Tag: Animals Nonfiction

When Nature Breaks the Law

by Mary Roach

Well. I always wanted to read some Mary Roach. Saw my library had this one as an audiobook (9 hours) and thought that would be a great start. I got nowhere. The book- about human and animal conflicts- jumps immediately into describing a conference the author attended to learn how forensics experts identify what killed a person: wild animal (bear or cougar) human, or accident. The many close details on wounds, how they were inflicted, what that says about the animal, etc just were too much. I’m not sure why. Normally I would be okay reading this kind of stuff? Perhaps it was the deadpan delivery, such a matter-of-fact, clipped tone of voice (the author herself). I realize the subject matter varies, so I skipped ahead and put in the third CD, which has an account of the author’s visit to India, to see how people deal with leopards. I had the same kind of reaction, my mind drifting away from the narrative, and then when I focused in again, wondering after a few sentences: why am I listening to this? I’m not enjoying it. Sigh. I might try it again in actual book format. Or maybe this author’s style is just not for me.

Rating: Abandoned
320 pages, 2021

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How Kes, My Kestrel, Changed My Life

by Richard Hines

Memoir by a man who grew up in a small coal-mining town in Yorkshire. Where most men were employed in “the pit” and some never came out alive again. Prospects for the future seemed slim when Hines failed to pass a test for better education, he was shunted into a public school that didn’t seem to teach much. Corporal punishment and petty cruelty from teachers was all over the place. Kids were prepared to take jobs of manual labor, or at best learn a trade. Hines’ older brother moved on to the better school and became a writer. The author himself often spent time roaming the fields and hedges, when he happened to find a nest of kestrels in an abandoned building, took a young bird and then taught himself falconry from old books. His fascination with the archaic terms and the methodology of teaching hawks became an obsession, he would talk about it with anyone he met. Reading about his patient success with the kestrel was lovely. Especially the little close observations on its behavior and wild beauty. After schooling, the author took a few jobs he didn’t care for (plumber’s assistant, office worker for a housing council, etc) but was fired to move on with his hawking experiences. He wanted to man another bird of prey species, but goshawks and others were very scarce in England at the time only kestrels were commonly found. The only way back then to obtain a bird, was to catch a wild one. He decided he’d have to travel to find other avenues for his passion, so volunteered to do chairty work abroad and ended up in Nigeria. He didn’t find any opportunities there to catch and train a wild hawk, but did discover that he liked teaching when his assigment changed. Returning to England he went back to school to get liscenced as a teacher.

Meanwhile, his older brother wrote a fictional book about a boy in a mining town who finds and trains a wild kestrel. While the home life and trajectory of the story in Kestrel for a Knave was completely fictional, details surrounding capture of the falcon and its training were patterened after reality. In fact Hines’ older brother questioned him closely about falconry, borrowed some of his books, and watched him work with the bird. Later when a film was made of the novel, Richard Hines also worked on the set, he was the person who (of course) trained the three falcons used for filming, and taught the young boy actor how to handle the birds and fly them to the lure in scenes. It was fascinating reading about the filmmaking. Of course there were some frustrations involved, and disgruntlement when Hines found out his brother was taking more credit than he felt was due.

The latter part of the book tells how the author lost his desire to keep a hawk after he met a falconer at a demonstration and experienced some class prejudice. He felt he’d never be accepted among elite falconers, but didn’t want to just keep flying kestrels, so he gave up on it for decades, though still always had a keen interest when he saw birds in the wild or read about them. Also growing concern for environmental issues that impacted birds of prey. He’d read and gushed about T.H. White’s Goshwak as a boy, and now discussed many times J.A. Baker’s Peregrine. Which delighted me as I own, and highly regard, both these books- but of course there are many other works he talks about in this memoir, which I haven’t had the pleasure to read yet.

And then, thirty years after abandoning the hobby, the author began making film documentaries about the lives of working-class people. In his travels and interviews, he met more upper-class men and realized they didn’t intimidate him as in years past. He attended a falconry demonstration and realized that things had changed- talked to the man and learned that birds of prey were now bred in captivity, anyone could buy a bird to train, methods were a bit different now, it would be easy to join a falconry club, etc. So he obtained a captive-bred merlin and once again trained a bird to fly. Reading about the differences in this experience to the ones in his youth was enlightening, and I’m not even involved in this hobby! I’ve just always been kind of fascinated by it.

There’s much more in here about his family, life in the mining town, amusing incidents between friends, the volunteer work in Africa, teaching experiences, what it was like working with the film crew, his growing concerns about wildlife and so on. It was very interesting to read about the film and then watch it, even though I’ve never read his brother’s novel (though it’s been on my TBR for many many years). Enough is patterened after real life that I could follow what was going on in the film, though I struggled a lot to comprehend the dialect and slang. The film was made in the author’s hometown, in the very fields where he flew his kestrel as a young man. But not having read that book, the film’s ending took me by surprise, and it was very sad. It made me think a lot of stories by Helen Griffiths. With the bitter, gritty reality.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
275 pages, 2016

Adventures in Taxidermy

by Melissa Milgrom

This book is just as fascinating, macabre and illuminating as I expected it would be. Reporter Milgrom delves into the world of taxidermy. She visits a taxidermy lab for the Smithsonian, goes to the World Taxidermy Championships (twice), attends a guild meeting of taxidermists in the UK, tours behind the scenes at natural history museums and interviews staff there, meets “commercial” taxidermists who mount trophies for hunters, visits with a woman who taxidermies specimens for Damien Hirst’s modern art sculptures, travels to the three-day auction of a Victorian museum of “curiosities” collection (including the famous oddities preserved by Walter Potter in humanlike scenes with quirky humor – think kitten tea parties and baby rabbits at school desks), and observes the process of Ken Walker at work, who re-created the extinct Irish elk (a large deer species more closely related to modern fallow deer) patterned after fossils and depictions on cave paintings. Through all this she explores the history and artistry of taxidermy- how the skill developed (and is practiced today) so differently in the UK and the United States, how taxidermy had its heyday in the Victorian specimen collecting craze when natural history museums first became a thing, but such displays have now fallen out of favor. Reading about meticulous dioramas and incredibly detailed anatomically-correct pieces being dismantled for newer displays made me feel very very sad. Some are kept and preserved, others sold or simply taken apart and destroyed, if they’re in poor condition or there’s no room in storage for them.

In the end, the author herself attempts to stuff a squirrel, under the guidance of artisans in a taxidermy shop, and even enters her squirrel in a taxidermy competition under Novices, accepting the frank and exacting critique offered by a judge. I am really intrigued by the whole process, mostly because I used to love attending natural history museums to draw and sketch the specimens- so lifelike but they don’t move! I am in awe of people who would spend the hours of paintstaking work, research and knowledge about particular animal species to make them appear so lifelike. But I’m also rather squeamish, so doubt I could ever do that kind of thing myself. I found it really interesting to read interviews with Emily Mayer and other taxidermists, which makes it clear most of them have respect and admiration for the animals, would never kill an animal just to stuff it. (Their sources are varied. And yes, some of them are hunters and eat the birds, deer, etc) A lot of them had as kids a fascination with how things were made and articulated- wanted to disassemble stuff and put it back together- just with animals.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
285 pages, 2010

by David Attenborough

This book is great- everything the previous read on insects was not. It likewise has lots of brief sections about varied insects (and other invertebrates) but there’s better organized connections between the segments, more details, easy to understand explanations on evolution and behavior, and best yet great photographs (unless creepy crawlies make you feel uncomfortable). The book was written as a companion to Attenborough’s television series about wildlife. I’ve seen many of his documentary films but not this particular one. I actually have three of his other books, but hadn’t read any yet, kind of funny the first one I read was borrowed from the library! I had a bit of trepidation thinking it would be a word-for-word reproduction of what Attenborough had said in the film (and thus maybe not stellar as speaking comes across a bit different than writing), but not at all. The book was written in tandem however the author clarifies that he wrote it as a separate account, and the material is not all the same. (Thus I’m now more eager to read the ones I have that correspond to films I’ve seen).

So, this book tells about some tiny and remarkable creatures. It starts with the oldest known invertebrates, ones that were here before mammals even existed (and are still with us). Horseshoe crabs, scorpions, velvet worms and amblypygids- a creature I never heard of before!- it has traits like both spiders and scorpions. There’s other animals in here that seem a bridge between species, and point to common evolutionary ancestry- like wasp ants. And so many familiar ones- worms, slugs, centipedes, mites, beetles, mantids, grasshoppers, dragonflies, fleas, butterflies, bees, termites and ants etc etc. But in each case I learned new details about their lives that astonished. Months that mimic the scent of dangerous bees and sneak in to eat their honey. Butterflies whose larvae are cared for by ants but then parasitized by a wasp instead. Spiders that sling a silk lasso at passing flying insects. Another that lives underwater in a chamber made of air bubbles. Fungus gnat larvae that glow in the dark (electric blue)- now that’s something I would like to see one day. They reside in caves in New Zealand. Ants that attack other colonies and keep slaves from the rival species. I am already familiar with monarch butterfly migrations and the seventeen-year cicada (they emerged where I live last year)- but it was no less interesting to read about them. There’s so much more in this book. Insects that lay traps for or deceive each other. Others that cooperate and communicate in ways we still don’t understand- the well-designed buildings of termites are a good example. Looking up more about that led me to this. Fascinating stuff all round.

Rating: 4/5
288 pages, 2005

Why We Need Insects

by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson

I think I prefer the original title, which I think translates to Planet of the Insects. From Norwegian. The English title makes me think of all the annoying things insects do that we don’t like, this book is really about how important they are to making the world go round. Pollination, feeding other animals, even mundane things like coloring our lipstick. Or making shellac. Which is used in so many things. Did you know that comes from the lac bug? Did you know that cacao is pollinated by the chocolate midge? a tiny tiny insect. What about the existence of the fairy wasp- smaller than a pinhead. This book is crammed with such facts- presented adroitly and with a good dose of humor, but it jumps so quickly between tidbits of information that I didn’t really feel like I got much out of it. Wished for something more detailed, in all regards.

Most of the factoids- discussed in just a paragraph or two- were so lightly touched upon I wanted to go look up more about them, but by the time I finished a chapter I’d forgotten most of it. Some of them I already knew- like how buildings that regulate their own temperature are designed after the air circulation engineered by insects in termite mounds. Lots I didn’t, but I don’t know if much of this stuck. Most is about how important insects are to our world, so we better take care of the planet for their sake and ours. Their role in the food chain, their intricate relationships with plants, their specializations. How crucial they are to recycling materials into nutrients that can be used again. A lot about dead wood, because the author extensively studied the thousands of beetle species and other small critters that live in dead wood and break it down. Crazy facts about how insects go about their daily life and procreation, plus some really interesting stuff on how insects have inspired scientists or contributed to discoveries. I liked this book, it was just all too rapid a pace for me to really feel engaged.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
235 pages, 2018

by Maude Julien

I don’t know how to rate this book- it was riveting, but also horrifying. I can’t say I enjoyed it. Several times I had to stop listening (audiobook) and come back another day. Very eerily similar to previous audiobook Educated, in that the father was paranoid and abusive, though in a completely different manner. This is also a memoir, written by a French woman whose father had survived atrocities of World War II. He had a deep-rooted conviction that he must teach his child to withstand any kind of privation or torture she would face in the future if Nazis overtook the world, so he trained her very strictly. He was also apparently a member of the Freemasons and had all kinds of weird ideas due to that- some of the strangest things I’ve ever heard. Mixed together it was just awful. Plus with the paranoia, secrecy and emotional manipulation he wreaked on his family (the mother was also controlled and brainwashed by him) I seriously think this man had mental health issues. Sadly his wife and child suffered for it. And being brought up by this severe controlling man, she believed it all from the beginning.

That she was being prepared for some special destiny. But in reality she was kept shut up in the house or on the grounds nearly all the time, sometimes even the windows were shuttered for months on end. Nobody around but her parents and workers who came to fix or build things, no other children, no school- taught at home by her parents. Endless lessons, forced to work on the grounds with the builders, laying bricks or hauling things- even as a small child. Made to sleep in an unheated room, deprived of comforts, no affection, often had her food restricted, made to do strenuous exercises, sit in the dark, abruptly thrown into a pool to learn to swim- the atrocities go on and on. Berated for the smallest things, punished by getting silent treatment for weeks on end- it was just appallingly unbelievable. And the psychological and emotional abuse even worse. Don’t get me started on the way her mother was brought into everything, or the worker who molested her for years (and her mother saw it and walked away) or the absurd psychobabble her father lectured her on for hours- really it made my head swim and I tuned out listening sometimes.

What made it bearable was the animals and her books. She loved the family dog, a pigeon she was allowed to raise, a particular duck in the flock, a pony her father got to teach her to ride. Miserably, the animals were mistreated by her father as well, but she gave them what friendship she could and took comfort in their companionship. When she was older the words of literature started to sink in, comprehension grew (at least her parents gave her a somewhat decent education, with long music lessons too) and the books really helped her withstand the horrors of her family. It’s appalling how much the father’s attitude had weighed on her- even when she figured out where she could climb over a wall to escape the grounds, she couldn’t bring herself to leave because feared his punishment, that he could really see everything she did in his mind like he told her. But then she started to practice little deceits and lies and found out he wasn’t all powerful after all. And two things happened to finally allow her to escape the place- a music teacher came who treated her kindly, encouraged her, and finally set her up with employment outside the home (previous tutors and music teachers had been harsh or unkind). Secondly, she was sent to take some exams by her parents, met other students at the testing place, began to have glimpses of what life outside could be like, and one girl even wrote to her (though her parents quickly squelched that).

She did, at last, escape by marrying. And this was disappointing- that the memoir didn’t describe much of how her life changed when she left this dismal household. (I am leaving so much out, you have no idea how bad it was unless you can bear to read this book). The story ends rather abruptly when she leaves. There is an epilogue that discusses very perceptively how much she had to learn, change and overcome to function in the real world, how at first she tried not to think of or talk about her past, but things continued to affect her. How she had to go through a string of therapists and psychoanalysts before finding someone who could actually help her, and how she became one herself. I wondered about her young husband, how her strange and torturous upbringing would have affected their relationship, but she says nothing of that. Probably it was too personal. It’s hard to believe this ever happened to someone, much less that she could overcome it and be mentally healthy and whole again- there are several parts where she describes wanting to end her life, or how she would self-harm in order to feel some modicum of control over pain- as opposed to all the pain caused by her parents which she had no escape from. Terrible that for the first time in some dim way I can comprehend that now. The mental games she played with herself in order to withstand the debilitating treatment her deranged father meted out- it’s extraordinary and very very disturbing. I don’t think I would ever want to read this in print.

Audiobook, borrowed from the public library. Read by Elisabeth Rodgers, 7.5 hours listening time.

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the Curious, Exciting and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid

by Wendy Williams

Octopus are fascinating, and I’ve read a few books about them. But I don’t know much about squid. So I was really curious when I saw this book on a library shelf. Sadly it wasn’t a great read for me. Felt like I kept picking it up and putting it down again. Maybe because it was a bit scattered- the narrative jumped around quite a lot which was hard for me to follow (again, could be due to my gradual recovery). It’s not just about squid, but also cuttlefish and octopus. Some of it is about popular perceptions of cephalopods- why we’re so afraid of them (sea monsters! from the deep!) and then it switches to field studies on the open ocean. From where the animals live and how they navigate the world, to how we try and study their intelligence, to what they have contributed to science. I didn’t realize how important squid were to scientific work on the cellular level- especially in understanding neurons. Because squid have giant neurons that are easily visible, and stay alive for a short time when carefully dissected from the animal. And they are pretty much identical to human neurons apart from the size, so are incredibly valuable for studies. I found the descriptions of squid and cuttlefish in this book more intriguing, because I know less about them, but no matter how many times I read explanations of it, I still can’t comprehend how an octopus might process information and make decisions- as most its brain resides in the individual arms. It’s just so strange and alien. And now I want to go watch videos online of octopuses solving puzzle boxes.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
223 pages, 2010

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Life Among the Emperors

by Lindsay McCrae

Really good book about a wildlife photographer’s trip to Antarctica to film emperor penguins during harsh winter conditions. This is when the penguins breed and raise their chicks on the sea ice. The author describes first his own background- his interest in nature from a young age, how how he became involved in filmmaking and got the invitation to go to the Antarctic research station. His descriptions of what it was like living on the station for eleven months reminded me a lot of Ice Bound. McCrae faced a lot of the same struggles dealing with the long separation from his family (he’d just gotten married and his first son was born while he was on this trip!), the feeling of isolation and confinement, the very very cold weather conditions, even the boredom with food when supplies started to run low and meals became monotonous. But he also tells how his team and other people at the station kept their spirits up (one of his perks was learning to ride a unicycle he’d brought along).

Mostly though, the book is about his work filming the penguins. First finding the best way to approach the colony, dealing with the cold- both enduring its assault on their bodies and how it affected their gear, and timing their trips out onto the ice to capture key moments in the penguin’s breeding cycle. He was keen to see how the penguins courted and mated, to witness an egg being born, to see the moment a female returning from the sea- where she’d been feeding while the male brooded the egg- saw her own chick for the first time. My favorite parts, as always, were reading about the animal behavior and interactions, especially the unexpected incidents, though of course not all were pleasant. He witnessed an adult penguin kidnapping another’s chick- behavior that had never been seen before. He went out to the colony during a severe storm to film how the male penguins huddled to survive the cold. He saw a bunch of penguins get trapped in a gully when a crack opened in the ice, and after observing a long time, tried to help them escape. Not all chicks or even adults survived the conditions, and when he left he worried constantly about the warming temperatures- if the sea ice melted too soon, the chicks wouldn’t have adult feathers that enabled them to survive in the freezing waters. A reminder that even in a region so far distant from most of us, human activities have an impact.

I’d really like to see the film he produced. Especially after reading so much about it!

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
292 pages, 2019

More opinions: Melody’s Reading Corner
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Discovering the Secrets of a Mythic Animal

by L. David Mech

I always though I would read L. David Mech’s book The Wolves of Isle Royale first, but I found this one browsing the library shelves. It was written very recently- looking back at the first study Mech did on Isle Royale as a young graduate student in the 1940’s. Isle Royale is a large island in Lake Superior- far enough from mainland that few animals cross the ice or swim to the island. There are moose there, and wolves that prey on them. Mech tells about other wildlife on the island too, and how the species have changed over the years- sharp-tailed grouse used to live there but don’t anymore, for example. Foxes and sometimes coyotes also live on the island, lynx have been seen, otters suspected, etc. But the focus of this book is the wolves. As the moose and wolves rarely leave or come to the island, it was seen as a perfect place to study predator/prey interactions. When the study began, radio tracking wasn’t a thing- so Mech counted wolf numbers by flying in a small airplane over the island in winter, when animals were easily visible from the air. There’s none of the intimate detail I usually enjoy in books about wildlife studies- close observations of behavior being scanty- but he got some surprisingly good sightings of wolf hunts. From collecting scat and moose jaw bones on the ground, he was also able to determine more about what other animals the wolves ate, and the condition of their prey- age and general health. At the time, most people thought wolves were vicious wanton killers that just ate anything they wanted, so his findings that they actually failed in most hunts, and tended to eat weaker, sick or young animals, was key in changing popular opinion about them. What I found most interesting was at the very end of the book, where Mech sums up what the years of study revealed- predator and prey don’t exactly live in a perfect balance. Environmental factors had just as much to do with fluctuating moose numbers as the wolf predation. It was something that surprised me, and I like being surprised with learning new things.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
188 pages, 2020

Wonder, Beauty and Renewal on Wings

by Sy Montgomery

This is a sweet little book- and I really mean little. It’s less than a hundred pages including three sections of photographs. So lovely. Very familiar- I kept thinking: haven’t I read this before? and even searched here on my blog. Then came across mention of Covid-19 so I knew it was too recently published. However a lot of this material was already part of Montgomery’s book Birdology, in particular I recognized the narrative about two rescued hummingbirds raised from tiny naked chicks to full-fledged and free-flying hummingbirds, successfully released. Really sounds like an incredibly delicate and difficult job, caring for orphaned hummingbirds. I gather very few people do this, but those who do are dedicated to their job, captivated by the beauty, fierceness and fragility of their tiny charges. The details and facts about their physiology, not to mention their viciousness towards competitors for nectar sources, never cease to amaze me!

Borrowed from the public library. Similar read about hummers.

Rating: 3/5
83 pages, 2021


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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