Tag: 4/5- Great Book

by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee

Two friends who are opposites, but they do enjoy some of the same key activities. Especially roller skating (the skates were drawn very well!) Three little stories in here. Bink loves her new outrageously colored socks, but Gollie thinks they are an affront to look at and refuses to make her friend pancakes until she takes them off. Eh. I laughed at the picture where Bink, tired from roller skating to the store and back, is struggling to take off her knee-high socks, looking quite cross. They come to a compromise. Second story, Gollie goes on an (imaginary) trek up a mountain and doesn’t want interruptions, but Bink keeps knocking on her door. (This reminded me of Winnie the Pooh and Rabbit). In the last story, Bink gets a new friend- a pet fish. Gollie rolls her eyes at all the unsuitable things Bink does with her fish- like bringing it along to the breakfast table (in its bowl) and taking it out roller skating. Yes, roller skating while carrying a fish in a bowl. Disaster. Gollie saves the day. And the last scene really made me smile. While I thought some of the situations were a bit over the top (the fish going skating, and what kind of friend refuses to be around someone because of their socks?) I did like that it showed friends don’t always have to like the same things, they can support each other and find ways to get along anyway. I like the sketchy style artwork drawn by Tony Fucile, too.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
82 pages, 2010

OCD and the True Story of a Life Lost in Thought

by David Adam

A blend of personal account, medical history and looking into how the brain is wired. What OCD feels like to the person afflicted by it. Why treatments in the past didn’t work (some sound quite horrific) and what new ones are far more promising. Have to remember that the things doctors tried that sound awful now, were groundbreaking for their time and turned into something others could build on later, to figure out what actually was effective. Doesn’t make it sound much better though. They just didn’t have enough understanding back then. The book is personal and clinical by turns, covering some of the wide variety of expression this disorder takes on. Making some things far more clear to me (it’s not the compulsions that are the issue) and others I still don’t really understand. It book merits a re-read in more familiar format, especially because now I’m struggling to recall enough to say something coherent here. I do note: it explained pretty adeptly how unwanted, random, odd and often downright offensive or frightening thoughts pop into everybody‘s head- it’s just that most people immediately forget or dismiss them. The person with OCD dwells on them, and the more they dwell on a particular thought, the more it gets repeated in a feedback loop that’s extremely difficult to escape. That’s the point at which compulsive behaviors come in, as an attempt to drive the thought away. Missing a lot here- the notes I took down after I finished this audiobook weeks ago, while puzzling soon after my injury, are rather scanty. I was very intrigued and did listen closely the whole time I assure you, even though it was quite lengthy compared to some of the other audiobooks I’ve done.

There was one section that talked in depth about two brothers who lived alone in a house full of stuff they hoarded- which I’d also read about in this other book. I immediately recognized them from some of the details, and it was pretty interesting to hear about their predicament from another viewpoint.

Borrowed from the public library. Audiobook, narrated by Daniel Philpott, 7 hours 53 min listening time. Completed on 1/11/24

Rating: 4/5
336 pages, 2016

by Kay Thompson

This book has longer, smaller text on more pages than I expected. So it took all of my allotted thirty-minutes reading time. Especially because the illustrations have lots of detail that just begged to be pored over. It’s about a girl who lives in a top floor suite of a very posh New York hotel. She is constantly all over the place, in and out of the ballrooms, conference rooms, fine dining areas and all the other places guests never see- like the boiler room and the switchboard (tells you how old this one is!) My she is quite the character! Full of smirks, self-importance, lots of imagination, and easily gets cross! You can tell from expressions on the adults around in the pictures that she really tries the patience of many, but has the indulgence of others whom she’s charmed. She scurries all around and gets into everything and has a grand time (of course also getting into trouble). I can well see how this book has stayed in print for so many decades. WHY did I not know this one as a child? It’s great.

Must add: there’s one fantastic fold-out page that opens up vertically, a diagram showing Eloise’s escapes up and down the elevators and stairs- delightful and obviously been handled by many readers before me.

Oh, and Eloise skates! Ha ha. She’s never pictured skating (thought I’m sure she would, through those long hallways) but on one page she dives to the floor in a crowd claiming to have lost her skate key, and on another she primly says she clashes her skates on purpose sometimes, and there’s the key forgotten on the floor if you look close (and know what it looks like). This made me chuckle, because I happen to have watched a video (just before my accident) of someone who actually bought a set of old-fashioned metal clasp-on skates, and tried using them (they handled quite well!) and she talked about how her grandmother who skated would always mention being careful not to loose her skate key, and then on the video she did just that- lost it in the grass and had to go back looking. So I laughed.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
65 pages, 1955

Intimate Views of the Courting, Parenting and Family Lives of Familiar Birds

by Laura Erickson and Marie Read

Exactly what the subtitle says. Lots of great photographs, details on how the featured bird species select a mate, build their nests, share parenting duties, feed the young, their development and how long it takes them to fledge, then become independent, etc. A bit on social structure, song types, migration patterns and other details as well. Most of the species in here are songbirds, but there’s also great blue herons, red-tailed hawks, pigeons, killdeer, herring gulls, mallards and great horned owls. I was delighted to come across a bunch of new facts.

Such as: robins in my area don’t really migrate. You think they’re gone all winter, but they’re just in scattered flocks traveling around to different food sources. They get noticed when the males start staking out individual territories on lawns in the spring again. Mourning doves build a nest so loosely woven that sometimes eggs fall out through the bottom of it! When you find a nest with eggs and no parent bird in sight, it’s probably not deserted. Many female birds don’t start incubating until all the eggs are laid- then they will hatch at the same time. Hummingbirds use spider silk in their nest construction, so it will stretch as the baby birds grow. Young hairy woodpeckers stack their heads on top of each other’s necks in the nest, and the one on top gets fed when the parent arrives. Then it moves its head down to the bottom, the next on top gets fed, and so on- so they all receive an equal amount of food (most hatchlings, the biggest beggar gets the most food and smaller ones fall behind in growth). Phoebes feed their older nestlings wasps and bees, which they first beat on branches to subdue (and possibly break off the stinger). Chickadees have a social hierarchy in their winter flocks, and pair up with mates that have the same position among the opposite gender. Nuthatches smear pine resin around the entrance to their nest, and sometimes smashed-up stinkbugs, too- apparently to deter predators. Mockingbirds never reuse a nest, they always build a new one. Eagles are known to build on the old nest year after year until it gets huge. And peregrine falcons habitually use the same ledges, generation after generation. One nest site in Australia had a heap of debris (excrement and food scraps) below the ledge with material at the bottom estimated to be 16,000 years old. Female chipping sparrows tend to nest in the same small area every year, but they don’t reuse the nest. Instead they might tear it apart and use the materials to build a new one.

And that’s just a small sample. I found it all very engaging to read about. Plus the pictures were just stellar.

Similar reads: Baby Birds: An Artist Looks Into the Nest by Julie Zickefoose, The Mating Lives of Birds by James Parry, What It’s Like to Be a Bird by David Sibley.

Borrowed from the public library.

Extraordinary Creatures and the Fantastic Worlds They Inhabit

by Tim Flannery and Peter Schouten

This book caught my eye several times on the library shelf (spanning months), finally I caved and brought it home. Delightful. It showcases a wide array of strange, unusual and rare animals- from quirky and frightening (deep sea creatures!) to just plain silly-looking (as noted by the author, ha). The text has snippets of information- where the animals live, how much or little (sometimes almost nothing) is known about them, what adaptations their odd appearances evolved for. Sometimes also unknown. Most stunning are the two-page illustrations of every specimen- meticulous in detail (and not just in the animals’ fur or shining eyes or textured skin, also the lichens and tree bark and whatever they’re posed on- so very lifelike)! I didn’t learn a whole lot about the animals that were new to me, except to realize now that hey, that creature exists in the world- but still I was wowed. Most fun is that the book features one animal that’s purely fictional. I guessed, and then handed the volume to my kid to look through and guess- we were both wrong! It wasn’t until later when I thumbed through the book a second time, enjoying the images all over again and typing into the computer every single one I didn’t know was real, that I figured it out. I knew of the tree kangaroo, the kakapo, tomato frog and morymid, the aye-aye and platypus and many birds-of-paradise, from reading or seeing pictures and documentaries about them before. But there were just as many I’d never heard of, much less seen pictures- and some of these are so rare, the internet doesn’t even have images, just a few bare descriptions or the same paintings from this book! I won’t tell you those names however, just in case you want to solve the puzzle for yourself.

Another curious thing is that this book has an interesting, variable format. Some of the pictures are very tall, and printed across the spread so the top of the image is the left of the lefhand page, bottom of the image is right of the righthand. Text flipped to read that way too, if you turn the whole book ninety degrees clockwise, you read it all down. Never saw that before!

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
206 pages, 2004

Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse

by Nancy Marie Brown

This book is about Icelandic sagas and horses. The author tells how she first became interested in studying the sagas during university years, and took her husband to Iceland to rent out a summerhouse one year, where they would find solitude to work and write. She fell in love with the land, and its distinctive horses. I didn’t know how remarkably difference Icelandic horses are from other breeds (Arabians are too, in different ways). Also very different is how they are raised and trained, and the attitude of people towards them in Iceland. After visiting several times the author, a moderately experienced rider, decided she wanted to buy two Icelandic horses to take home to America. She returned alone specifically for this purpose. Which was made difficult by the fact that after some fifteen years spent studying the language, her conversational skills were still very basic. Her riding skills were above beginner level- but she wasn’t at all trained how to handle an Icelandic horse. She traveled around and rode many different horses to try them out, but couldn’t find one that she really connected with. And in spite of constantly repeating the phrase popular in Iceland that color doesn’t matter (a horse’s personality, willingness, smoothness of gait, etc being far more important in defining its quality) she kept being drawn to horses that had an attractive appearance (but other serious flaws that revealed upon handling). Then there was the tricky social aspect- her host expected her to purchase the mare he recommended (being known as a fine judge of horses) and was offended when she kept looking around. It was all very interesting to read about. The first half of the book was a bit less intriguing for me- having lots of asides about the language, and retelling bits of sagas that related to what the author was experiencing or thinking about. I liked it much better the further she got into testing out the horses, learning about what defined the Icelandic horse, trying to improve her skills in riding them, and so on. More about this was much to my liking. A great book.

Rating: 4/5
230 pages, 2001

Surviving Beyond the Back of Beyond

by Douglas Chadwick

I don’t think I knew there are grizzly bears that live in the harsh, barren desert. There’s not many of them- thirty or forty it seems. The author, a renowed biologist, traveled to the Gobi region in Mongolia multiple times as part of a team studying the population of golden desert bears. Tracking them with difficulty, supplementing their food supply (a difficult adjustment for a scientist who his whole life had followed and urged the rule don’t feed the bears! but he explains why in this case it was okay and even essential), setting live-capture traps to take vital signs. Putting up barbed wire strands in key areas to snag hair for DNA samples. Meeting with local officials to help form laws and regulations protecting the bears and other animals, and with schoolchildren to teach, encouraging appreciation of their wildlife. Lots about the landscape of the desert, the vast sense of place, the cheerful optimism of the people around him, the culture. Made me remember other books I’ve read that take place in Mongolia and surrounding regions. I wish there’d been more about the bears than just glimpses, but the wealth of information they could gather from hair samples, dissecting scat, tracking collars and motion-activated cameras (often destroyed by the startled bears) was impressive and valuable. It’s nice to see this book end on an upnote, with the population remaining steady perhaps even increasing a bit, protections and scope of the study widening, and more people caring about the bears.

When the author mentioned his work on mountain goats, I thought, I have to read that book! and guess what I recalled that I did- several times actually- and it’s still among my very favorites – A Beast the Color of Winter. (I think I like it even better than this one, because it has more detail about the animals’ daily lives and habits, since he could habituate them to his presence and get very close). Chadwick is a great writer, the narrative moves along with vivid and definite prose, clear descriptions of the landscape and the work, warm and thoughtful portraits of his fellow men, and also a good dash of humor throughout. Here’s just a sample sentence: the landscape unfolding before us felt so elemental and ancient that the human habit of parsing time into minutes and then fussing over their loss had begun to seem like a mental disorder.

Another bit I particularly like: In science, being confused is an opportunity to admit that you don’t understand something and to start asking questions. The obstacle is that part of human nature urges us to avoid confusion and stick with the answers we already have, working to make them fit. The more you heed that inner voice, and the more you assume that the answers you have must be right, the lower your chances of learning something new.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
288 pages, 2017

the Complete Manga Collection

by Gin Shirakawa

There’s thirteen chapters in this book, I’m assuming from the subtitle that it was originally published as a number of smaller volumes. It’s about the lives of stray cats in Tokyo. Particularly, one cat that used to live in a home, beloved by a human, until an accident occurred and he found himself suddenly on the streets, in shock. The alley cats shun him at first for being on the side of humans, but they convince him he was abandoned so he develops a sense of bitterness towards the people he used to love. In spite of that, he has a strange attachment to the ribbon collar on his neck, can’t let it go even though the other cats tease him for it, and try to talk him into getting rid of it. He goes with them to feeding stations, where people in the neighborhood take turns caring for the feral cats. Makes friends with one other young male cat (a faintly marked lynx point siamese- very striking cat) and gets involved with friction between all the others, when the older male who rules the colony shows signs of being ill. (The other ferals are appalled and feel betrayed when near the end of the story, they find out this older male has a young human who thinks fondly of him and gave him a name, which he’d kept secret). Meanwhile, alongside all of this is the story of people involved- a young woman who is taking her turn to feed the strays, even though she hates cats (or is terrified of them, it’s unclear at first). Her younger brother helps- he just adores cats of all kinds. Gradually through some flashbacks and instances of characters explaining their stories to each other, the reader learns why this woman feels so antagonistic towards cats, the tragedy that happened in her life, and how it is intricately linked to our main cat character Nanao. It seems possible the two might make a connection again, and together find a way to make their lives better.

So much in this story I just can’t get into or it might spoil it for someone- about friendship, survival and grief. It moves quickly and is hard to put down. The artwork is very good, the cats look convincing, even elegant and graceful sometimes. Shows a lot about the tough lives that strays lead, the efforts of certain people to help them, and how cruel others can be who don’t want ferals around (warning for a few brief scenes of cats being forcibly caught and threatened harmed by unscrupulous characters). There’s even a few pages in the back describing the work of groups that practice TNR (trap, neuter, release) to reduce populations of feral cats. And an odd little short which shows the main cat Nanao and his lynx point friend Machi, getting turned into humans by an older cat who casts a spell on them. It was awkward and funny and strange, the only instance in the book where magic was suggested.

I did think the very close connection Nanao had to his first owner seemed stronger than you’d expect for a cat- the part when he tried to run after a vehicle his owner was in, seemed a lot more like how a dog would behave. But all the other parts showing his affection for his one person, were just endearing, the behavior of the cats felt very real, even though they teased each other, joked, and said things in anger that of course real cats wouldn’t think of. Hints at the very end, that there will be future volumes- I sure hope so, because I’d like to read more of this!

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
452 pages, 2018

by Barry Hines

This is the book I long wanted to read, fictional story by the brother of Robert Hines, with the details of hawking closely based on what the younger brother had experienced as a boy. It was a bit slow for me to get into (in spite of being a relatively slim book) but then some scenes started to really get me with the emotions, and when the passages describing Billy’s work with the kestrel appeared, I knew I would hold onto this book forever. I can well see why it’s considered a classic in the UK.

Story is about Billy Casper, a boy growing up in poverty in a mining town. His mother is hardly ever home, his older brother works in the pit -and bullies him when he isn’t down there- his father is an unknown entity, having disappeared early in his life. Billy isn’t a bad kid at heart, but he is thought of as a troublemaker, messing around as kids always do. Smaller than the others (I was surprised when finally learned from one small comment dropped by an adult that he was fifteen!) he gets picked on at school- a place that sounds dull and tedious, with exasperated teachers that often thump (literally) the kids. At home there’s hardly ever enough to eat, and it’s often cold and uncomfortable. But there’s one part of Billy’s life that shines and brings out a softer side of his nature- being out tramping around in the wild overgrown places on the edges of town, then later caring for and working with a kestrel fledgling that he steals from a nest. He teaches himself from a book, how to train and fly it to a lure. When the class has to share a real-life story, he tells about his hawk, and for once everyone listens in fascination. One of his teachers starts to take a particular interest in what he’s doing with the hawk. But sadly, when he’s interviewed for job possibilities, he never brings up his interest in and skills with animals- even though from some other dropped comments it’s apparent that long before the hawk he raised fox kits, magpies, crows, and more. He simply thinks nobody would value that at all. Two parts of this book really got to me emotionally- one where another kid in class tells about an incident collecting tadpoles with a friend, made me laugh so hard and then I had to read it aloud all over again to my twelve-year-old (who thought it was great). The other passage was about when Billy had to write his own short fiction for an assignment- a “tall tale”- some wild imaginative fantasy. He wrote simply about waking up in a warm house, having plenty of good food to eat, and a loving family around him. It practically made me cry. The ending is terribly sad too, when Billy’s rocky relationship with his older brother takes a disastrous turn- he fails to do something his brother asked, loosing him some money as a result, and the older brother strikes out at the only thing he knows Billy really cares about. The little falcon.

I’m so glad I read this. And also glad that I saw the closely related film not that long ago. For once I appreciated that the film already put images in my head- it was made in the same town where the author and his brother lived- and it was so faithfully depicted, following the story very closely (except I don’t remember the tadpole scene being in the film. Disappointing!) However I kind of wish I’d read the book first, as I recall struggling to understand and follow the dialog when I watched the film. I’m sure there were plenty of scenes where I really didn’t know what anybody said just vaguely followed what was happening- whereas in the book it was very clear, even with a lot of local vernacular that I just skipped over, reading in context. (When I re-read this one someday -which I’m sure I will- I want to note down all those unknown terms and look them up to see if my guesses were correct).

In tone and depiction, something about this book reminded me of Stephen Hero, by James Joyce. Which I haven’t read in so long it isn’t even on this blog- but now I want to again, to see where that glimmer of familiarity came from.


Rating: 4/5
153 pages, 1968

More opinions:
The Octagon
anyone else?

Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World

by Patrik Svensson

The more I read about eels, the more fascinated I am. This book was published almost a decade after Eels by James Prosek, and yet it doesn’t add a whole lot to the eel’s story. Not to say there isn’t a lot of different information, and what was familiar was presented from different angles, so I found it intriguing all over again (plus I had forgotten plenty of details in the meantime). But in the end, the unanswered questions still remain. The eel’s birthplace remains at most a highly probably best guess, still nobody has seen two eels mating, or found adult sexually mature eels in the Sargasso Sea. If I read about this in the first book I had forgotten: that young Sigmund Freud spent a month dissecting hundreds of eels in search of one that had reproductive organs (eels don’t develop sexual organs until they’re on their final journey to the sea to mate). I read (probably again) about the man who tracked down the eels’ breeding ground, by following the leaflike eel larvae searching for smaller and smaller ones until he must be near their birthplace. Twenty years of searching. I read about how eels were among the foods that saved early colonists in New England from starving (even though nobody eats eel for Thanksgiving, they should!) About an eel that a kid tossed down a well, and apparently it survived there for a hundred and fifty years, alone in the dark, eating the occasional thing that fell in. Eels can have a very long lifespan. And what’s crazy is that they make their journey back to the sea, undergoing a final metamorphosis into an adult eel, at anywhere from four or five years to thirty, fifty, eighty . . . or more. So two eels that meet in the Sargasso Sea could be “all in the same developmental phase, the same relative age, if you will, and yet the oldest seven times older than the youngest.” There’s stories of eels caught in their young stages and kept in captivity, that stayed in that phase for years and years, never developing further.

There’s a lot of material in this book quoted from Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea Wind, which has a lengthy section about the life of an eel. And a passage reproduced and examined at length, from The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, where the main character and his parents observed a man pull a dead horse’s head out of the water and extract eels from it. I found this passage very disturbing back then and disturbing now all over again! (In fact, a lot of that book was disturbing. It’s one I read in high school, the words captivated me and I was proud of reading a real dorstopper, but a lot of things in that book were rather repulsive, it’s one I kind of regret reading at all. However a lot of it also went way over my head, so not sure I can judge it fairly).

This book also has a lot of personal narrative, where the author describes fishing for eels with his father as a young boy, how their methods changed over the decades, and different details surrounding that. It was lovely, even though of course the eels die and get eaten. And the way they acquired a massive amount of worms to make a special kind of bait ball, was rather shocking!

Plus lots more facts and interesting stories and tidbits about the life and mystery of eels, of course. At the end, as is sadly the case with many books about wild animals that I read, is a chapter full of concern for indications that eel numbers are falling drastically, and it is likely this animal will go extinct before we even have understood it completely.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
241 pages, 2019


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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