Posts Tagged ‘Animals’

Best New Books of 2014: Sharon S’s Picks

December 12, 2014

It is said that “Truth is stranger than fiction,” and to me it is just as interesting. I read fiction and nonfiction for the same reasons: to be entertained, instructed, and inspired. Here are my favorite new books for this year:

Pastor Needs a BooPastor Needs a Boo by Michele Andrea Bowen
A former FBI agent as well as a dedicated pastor, Denzelle Flowers of New Jerusalem Church in Durham got burned on the romance scene when his wife left him for a richer man. When the perfect Proverbs 31 woman shows up in his life he’s not ready to admit it, even though everyone else sees that she’s the one for him. Meanwhile, Pastor Denzelle decides to run for bishop, and has to pack both his gun and his Bible as major corruption sweeps through their denomination.

What Makes Olga Run?What Makes Olga Run? by Bruce Grierson
What makes a 93-year-old woman participate in track events worldwide, and set records that compare (in her age category) with those of the best athletes in the world? Well, she loves doing it, and her ability to do it stretches our stereotypes about aging. She is not alone—there are other “super seniors” like her around the world. Bruce Grierson leads us through a fascinating investigation of what keeps them going strong. See my full review.

William Shakespeare's Star WarsWilliam Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, a New Hope by Ian Doescher
Hang on to your lightsabers! Doescher cleverly conflates famous lines from Shakespeare with famous scenes from Star Wars, making for a blend of comedy and drama worthy of the Bard himself. What I like best is getting to see into the minds of the characters through the asides and soliloquys. The series is continued in The Empire Striketh Back and The Jedi Doth Return. My family and I have been reading it aloud to each other (my husband plays the role of Chewbacca, and my 12-year-old son plays R2D2). See my full review.

Life is a WheelLife is a Wheel: Love, Death, Etc., and a Bike Ride Across America by Bruce Weber
The death of his parents and other major changes shook Weber up and gave him a lot to think about concerning life, love, and death. It didn’t help matters that he had spent the last three years of his middle-aged life writing obituaries for The New York Times. He decided to do something to prove to himself that he was still alive and kicking — bike across America! I love books like this, where someone decides to do something semi-crazy, and I can go along for the ride without the expense or the sore leg muscles! Based on the daily blogs he sent back to the newspaper, this book is a very entertaining and interesting read.

The Owl Who Liked Sitting on CaesarThe Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar by Martin Windrow
One reason I like to read is to experience vicariously things I may never experience myself, or at least not in the same way. I love owls, and Martin Windrow gives me a window into what they are really like, close-up and personal. Mumbles is a charming little tawny owl who is nevertheless no pushover! I loved reading about her daily life, and her and Martin’s close relationship of many years. See my full review.

Dog on It by Spencer Quinn

October 22, 2014

Dog On ItIf there is anything better than finding out one of your favorite authors has just written a new book, it must be finding out that one of your favorite authors has actually already published a whole series of books under another name. I enjoyed Peter Abrahams Echo Falls mystery series for teens, and his stand-alone thriller Oblivion is one of my favorites, so I felt really lucky when I recently learned that he has also published the Chet and Bernie mystery series under the pen name Spencer Quinn.

Bernie is an ex-military, ex-police, private investigator. He drives a “classic” (i.e. old and beat up) Porsche and is usually the smartest person in the room, according to his partner Chet. Chet is always ready to jump into the shotgun seat of the Porsche or sniff out a clue. Did I mention that Chet is a dog? He is highly trained – would have graduated from the police K-9 dog training school if it wasn’t for a minor incident involving a cat that occurred on his last day.

The series begins with Dog on It, where a distraught mother hires Chet and Bernie to find her missing teenage daughter. Madison Chambliss is a normal high school student, with no apparent reason to run away and there are no signs of foul play. Within a day she returns home on her own and Chet and Bernie are off the case. But when Madison soon disappears a second time and no one thinks it is a problem because she has done this before, Chet and Bernie feel obligated to find the truth about what happened to her.

I like the Chet and Bernie series because it is well plotted, with smart characters and dialog, and a healthy dose of humor. I especially like the fact that Chet narrates! He notices smells and sees really well in the dark, never passes up a bit of food, and falls asleep if the conversation gets too intellectual, just like a dog actually would. His observations are at once innocently simple-minded and astute.

The Chet and Bernie books are also especially good on audio.

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The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar: Living with a Tawny Owl by Martin Windrow

September 19, 2014

Owls have always fascinated me. On the rare occasions when I have seen one, I was mesmerized. My husband, a wetland biologist who roams the woods for both work and pleasure, once brought me an owl feather. It was incredibly soft, an adaptation that helps owls to fly silently, catching their prey unawares without any flapping sounds that might warn their prey.

Martin Windrow’s pet owl, Mumble, was reared for him from a hatchling, and they met when she was one month old. She appeared to be “wearing a one-piece knitted jumpsuit of pale grey fluff with brown stitching.” She jumped up onto his shoulder and nestled against his cheek “like a big, warm dandelion head” and said “Kweep!” very softly. Martin fell head over heels in love.

Over the fifteen years they lived together, Martin kept detailed journal entries about Mumble’s growth, appearance and behavior. The drawings and photographs in the book demonstrate Mumble’s favorite poses—fluffed up after her bath (Mumble adored to splash in the sink full of soapy water while Martin washed dishes), lying on her stomach with wings spread while sunbathing, pouncing on imaginary mice between the sofa cushions, and sitting contentedly on her various perches, including the bust of Germanicus Caesar.

Windrow lets us in on all the secrets of owl life—from the “disgusting bits” like bringing up pellets to a detailed description of Mumble’s preening sessions, which can take as long as an hour. Because of their long, flexible necks (which are usually hidden in their downy feathers), owls can turn their heads around 270 degrees. This makes their preening look rather like a contortionist’s act! The grooming ended with a fluff-out and a shake, followed by “a last prim, Victorian little shrug to settle the edges of her furled wings” and a final shuffle of her feet.

Windrow’s dry, witty style is perfectly suited to describing his dignified little friend. She was fascinated with his beard and loved to preen it, combing her beak through it. One night while Martin was stretched out on the sofa reading, she landed suddenly between his book and his face, half smothering him in feathers and provoking him to cry out in surprise. As Martin says, “She apparently construed the resultant burst of warm air up her petticoats as a physical liberty, because she bent forward and carefully bit me on the bridge of my nose.”

Reading Windrow’s delightful book is the next best thing to cuddling with a real, live owl of your own.

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The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

June 20, 2014

The Wind in the WillowsKenneth Grahame was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1859. His father was a lawyer. He lost his mother when he was just five years old, and his paternal grandmother raised him. Living with her, he became acquainted with the river Thames and its river rats (or water voles, as they are not rats), and there – on the river bank – The Wind in the Willows begins.

Winter has passed, and the lightness of the northern Europe spring has arrived. Mole – very much a hearth and home kind of creature – has had it with spring-cleaning and takes the day off. He ends up by the river, which he has never seen before, and meets the water vole Ratty. In his rowing boat, the Rat teaches Mole about life by the river; they are about to embark on many adventures.

If this sounds idyllic and pastoral, that’s because it is. The rural landscape of Grahame wants nothing to do with the Industrial Revolution that had transformed the Great Britain in his time. The quiet adventures of Ratty and Mole are filled with a love for the wonders of the natural world and peak in the chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn;” here the divine essence of nature is revealed.

Enter Mr. Toad.

Mr. Toad is a spoiled aristocrat who gets obsessed with one thing after another: sailing, rowing, caravan travel, whatever. Possessions are his thing. One day, when a motorcar passes Mr. Toads caravan, the car scares the horse and upsets the Rat. Toad, however, is delighted. He has found a new obsession. Before long, his friends learn that he has wrecked six cars and even has been hospitalized on several occasions. Toad pays no heed to the rules of traffic or other’s safety, and his friends decide to protect Mr. Toad from himself.

Mole, Ratty, and Mr. Badger (who was a friend of Toad’s late father) try to convince Toad to change his ways, but he will not listen. They then decide to put Toad under house arrest, with themselves as guards, till he changes his mind. Toad is clever, though. He pretends to be ill, tricks the Rat, and escapes. However, his escape, like most of his triumphs, is short-lived. He steals a car, drives like a maniac, and is caught by the police. Justice has no patience for him. He is sentenced to twenty years in prison.

And this is just the beginning of Mr. Toad’s mindless adventures. The quiet parts of The Wind in the Willows are magical – in nature’s own way – but the outrageous mishaps of Mr. Toad turn the book into a brilliant comedy.

The Wind in the Willows is a tale for children – Grahame originally wrote it for his son – but it’s a story readers can return to throughout the span of a lifetime.

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Best ‘New to Us’ Books in 2013: Heidi’s Picks

December 31, 2013

I love to read domestic/family fiction, thrillers, horror, and biographies and really, anything that is contemporary and realistic. Here are my picks for my best reads in 2013 – books that were new to me, and made an impact on me in some way or another.

Watership Down by Richards Adams
Somehow I made it through 16+ years of schooling without reading this gem. To say it is The Iliad and The Odyssey of rabbits is reductive but largely correct.  The novel follows a group of rabbits on the perilous journey to find a safe, new warren in a perfect society in the Downs of England. There are human-like factions, battles, friendships and alliances transferred to the rabbit world.  An excellent tale in which you quite possibly recognize  all of your family,  friends,  co-workers and supervisors in the well-drawn characters. I will never look at rabbits the same way again.   Enjoy a full-length review of this title.

A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy
Sometimes we need a cozy read to remind us that the world is a good place. In A Week in Winter, the reader is welcomed to Stoneybridge, a tiny town on the western coast of Ireland where the cliffs are tall and the ocean is crashing. Meet Chicky Starr who buys an old stone mansion and turns it into an inn, renovating it with the help of bad boy Rigger and her business-savvy niece Orla. The first group of guests that stay at the inn – and their unique personalities and foibles – make up the plot of this nove. Characters were Ms. Binchy’s domain, and these characters are richly drawn and fully explored. The story line is not as strong as that in some of the author’s earlier works, but honestly it doesn’t matter – the characters make up for it.  Read my full review here.

Six Years by Harlan Coben
I am new to Harlan Coben, and as a suspense and thriller reader, I loved this novel. Jake Fisher is a slightly geeky political science professor at a rural, private college in Massachusetts. Six years ago he fell hard for Natalie, a young painter passing the summer at an artist retreat.  Jake and Natalie frolicked for a summer and then… BAM! Jake was jilted and jolted when Natalie suddenly married another guy and asked Jake to not contact her ever again. Jake upholds his end of the promise until six years go by, and he sees an obituary for Natalie’s husband Todd.  He attends Todd’s funeral in Georgia and gets the surprise of his life when Todd’s wife and widow is not Natalie.  Natalie was never married to Todd. But… wait! Jake attended the wedding, and saw with this own eyes Natalie marry Todd. So, what’s the story? Jake sets off on a semi-obsessive hunt for Natalie, and discovers that she never existed, at least on paper. No one seems to have any memory of Natalie.   The search becomes dangerous when Jake becomes the one who is hunted…but by whom – and why?  See my full review here.

The View from Mount Joy by Lorna Landvik
Every American high school has a Kristi Casey.  A semi-sociopathic, popular, sexy woman-child who can get away with anything, with anyone.  Ole Bull High School (named after person, not an old animal) in suburban Minneapolis can barely contain Kristi, whose popularity shines like a twisted beacon. Who doesn’t love Kristi? Joe Andreson can’t get enough of her, although he has a love/lust/hate relationship with her that begins in high school and continues throughout his life. Landvik writes Joe convincingly, and his character is as solidly developed as that of Kristi, no small feat for a female author. Landvik develops her characters as do few authors, and her dialog? Funny, funny, funny.  I am a sucker for coming-of-age stories, and this one satisfied.  If you like this book, try her Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons if you want to laugh until you howl.  See my full-length post here.

The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin
I am fascinated by man versus nature for some bizarre reason. Anyone who has read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series might remember one of the titles in the series is The Long Winter where the Ingalls family almost starved and froze to death on the Dakota prairie during a winter of such monumental snowfall that the trains could not run. The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin is the non-fiction account of that infamous 1888 storm on the Dakota Prairie that left many people stranded – and dead.  Laskin’s ability as a storyteller keeps this book moving along at a brisk pace; what could have been deadly boring is alive with descriptions and characters. This is my book for a stormy day hunkered down with a cup of hot tea, paying homage to central heating. See my full-length post here.

A Man of His Own by Susan Wilson

October 24, 2013

Set in the years surrounding World War II, this novel tells the story of four characters: Rick Stanton, a ball player on the cusp of making it big; his wife Francesca; Keller, an orphan who enlists in the military in order to find a future; and last but not least, Pax, the devoted German Shepherd mix who ties the three humans together. From the day Rick finds Pax as a stray puppy in an alley, the two of them are inseparable. Their two-member pack expands to include Francesca when Rick falls in love with her, and for a time the three are happy.

Then World War II intervenes. Rick is drafted, and he and Francesca volunteer Pax for the military’s Dogs for Defense program, where the dog is paired with Keller. As they help each other survive in combat situations, Keller and Pax develop an intense bond. Pax is the only true family Keller has ever had, the only thing he’s ever loved or received affection from, and at the end of the war he finds himself conflicted about returning Pax to the blissful domestic life the dog had previously known.

Except, the life Keller brings Pax back to is no longer so full of bliss. Rick has not returned from the war unscathed; crippled in both body and spirit, he is dependent upon Francesca for his every need. In part to avoid the issue of who Pax’s true owner is, Keller becomes Rick’s live-in aide, and Pax is able to split his time between the two men he loves the most. It falls to the dog to keep this new and awkward pack together, and ultimately to help each person heal from his or her wounds.

Although this book is historical fiction, the period details never distract from the heart of the story: the relationships between the three humans and one dog. Through alternating points of view, we get to watch how each character responds to the many challenges that result from their peculiar domestic situation.

Yes, this is a dog story. But it is also a story about the toll war takes on both soldiers and their spouses, about the difficulties veterans face while trying to reintegrate into civilian life, and about how the connection between man and companion animal can help ease those difficulties. Like many dog stories, it has its bittersweet aspects, but it is ultimately an uplifting tale. Susan Wilson uses direct and unpretentious language to convey her characters’ inner lives — a style particularly well-suited to Pax’s chapters. Wilson does an excellent job at portraying the canine thought process. Pax’s point of view is neither too human nor too alien, and will be instantly recognizable to any dog-owner. Lovers of canine-centered fiction will find much to enjoy in this novel.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball

October 2, 2013

Honest and funny best describe this memoir. Kristin Kimball was living the single urban life in New York City in 2002. She had worked at a literary agency and taught creative writing. Now she was a freelance writer and about to interview a farmer who represented something that was just beginning to burgeon onto the American food scene: local and organic fruits, vegetables, and meats. She drove six hours for their first meeting in Pennsylvania, and was whirled into the vortex of his world that very day. They did not do the interview; instead, she helped him slaughter a pig.

The memoir proceeds at a breakneck pace, full of the wonderful details of the urban hipster falling for the “wingnut” (Kristin’s word!) farmer Mark and vice versa. They courted over bicycle rides, farm implements, setting traps for rats, and the amazing meals that Mark prepared for both of them from the fields. The course of their true love is strewn with the usual difficulties of learning each other’s foibles, follies, and facts of life. Kristin and Mark have the added twists of choosing land on which to start their own farm, finding their places in their new community, purchasing equipment and animals, and quickly becoming business partners. Mark has lived outside of “the American dream”- state, relying on the earth in ways Kristin (or most of us) have not encountered or attempted. Kristin has never farmed, and must to come to grips with the sheer physicality and sometimes heartbreak of the stunning change in her life’s path.

The writing is clear, warm, and personal. You don’t want the book to stop at the end of their first year on Essex Farm. You want to know more about the horses, neighbors, crops and babies. You want to sit right down and write a check for a share in their full-diet CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) farm and move to New York state to help them weed and harvest. Let’s sit down together and share a meal!

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Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson

April 23, 2013

It is easy to think of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books as cozy as they, well, are cozy: the silent winters, the strange summers, the roaring sea, the dense forests, a life lived close to nature, and the snug dwelling of the Moomin family.

The Moomins look somewhat like mighty hippopotamuses, and the family itself (and their home) is as inviting as can be. The family’s approach to life is bohemian, and their abode is constantly visited by creatures who drop in to enjoy Moominmamma’s cooking and the useful items that can be found in her handbag. It is unknown how Moominpappa makes a living but between writing his memoirs and sudden whims, he stays busy.  In short, the Moomin books offer a comfy, domestic bliss that some readers yearn for.

But disaster on a great scale is prevalent in Jansson’s Moomin stories. Just listen to some of the titles of her novels: The Moomins and the Great Flood, Moominsummer Madness, and Comet in Moominland.

Artists of Tove Jansson’s stature have the ability to transcend their historic context, but it is obvious that the Soviet attack on Finland in November 1939 affected the author deeply. She was 25 years old and still living at home when large parts of Europe (and eventually the world) descended into the abyss of war. In her first Moomin novel, a flood threatens the land, and in Comet in Moominland, written during World War II but published in 1946, a red comet may be on its way to destroy the Moomin valley – in fact, the end of the entire world might be near.

The tale has Biblical, apocalyptic elements, and panic is in the air as the creatures of the valley attempt to cope with the events and find sanctuary. The mood is tense and the heat of the comet dries out the sea; the family and their friends flee to a cave where they embrace each other when the comet is close – united they face death.

The Moomin books are considered books for children. The characters are whimsical, complex, and funny, and the humor, adventures, depth and strong narratives of the novels have attracted young readers for decades. However, like so many great children’s books, the Moomin novels can also be read by an older audience.  There is something for almost all ages in these books.

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Wesley the Owl by Stacey O’Brien

August 16, 2012

In this charming and insightful story, Stacey O’Brien introduces us to the “Way of the Owl”—a way of uncompromising devotion. Stacey adopted Wesley as a tiny nestling. Since owls mate for life, throughout Wesley’s life of nearly 20 years he and Stacey were devoted to each other.

One of the things that amazed me is how sensitive owls are. While Wesley was learning to fly, Stacey burst out laughing when he made an awkward landing on a slippery table, sliding off the edge and crashing to the floor. To her surprise and dismay, Wesley turned his head away from her and refused to look at her for some time afterward. That is one part of the Way of the Owl—you do not ridicule your friend.

Another part of the Way of the Owl is that you do not force your friend to do something he does not want to do. In his old age, Wesley’s claws and beak overgrew, becoming so long and sharp that he kept hurting himself with them. Stacey wanted to file down his beak and clip his claws, but Wesley would not permit it. She had to gain his trust before he would allow this unfamiliar procedure. Drawing on research that animals sense our emotional states, she began visualizing a calm and successful process. She also used the file on various things around the room, talking to him calmly about it. Eventually he allowed her to do both of these uncomfortable procedures without any complaint.

Stacey had quite a few adventures during her years with Wesley. A large bag of live mice she had bought for him burst open in the back seat of her car. When she tried a new hairdo, piling her long hair on top of her head, Wesley thought that the lump on top of her head was some kind of predator and attacked it in an effort to defend her.

There are wonderful photos in the book, such as Wesley in front of the make-up mirror, Wesley playing in water (very unusual behavior for a barn owl), and of course Wesley cuddling with Stacey. Though they were so different in so many ways, Wesley and Stacey had an incredible bond that enriched their lives and taught those who knew them a lot about our fellow creatures.

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Albert of Adelaide by Howard Anderson

August 8, 2012

Every once in a while, it’s nice to read something different, the type of book that one doesn’t usually read. Albert of Adelaide is decidedly different, and probably not like anything that most people usually read, because it is such an unusual novel. This debut novel is fun, full of adventure, and is about a platypus named Albert who escapes from the zoo in Adelaide and heads into the Australian outback looking for a place called “Old Australia.” Yup, that certainly sounds like a different kind of novel, but despite being different, it’s definitely still worthwhile.

That also happens to be one of the main lessons in this story – that just because someone is different, it doesn’t mean that they are bad. Albert’s journey brings him to an odd world with creatures who judge and mistrust him because he’s different from them. His early life was traumatic. His mother was attacked by a wild dingo when he was very young and Albert was captured and put in the Adelaide zoo. This is where he first hears rumors of a mythic and strange place called “Old Australia” where the many different species of animals live in peace and harmony. He was able to escape and hops a ride on the South Australian Railroad traveling north of Alice Springs to the outback.

Albert meets a wombat named Jack, who befriends him and teaches his some of the basics of survival in the desert. The two friends get into some trouble at a local pub and trading post when Albert gets very drunk and becomes very lucky at a game of chance. To escape Jack sets fire to the place and he and Albert are soon on the run with the kangaroo proprietor and other local animals posting wanted posters for Albert’s capture. Despite the fact that they’ve become good friends, Jack and Albert split up figuring it will be safer for each and Albert soon meets a new friend, TJ, a raccoon from California. Their friendship works well because they are both animals not native to the outback. Other creatures that Albert meets along his journey include two drunken bandicoots named Alvin and Roger, a mean and thieving pair consisting of a wallaby called Bertram and a possum named Theodore, assorted dingoes, and the Famous Muldoon, a Tasmanian devil. Muldoon and Jack were close friends and traveling companions once, but Jack’s pyromania led to their separation eight years ago.

Themes of friendship, revenge, survival, loss and self discovery are set against the backdrop of Albert’s journey across the outback desert. The story alternates between scenes of action (including many fight scenes and a huge shoot out at the end) and those of survival in the harsh environment and contemplation of life in a strange place among strange animals. In the end, Albert has come a very long way from where he started, both geographically and metaphysically.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

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