and reasonable man, so doesn’t get along well with one of the guests Oliver, who’s a tedious braggart. Creates a nice bit of conflict, though never on Gerald’s part.

Honestly the first part of this book was very slow for me- I had little interest and was about to toss it as a DNF- then the deer stalking began and I found it a lot more interesting. I think that’s the best part of the whole thing, although a lot of readers (who are D.E Stevenson fans) feel opposite. Unfortunately the end kind of dives into a different kind of story- a young man in the hunting party gets accosted by strangers in a fog, then Gerald himself is kidnapped, apparently by members of a gang who want information on security measures at the shipyard. The whole rest of the book is about them trying to rescue Gerald, deal with the gang, and solve the little mystery of who attacked the younger man. There’s actually a scene where everyone is sitting around a room discussing the possibilities and some of them accuse each other! Then at the very end, it suddenly turns into a love story- the beautiful daughter Phil admitting that she likes Gerald in that way after all- and marriages are arranged (there’s another couple with a suddenly admitted love interest). Rather too hasty in my opinion. But then, I get the sense that as a whole, this type of book wasn’t written for me.

I was mostly disappointed that the stalkers never got the one “hummel” deer they were particularly trying to cull- it was a male deer without antlers and they didn’t want it passing on its faulty traits. There was a scene where they almost got it, but something startled the deer and it ran straight at the hidden men in a fright, getting too close so fast they were taken aback and didn’t shoot. I really kept expecting a final scene where this hummel would leap out and someone would take the chance to shoot it, maybe it would even trample the gang members into the heather, wouldn’t that be fitting, and it seemed the kind of story where that might happen- but it didn’t.

I did like the few bookish references- when Gerald is injured and has to stay abed, Phil brings him Jane Austen books from the local library. And when Gerald tells his story of lion-hunting, he mentions that he had referred to an old book which had belong to his father, it was The Man-Eaters of Tsavo by Colonel J.H. Patterson. He had not read it for years, but it had fascinated him when he was a boy. That’s one on my own TBR, if I ever find a copy!

Rating: 2/5
208 pages, 1971

by Betty MacDonald

Author of the famed book The Egg and I wrote this memoir about her time in a sanatorium when she caught tuberculosis in her thirties. She had to quit her job and leave her young children at home with her mother, not knowing if she would even return. The place sounded very dismal. No talking, laughing, even reading in bed! Sponge baths only once a week, hair getting shampooed even less frequently. Her greatest complaint was simply being cold all the time, even when hot water bottles were brought to her bed, they were lukewarm at best. The main treatment at the time (1930’s) was very strict bed rest- and there were a number of unpleasant-sounding surgical procedures that were done to intentionally collapse the lung in order to make it rest completely. I can’t imagine having to lie absolutely still in a bed for weeks or months on end. She mentioned quite a few patients who had been in the sanatorium for years. Rumors abounded among the patients of who had died, what type of surgeries or treatment they’d had, etc. Sounded like nothing was ever explained to the patients- where they were going when a nurse arrived with a wheelchair, what the results of tests were, what the doctor thought after evaluating their condition, etc. Always kept in the dark- and then lectured to constantly about the rules.

Well, eventually she healed enough to be allowed to sit up in bed for a short period of time per day, which was gradually extended until she earned the privilege to walk to the bathroom, or down the hall, or have a bed outside on the porch, etc. She gives lively character sketches about her fellow patients, roommates, the nurses and staff- sometimes not very complimentary, of course. Oddly enough, what I found most interesting about this book was simply reading about treatment for a disease that doesn’t seem to be a huge problem anymore- how archaic and long-suffering it sounded. How dismal the outcome for so many. While I could tell the author was attempting to put a humorous spin on everything, I only chuckled a few times, I didn’t really find it funny even when I knew she was exaggerating. It just felt- kind of dull. Might be my mood. Of course she was relieved to finally be declared healthy enough to go home- but then had to face a difficult adjustment period, still finding more to relate to with her prior roommates from the sanatorium- she stayed in touch with a few- disgruntled that her family hadn’t cleaned out the room she was going to stay in, and alternately annoyed or embarrassed that many people shunned her presence in public, fearful she was still contagious. It’s interesting for a glimpse into the past, but I didn’t find it much more than that. I think I ought to read it again at another time.

Rating: 2/5
226 pages, 1948

More opinions: A Penguin a week
anyone else?

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