Tag: 5/5- Loved It

by Clare Bell

I was blown away by this book when I first read it long ago as a pre-teen. I still recall very distinctly how enthralled I was with the beginning storyline, the startling turn the narrative takes into new and intriguing directions, and a very physical shock I felt when a sudden tragic event occurs- I literally had to snap the book shut with a gasp, my heart leaping. It’s not often that a book affects me so strongly. I’ve read it multiple times, though it’s been decades since the last re-read. Of course the surprises no longer leap out at me, but the story was very much still engaging, I loved revisiting all the details, and I grasped much better than my younger self, the parts that took place in historical Egypt. Warning: I love this book so much I want to say a lot about it, so there’s gonna be SPOILERS, though I’ll try not to give everything away.

Well: it’s about a race of sentient cheetahs, that live in a far-distant future when humans have abandoned Earth. The planet is not in great shape- the cheetahs struggle to survive harsh conditions, with rapidly diminishing plant life and scant prey to make their living from. Kichebo is a young cheetah born into difficult circumstances, to say the least. Her mother dies in an accident when she’s very young, and she struggles with fears of abandonment for most of her life. Her aunts begrudgingly raise the orphaned cub (cheetah culture frowns on this, she was supposed to be left to die) and are first appalled, then frustrated when she starts to mature. Her adult fur coat grows in completely black, with gold tear lines and tail tip. This anomaly is a serious threat to her survival- it’s nearly impossible to hunt, when she is so visible against the pale desert scenery. She learns to manage by using ambush techniques, or sticking to crepuscular times, but longs to run freely out in the open, to be the way a cheetah is supposed to be.

So there’s all that- this daily struggle to survive, this one cheetah in particular dealing with trying to accept her differences and find a way to fit in. I would have been totally satisfied to read an entire novel just about that. The cheetahs are so alive, their personalities very distinct, their catlike mannerisms, customs and expressions reminding you strongly that these are not anthropomorphized characters, even though they talk to each other. But then! Strange alien flying craft start to appear, and it becomes obvious they’re tracking the cheetahs, focusing on Kichebo in particular. Which makes it even harder for her to fit into cheetah society. Things happen, and she ends up fleeing to live on her own, just barely in possession of her adult skills. One day she finds an alien craft crashed in the desert, on fire. There’s a naked apelike creature trapped in the wreckage- she drags it free intending to eat it, but then doesn’t. For some strange reason she is reluctant to kill the creature, ends up letting it follow her, then eventually adopts it in a manner of speaking. It is a humanoid, somewhere in the toddler age range. The relationship that slowly develops between the lonely outcast cheetah and this little defenseless human is so believable and tender- and not without its amusing moments either. I loved the details about how Kichebo tries to communicate with the creature she ends up calling Menk, tries to teach it to speak– but finds its lack of ability to use expressive gestures, having no tail or whiskers- such a handicap that she can only get the most basic messages across. Imagine! A story in which animals pity humans for the limitations of using just verbal sounds to communicate. This story got better and better.

There’s more. Kichebo and Menk acquire another companion- an elderly cheetah who has also dealt with physical differences her whole life. They all take up residence in a place no other cheetahs are interested in claiming as territory- because it’s near an ancient human ruin. The massive remnants of buildings are impressive by their sheer size, but strange things also happen when Kichebo walks among them. She’s taken by fits (that sound like epilepsy) and makes a mental connection to another black cheetah who lived far, far in the past- in ancient Egypt during the time of Tutankhamen. So now there’s another parallel storyline, about this other black cheetah who lived among royalty, with details on how the Egyptians kept cheetahs in captivity, trained them to course game, some of their customs of worship, court intrigue surrounding the young King Tut, and much much more. I admit when I was a kid a lot of this part went over my head, even though I found it fascinating. This time around I was able to pick up on more subtleties. For her part, Kichebo is at first terrified by the experience of mind-melding (I don’t know what else to call it) with a long-extinct conspecific, then she becomes eager to learn more about herself, from the only other black cheetah she’s ever encountered. Is he real, though? Her elderly companion gently suggests that maybe Kichebo made the whole thing up, that heatstroke and her strange fits are giving her delusions.

So they travel past the ruins to a site Kichebo had learned about from her friend in the past, just to prove to herself that he really did exist. She finds far more than she expected to. Long ago this ending section of the book felt rushed and confused to me, I didn’t quite grasp all the implications. But this time around it was pretty clear. Kichebo the rare black cheetah, at last gets the answers she’s sought her whole life- why she looks so different from all the others, why she felt compelled to keep Menk as a companion instead of eat her as prey, even about some abilities she wasn’t aware she had, and where her future might lead her.

Man, if only there was a sequel or companion novel to this book! I’d snap it up in a heartbeat. Done talking now, before I tell all the things I’ve skipped over in this post. Have to leave something for other readers to discover- if you can find a copy of this novel count yourself fortunate.

Rating: 5/5
292 pages, 1986

and Find Yourself in Nature

by Marc Hamer

This book was just lovely, far more than I had anticipated. It’s a blend of memoir, natural history writing and poetry. The author was for many years a molecatcher, using traditional methods. He states at the beginning of the book that he’s going to tell you what he knows about moles and how to catch them (if you need to), but he goes about it in a very meandering fashion. There will be one little tidbit of information that starts off a chapter, then gently diverges into a story about how he wandered fields and hedgerows as a homeless young man, or how he feels about the current state of his family, or just observations on the weather and scenery about him as he does his work. You get one piece of the picture about moles every ten pages it seems, with a lot of musings and quiet observations on other nature things in between. Which I didn’t at all mind. For once I also didn’t mind the back-and-forth of the narrative- sometimes about his past, sometimes present tense, sometimes thinking on the future, and not at all in order. There are thoughts on gardening, on why he prefers solitude, on how the landscape has changed as the years pass, as housing and industry slowly replace the fields. There’s a lot about how nature recycles everything back into something new to grow again. I really liked that. In fact I tore my bookmark paper into little strips to mark pages to remember, and thought for the first time in a good long while of underlining passages that really struck me.

We don’t need to know everything . . . being comfortable with not knowing is an important part of hunting, as it keeps all the options open, offers choices. Not knowing is for me the best of all possible worlds; it contains a sweetness and a playful willingness to accept change and to enjoy the million-petalled flower of life without having the compulsion to know what everything is.”

I lost my self-importance early on and do not want to differentiate myself from the world around me. I am just another animal . . . among billions of others, each unique in their own way, each just like the others in other ways, each one just another expression of nature trying to survive. There is something deeply magnificent in being just ordinary.”

I once heard a friend…. with a broken relationship, say ‘The glass is broken, it can’t be repaired.’ But she was wrong. Things cannot be made as they were, but they can become something else. They can be re-made. All things are impermanent, and everything wears down to dust. Everything has its end and each things carries the beginning of the next thing. Healing is not about re-making things as they once were, healing is about acceptance and forgiveness and love and growth and beginning again.”

In the end, he finally tells about placing the traps and how his knowledge of mole behavior enables him to catch them without fail- and then why he no longer wants to do so.

I liked everything about this book. The voice and sentiments immediately resonated with me, the black and white woodcut-style illustrations by Joel McLaren are so nice, I even liked the parts expressed in poetry (which usually isn’t my thing). This is right up there with H is for Hawk, Braiding Sweetgrass and Bringing Nature Home.

I’m delighted to discover he’s written other books- Spring Rain: A Life Lived in Gardens and Seed to Dust: Life, Nature and a Country Garden are two I’d really like to get my hands on someday now.

Rating: 5/5
240 pages, 2019

More opinions: Books Please
anyone else?

by David Small

Another I won’t easily forget. So fraught and vivid with imagery. Love the way this artist handles line and expressions, I read several parts all over again after finishing. But- the coldness. It’s beyond depressing: growing up in a tough household, not like the last, but tough with bitterness handed down from prior generations, with physical punishments, harsh words, unspoken resentments. Meager meals, unloving hands, and an x-ray technician father who turns the machine on his own son hoping to cure his ailments, only to (probably) give him cancer. The boy needed surgery on his throat when he was a teenager, leaving him unable to speak for a long time afterwards. He plunged himself into his artwork (some of the drawings depict this quite literally). I was absolutely appalled when his mother burned his books (I don’t care for Lolita myself, but I wonder what else was in his collection). I was alternately saddened and horrified all through this book, but couldn’t look away. You really ache after reading this one. It’s another showing how the author practically clawed his way out of a bad situation (leaving home at sixteen), found his place at art school, made a better life for himself. Hard to believe he went through all that, and was able to rise above it.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 5/5
334 pages, 2009

by Anne McCaffrey

This book was just as wonderful on a re-read as when I first discovered it decades ago. I actually savored it this time around, stopping myself at the end of each chapter to continue the next day- when I could easily have finished it in much quicker! Set in the world of Dragonflight, centered around an ordinary and very sympathetic character. Menolly is youngest daughter of a large family in a sea hold- a place very much set in old traditions. Her one love is music- which relieves all the drudgery of cleaning fish, tending her senile uncle and other tasks- but her father disapproves. Life becomes even more unbearable when the Harper who had nurtured her talent dies, and she seriously injures her hand- so her parents tell her she’ll never be able to play an instrument again. Menolly runs away from the Hold and shelters from dangerous Threadfall in a cave on a bluff. She happens across a clutch of fire lizards just as they are hatching- and bonds with nine of the delightful little creatures. The dragonlike lizards seem to like her music, easing her loneliness, and Menolly has enough skills as a fisherman’s daughter to survive there. Until one day she’s found by a dragonrider, running from Thread (having wandered a bit too far from her cave). He takes her to a weyr where she is shocked at the treatment she receives- kindness, understanding, even appreciation for her music when she looses caution and sings in front of others. Her confusion and alarm at being given attention and kindness makes you realize just how badly she’d been treated back home. (Meanwhile, all this time back at seahold, only her brother and the new replacement Harper had continued to look for her when she ran away and was presumed dead!) It’s with relief and gladness that the reader sees Menolly at the end of the book facing a possible new life for herself- one in which she can embrace her talent and grow, instead of feeling constantly squelched and shamed.

How I loved this book as a teen. I came across a piece of it when I was in fourth or fifth grade- in a school volume with selected short stories, poems, and excerpts. The piece of Dragonsong in there wasn’t assigned reading, I was intrigued by the illustrations and read it on my own- having no context of the world it was set in, or the background- it started in the moment when Menolly pushed open the heavy seahold doors to leave home right before Threadfall, and wrapped up right after the momentous scene where she impressed the fire lizards. I read it several times over- fascinated, but didn’t realize it came from a full-length book. Years later, at an event with my family which I found boring, I wandered the building and discovered a small library- and of course I browsed the shelves. Dragonsong was there. I may have read the whole thing in one sitting, or found it at the public library later to finish it- I don’t recall now- but I immediately recognized it as the story I’d enjoyed in the school volume- and was so thrilled. Even more so to find it had two sequels. I like the illustration I’ve put to head this post, but the first copy I picked up had the whimsical artwork here to the left. Can’t decide which is my favorite now.

Rating: 5/5
202 pages, 1976

more opinions:
Charlotte’s Library
Martin’s Booklog
anyone else?

the Mountain Goat Observed

by Douglas H. Chadwick

This is one book I will always recall vividly- still remember how I came across it at the public library as a high school student (several decades ago) when I had just discovered that narrative accounts about wildlife field studies was a thing. I think the first one I actually read was Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man, which I’d found at a thrift shop. The section of the library (adult books!) that had nonfiction about wildlife became my favorite spot to browse. This book remained top in my mind, and now finally reading it again so many years later, I still find it excellent. I mentioned it once here before, but can now give a clearer picture.

The author spent seven years studying mountain goats, mainly in Glacier National Park. He camped on the slopes and followed them closely, collaring and tagging some but also learning to identify others by slight individual differences, and to tell males/females apart at different ages, which sounds particularly difficult. He describes the animal in all regards- its physical shape which is so perfectly adapted to living on steep slopes, its eating habits, survival strategies and social structure. The terrain it favors and why, the other animals that share its habitat, how it has avoided competition from most other species and also most predators, but is particularly vulnerable to hunting and distubances caused by man. There is a chapter about how mountain goats evolved (they are more closely related to chamois and serow than to bighorn sheep or any kind of actual goat), and another about why their behavior is so different from sheep. The book explains why they are so belligerent to their own kind and how this actually facilitates their survival. There are diagrams and explanations of their distribution across mountain ranges and what happened when they were introduced to new areas. On a more personal bent, there are passages where the author describes his experiences climbing the mountains to follow the goats, his first sighting of a newly-born mountain goat kid, the harshness of winter storms, many examples of how the goats lead their day-to-day lives and how he was finally able to approach a few mountain goat herds closely enough to sit among them and be part of their social interactions (literally- he knew enough of the goats’ body language to maintain dominance among them until one larger male threatened him a few times when he was too close, and then his social standing among the others gradually slipped!) It’s very apparent that the author greatly admired these animals and enjoyed spending time with them in spite of the hardships during his study. His writing about the wildlife and the surrounding landscape is beautifully done. Constant references to the mountain goats as “the white beasts” or “the bearded ones” did get a bit repetitive! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book again.

Rating: 5/5
208 pages, 1983

Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants 

by Robin Wall Kimmerer

     The author of this beautiful book has Native American roots, and scientific training in botany and ecology. She deftly weaves science with knowledge rooted in her indigenous culture, expounding on how if we care for the land and treat nature with respect, the earth will shower us with abundance. How the land itself can teach us, can heal us, can lift us up. That simply leaving nature alone to do its own thing isn\’t enough, if we work together in harmony with it, respecting other (non-human) lives (non-human), all will thrive. I tend to think our earth is better left alone after all the harm we\’ve done to it; Kimmerer gently encourages me to see otherwise. Even details a study she did with a graduate student to prove that sweetgrass is more prolific when it is regularly harvested, then when left alone. There is so much in this book about native cultures, social ills, and intricate details on plant life I just don\’t know how to phrase it all. Things about migrating salamanders and the balance of nutrients in a pond. About cedar trees, black ash, and maples known so deeply by the indigenous people who used them well. Strawberries, wild leeks, corn, witch hazel, lichens (most fascinating), blackberries, cattails, pecans, salmon, wild rice . . . The individual and distinctive beauty of raindrops. The cleansing sweep of controlled fire. Personal stories about gardening, harvesting, replanting forests, mothering children, learning the nearly-forgotten language of her people and teaching students to see and feel the land again. Or at least to know it by plant names. Painful stories from of native american history. Wise stories from cultural myths, hopeful stories looking into the future, hopeful to heal the earth together with humankind. I can\’t name all the things. Others have share their impressions, linked below. Now wanting to read her book Gathering Moss

My father gave this book to me, I am grateful.

Rating: 5/5               390 pages, 2013
More opinions:

a Manual for Kittens, Strays, and Homeless Cats 

translated from the Feline 
by Paul Gallico

      A book from the cat\’s perspective which details how a one may successfully take over and run a human household to their own liking. When done skillfully, the humans won\’t even realize this is happening. It\’s all about clever, subtle manipulation, making the humans think they\’re getting their own way, while really they end up doing everything to the cat\’s desire. It\’s more smug and self-assured in tone than The Devious Book for Cats, and very charmingly illustrated with professional photographs of a cat in her home by Suzanne Szasz. It doesn\’t at all feel outdated, except maybe for a few remarks on the nature of men and women. The feline advice is on things like: getting people to serve what you want to eat, claiming your own chair, making it a given that you will sleep on the bed, dealing with travel and visits to the veterinarian, coaxing the man of the house to give you tidbits from the dinner table, how to treat unwelcome houseguests, making sure doors will be opened for you, training humans to recognize your different miaows (including the voiceless one which must be used very strategically), what poses and attitudes are most becoming to win people\’s admiration, making the holiday fuss all about you, and finally- if you happen to have dalliance with a tomcat and become a mother- how to properly pass on these lessons to your offspring so that they, too, may acquire and influence a human household. There are also remarks which let you that know in spite of her calm sense of superiority, the cat behind this book obviously loves her humans as well. 

There\’s more, but really you should have the delight of reading them for yourself! so I will stop here. I still remember very clearly when I first saw this book on my great aunt\’s shelf. I read it once during a visit there and ever after longed for my own copy. How thrilled I was to finally find one- many years ago now but I think I came across it in a used bookstore. I am sure anyone who loves cats would be charmed by this book, and the photographs, while all black-and-white, are so perfectly composed with precise focus and contrast, you almost forget there\’s no color to them. 
Rating: 5/5                 160 pages, 1964

How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants

by Douglas W. Tallamy

This one was great. Just what I needed. Stuffed full of information and beautifully clear photographs. It’s not necessarily about how to select plants, but instead focused on why homeowners need to reintroduce native plants to their land, and weed out aliens as much as possible. I’ve never been a purist in my gardening. I’ve always though ok: natives are good, feed the birds, but I like some striking, pretty plants that don’t get eaten by the deer too. Although I haven’t got very far in filling my yard with the perennials and shrubs I had my eye on yet, and a good thing I guess. This book has convinced me I’d do better with buttonbush than butterfly bush, and to really value the maples, oaks and crabapple in my yard- in spite of the mess they make with dropped seeds and small hard fruit.

His main point is that in order to support the wildlife we like seeing- the mammals- squirrels, rabbits, deer, foxes – and particularly the birds- we need to have plants that support the bugs. Because all the small creepy crawly things eat the plants and turn the value of the sun’s energy trapped in plants into a major food source (their own bodies) for the birds. Most birds feed their young on insects, period. And he points out that the damage insects do to plants is usually minor enough that most gardeners don’t notice it, if you have a good balance so there are enough predators attracted (birds, spiders, assassin bugs etc) to eat them! And he shows the scientific data that no matter how long an alien species of plant has been on our continent, the insect life here is not adapted to feed off it, and will take such a long time to do so it\’s pointless to consider. I didn’t realize.

So a major part of the book is a gallery of photos showing all the little critters you might not notice in the yard, making a note of why they are important to the bird life (and other things), and what plants support them. There’s also a section on trees, which native trees are the most valuable in terms of supporting wildlife- some feed literally hundreds of different species. I really like reading through the pages on insects. I learned some astonishing things, and found info on bugs I’ve seen in my own yard, but knew nothing about before. Did you know there are female insects that care for their young? some will guard the eggs from predators, others guard the nymphs, and one will lay its eggs near another female’s clutch, then leave so the first female cares for them all! Did you know the female white tussock moth has no wings? I’ve seen their caterpillars a few times, had no idea. Did you know that monarch caterpillars can feed on more than just milkweed? any plant in the same family will do- and there’s quite a few of them. So, so much more.

I paid to read this one, that’s how much it galvanized me. I kept it beyond the due date (when someone else obviously wanted it- I couldn’t renew) so I could finish reading, take notes, and find a copy machine for those lists of plants in my region that have the highest wildlife value (supporting the greatest number of insect and thus bird life). I really want to find a copy to add to my personal collection, so I can reference it often. I’m not going to stop trying to keep the bugs from ruining my vegetable garden, but if I plant more perennials and flowers around the yard they can eat, maybe they won’t be so attracted to my little patch of edibles. And this book shows me how.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 5/5
358 pages, 2007

More opinions at: Commonweeder
anyone else?

100 Years of Listening to Nature
by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

This book is just beautiful. It is a collection of essays on bird-watching, new discoveries science has made about birds, facts about their lives, movements and behavior, descriptions of their beauty, concerns about their future and what we can do about it. Heartening are the accounts of birds whose populations made remarkable recoveries once measures were taken to protect them: bald eagles, snowy egrets, wood ducks, peregrine falcons, trumpeter swans. I did not know the details about some that are currently in serious decline, especially ivory gulls and the florida grasshopper sparrow. I didn\’t realize that the spotted owl is being pushed out of its habitat by larger, more competitive barred owls. Some of the more intriguing facts I also learned: birds have a double-sided voicebox. So they can sing two notes simultaneously, so a bird can harmonize with itself. I never realized this before. I listen more closely now to the intricacies of their songs. Harris\’s hawks live in groups and hunt cooperatively, like a pack of wolves or a pride of lions! There\’s so much more in here.

The introduction is written by Barbara Kingsolver, about how she resisted the passion of her bird-watching parents as a teen, but came to love birds in her own way later on. Chapters about observing flamingos, visiting nesting colonies on remote islands, collecting the sounds of birds, and how studies of bird populations can alert us to serious problems in specific environments, are penned by John Fitzpatrick, Scott Weidensaul, Lyanda Lynn Haupt and Jared Diamond. There are also sections written by scientists in the field describing their work and their love of birds. And the photographs by Gerrit Vyn make this book something to pore over for days. They are absolutely stunning. I have never seen such precise, exquisite detail in bird photography before. The texture of the feathers is so clear, the details so sharp, I spent a lot of time just staring at the pictures.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 5/5          208 pages, 2015

An Artist Looks Into the Nest
by Julie Zickefoose

This is a beautiful, beautiful book. I borrowed it from the library same day as Bird Brain, and have spent all this time reading it (with several renewals), very leisurely to absorb and enjoy as much as possible. The author is a very capable artist, who also happens to be licensed to rehabilitate wild birds. She spends a good amount of time raising orphaned songbirds, and thus had the handling skills to undertake this project.

She decided it would be interesting, and perhaps reveal new knowledge, to paint daily life-sized studies of young birds from hatching through fledging. She accomplished this with seventeen different species, presented in this book- and mentioned in the afterward that she was starting on another, so the project continues! Most of the birds were nesting on her own property, close enough to the house she could view them frequently, or in nesting boxes she monitors closely. Others were nesting near the homes of friends or colleagues, who obligingly took daily photographs for her to use. A few birds were orphans she raised, and in several cases she began studying a nest only to find it empty after a few days- the infant birds killed by parasites, or a predator, or the cold- but fortuitously she received orphans of the same species at about the same growth stage as when she\’d left off with the first nest, so could continue the record.

The revelations of these delicate, detailed watercolor and gouache paintings is amazing. I never thought how differently the chicks of various species grow, and I never realized how fast their growth rate is. Some go from helpless, ugly naked hatchling to a bird able to hop and flap among the branches in just ten or twelve days. There are two main reasons for this: getting out of the nest makes the young birds far less vulnerable to predation, and with the quick growth rate, the parents can often raise two or three broods in a season- advantageous when not many make it to adulthood.

I learned so much from this book. Seeing how the babies grow was eye-opening: some develop the feet first, or the wings, depending on what particular skills they need. Some hatch with fluffy down, others completely naked and sprout real feathers sooner. Most are fed high-protein diet of insects by the parents, but some finches eat a purely vegetarian diet (which foils nest parasites whose babies can\’t live on that- cowbirds, cuckoos) and the mourning dove feeds its young babies crop milk. A few times the author helped the babies out by cleaning the nest when it had mites – they feed on the nestling\’s blood and it can kill them. But she found that one bird places spider egg cases in its nest- and when the spiders hatch, they eat the mites.

The birds she studied include: carolina wren, eastern bluebird, tree swallow, ruby-throated hummingbird, chimney swift, house sparrow, eastern phoebe, carolina chickadee, european starling, northern cardinal, prothonotary warbler, tufted titmouse, indigo bunting, mourning dove, house finch, house wren and yellow-billed cuckoo. Lovely to read of the daily observations, the growing awareness of the infant birds to their surroundings, the little incidents with raising orphans. There is so much- I can\’t in any way share all the details- you\’d have to read the book! I remember some time ago reading another book that focused on nests of birds, by Joan Dunning, and now I want to borrow that one again so I can compare what I learned from the two.

Rating: 5/5        336 pages, 2016


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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