Tag: 2/5- Just Okay

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?

by Debbie Stowe

I had no good reason to bring this book home from the thrift store, but I did. Thumbed through it in the aisle- the pictures are very nice, some beautiful, and the text appeared to be of interest, so I thought it could make a nice read when I needed something relaxing. What’s more relaxing than looking at adorable young animals with their mothers? Well, it was disappointing, even annoying, instead. It’s a large format book with very attractive, large photographs, featuring twenty-five animal species, though some are specific and others more general- for example, there’s a section on cheetahs, one on lions, and another on tigers, but the part about baby whales covers all the whale species. Other animals include: bears, cats (domestic), chicks, cows, deer, dogs, dolphins, donkeys, ducks, elephants, geese, guinea pigs, horses, monkeys, penguins, pigs, polar bears, rabbits, seals, sheep and zebras. The text is kind of a mix, varying between information about the various baby animals- how precocious or helpless they are at birth, what they eat at first, how fast they grow, how they are cared for (or not) by their mothers, etc. It tells about threats they face, both from predators and other perils (such as bad weather or food scarcity) in their natural environment, or from hand of mankind- either directly or from habitat destruction and global warming. Lots of references to how adored baby animals are in popular culture, with nods to books like Winnie the Pooh and Make Way for Ducklings, famed pieces of art, or more commonly- Disney movies. I did learn a few tidbits- I’d never heard of Chessie the cat who popularized a railway line in the 1930’s- and I finally learned why the Easter bunny is associated with eggs. If I can trust the source, that is.

Because this book has inaccuracies. There are photos showing the wrong animals, which really bothered me. The page about cheetahs has a large picture of a leopard cub nursing from a baby bottle, the section on monkeys shows photos of chimpanzees and orangutans, and there’s a sea lion pup on the page about seals. Moreover, the text is full of errors, too. No spelling typos, although the phrasing is sometimes a bit awkward, slightly melodramatic perhaps- but things like this: Camouflage is one of the fawn’s major survival strategies, particularly on its mother’s hunting forays . . . Um, I don’t think of deer as going hunting for food- foraging, maybe. Browsing, certainly. Hunting? This section also stated that a doe licks its fawn to remove all odor, so predators can’t smell it, but then said that mother deer can’t recognize their fawn’s voices, and identify them by their scent. Or this: The one time a mallard, or mother duck, will seek solitude is when she’s about to give birth. Ducks don’t give birth! And the book repeatedly referred to all mother ducks as mallards. That’s a species. Mother ducks are hens. There was also a page that called a young zebra a cub, but in the next sentence properly called it a foal. Seal pups were called cubs on one page, too. Sigh.

I can’t help it, these things just leaped off the page at me, and irked me to no end. Also, the words often felt crammed on the page to my eyes, and I finally figured out why- over and over, there were instances where a sentence had no space between its ending period and the next capitalized word. Sorry, but in spite of its charms and many endearing pictures, this book is going straight on my discard shelf.

Rating: 2/5
160 pages, 2007

by Glenn Balch

I\’m in the middle of a longer book but needed an easy read for a hot bath, and this was it. Unfortunately I found out pretty quick that like Indian Paint, this book is an abridged version of the original (titled Wild Horse). Wasn\’t quite as \”dumbed down\” so I was able to enjoy it somewhat; however it still doesn\’t really sound like the author\’s voice to me and will only stay on my shelf until I find a copy of Wild Horse

It\’s about two kids who have been admiring a wild black stallion that lives near their father\’s cattle ranch. The father doesn\’t see much use in wild horses so he doesn\’t mind when men come to run the wild horses, intending to sell whatever they catch for rodeo broncos or to a factory that makes chicken feed. The kids are appalled that the wild stallion they call King might meet such a fate. The boy determines to go out and catch the wild horse himself, and his sister helps by bringing supplies and fresh horses. It is a long hard job which they mainly do by following the stallion in relays until he\’s worn out. Most of this story felt really flat and bland to me- the dialog and descriptions- but that is probably due to it being \”revised\”. The final chapters were more interesting, after the horse is caught. The ranch hand is from South America.  He uses a bola for the capture instead of a lariat and his methods for getting the wild horse to accept some basic tack were also interesting. I liked that the horse\’s behavior and responses were very realistic. Eventually they teach the horse that it can\’t get away from a rope and are riding it (although it\’s not really controllable). The kids are so excited to have the wild stallion, but also dismayed that it seems the horse will never really accept confinement or guidance from a rider- having lived so many years in the wild and being set in his ways. But if they let him go again, he\’s at risk of being caught by others and sold to rodeo or slaughterhouse. The way they solve this problem is neatly done and honestly I didn\’t expect it at all, even though it was hinted at in the opening scene, I missed it.
Definitely think I\’d like the original version of this story. Happily I found a website that lists Glenn Balch\’s books and notes which ones are revised reprints, so maybe I can avoid this mistake again.

Rating: 2/5            118 pages, 1960

A Natural and Fabulous History of Ravens and Crows

by Catherine Feher Elston

     The cleverness and pervasive success of ravens and crows has been recognized by humans in many cultures, for ages. In native american tribes the raven is often seen as a creator or a spirit guide, although in other minds ravens are associated with death (because they feed on carrion). This book is a kind of celebration of ravens- the first part has legends and creation stories featuring Raven from various Pacific Northwest tribes, the middle part is some native american history (with the raven connection a thin tangent that is barely mentioned) and the final section is more factual about raven behavior with quotations from some scientific studies including several from Bernd Henrich and Konrad Lorenz (which in my opinion are better read in their original context). The first part was good, I had mixed feelings about the middle, and the last section wasn\’t anything new to me. Actually one of the better parts is the afterward, where the author describes some of her own work rehabilitating and caring for injured ravens. So the book feels rather uneven and sometimes the wording was odd or I felt dubious about the content. It would have been nice to have more of the legends, or more detail about the personal experiences. I could have really done without the history section, which had a different tone entirely and felt out of place to me. I did really like the inked illustrations by Lawrence Ormsby, very nice.

Rating: 2/5                       208 pages, 1991

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