Monday, July 27, 2015

Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya by Jamaica Kincaid

Most people go to a garden center or trade cuttings with friends to collect plants for their gardens. In Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya, author Jamaica Kincaid recounts how in 2003 she joined experienced botanists for a trek into remote Nepal to gather seeds for her garden in Vermont. The story not only teaches readers that many of our beloved nursery stock are exotics, it also reveals how Europeans and Americans are still traipsing across less accessible parts of the globe as explorers, often not understanding the people they hire.

I recalled Michael Palin's travel adventures in the Himalayan region while reading Among Flowers. Like Palin, Kincaid and her party encountered remote Maoist rebels who delayed their expedition. Kincaid even feared for her life in Maoist controlled villages that were so unconnected to the outside world that they thought the American president's name was Powell.

As you might expect, Kincaid provides a day-to-day account, recording the elevations the party climbs, describing the hardships and wonders of a place most people will never go. Among Flowers is a great book for seasoned armchair travelers.

Kincaid, Jamaica. Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya. National Geographic Directions, 2005. ISBN 9780792265306.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Tooth and Claw: Animal Adventures in the Wild by Ted Lewin

"Close Encounters with Dangerous Animals" is the subtitle I would have given Ted Lewin's book Tooth and Claw: Animal Adventures in the Wild. Perhaps that would have been too sensational, but Lewin sometimes gets closer to wildlife than he intended. Round a path's curve, find bears. Climb onto a sunny rock on a chilly day and find rattlesnakes. Go for a swim and meet a bull face to face.

The most dangerous of animals just looked at Lewin, who stayed still and backed away slowly, shaken but not breaking eye contact. The boldest animals were the raccoons of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. They jumped onto a backpack he was still holding.

After each short wildlife encounter that Lewin describes in his book, he adds factual information about species and habitat in which he found them. I was particularly struck by his telling that dung-beetles were hard at work during the time of the dinosaurs. They had a lot to work with then and are still providing valuable service to the environment worldwide.

Tooth and Claw is an older title (2003) that Bonnie discovered and brought home. Lewin wrote the text, took the photos, and drew the illustrations. It is still timely. Considered a children's book, it is vastly entertaining to adults as well.

Lewin, Ted. Tooth and Claw: Animal Adventures in the Wild. HarperCollins, 2003. 97p. ISBN 9780688141059.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Death of a Chimney Sweep: A Hamish MacBeth Mystery by M. C. Beaton

A chimney sweep was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is unclear whether he was the first to die in this entertaining mystery set in Scotland, but he gets top billing on its book cover. The mystery to solve is who is responsible for a series of murders that take place across the Scottish countryside and as far away as Latin America. With incompetence in the higher ranks of the police, it is up to local constable Hamish Macbeth to identify the murderer.

Hamish is supported in his effort by a colorful group of townsfolk and former fiancees and is hampered by a chief inspector who tries to keep him off the case. He is often accompanied by his faithful dog and cat. Keep an eye on that cat.

I enjoyed the interplay of the entertaining characters and how the plot turned unexpectedly at several points. I also liked how the story went well beyond the solving of the mystery to inform readers of what became of the players. Finally, I enjoyed the Scottish-toned narration by Graeme Malcolm. I have a new series for my gardening-time audiobooks.

Beaton, M. C. Death of a Chimney Sweep: A Hamish MacBeth Mystery. Audio Go, 2010, 2011. 5 compact discs. ISBN 9781602839311.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt by David Giffels

Having grown up and stayed in Akron, Ohio, David Giffels tells in The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt of seeing most of his friends move far away. They were not the only ones to leave, as the city's the population is down to its count from 1910. Once the world center of the rubber and tire industries, Akron is a poster child for the Rust Belt, Midwestern cities that lost their factories to nonunion cities in the South or overseas. Akron also lost many of its company headquarters, many absorbed by foreign corporations. By the 1990s, much of downtown Akron was empty. Giffels witnessed the city's decline as a child, then teen, and later as a journalist.

Giffels can be described as an inside observer. His father was an independent engineer who contracted for most of the big companies at some point - Goodyear, Firestone, Goodrich - and Giffels tagged along. As a teen and young adult, he and his friends often climbed fences to explore abandoned factories. As a journalist, he was granted access to buildings before demolition. In The Hard Way on Purpose, he recounts his city's fall and recent signs of recovery at street level.

In his wide-ranging essays, Giffels also comments frequently on Cleveland, the state of Ohio, and the region. Topics include basketball, bowling, punk rock, and saving architectural pieces from demolition. He begins the collection telling how Akron native LeBron James became a Cleveland Cavalier and nearly lead the team to championships but after several years signed with Miami Heat, becoming the most prominent symbol of flight from the Rust Belt. (In 2014, too late for Giffels' book, James returned to the Cavaliers.)

In The Hard Way on Purpose, Giffels offers readers an intimate look at his beloved city and his own life in it. I enjoyed it and would now like to try All the Way Home, his book about living in and restoring a house that was to be condemned.

Giffels, David. The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt. Scribner, 2014. 256p. ISBN 9781451692747.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Welcome to the Neighborwood by Shawn Sheehy

As a parent and librarian, I have seen many children's pop-up books in my years, but I can not recall one I like better than Welcome to the Neighborwood by Shawn Sheehy. Its eight pop-up scenes of forest fauna and flora are works of art. I am amazed that Sheehy was able to hide and reveal a hummingbird on a nest and a bee approaching its golden honeycomb inside a thick paper book.

I love this book as a person who enjoys walking in the woods any time I can. Sheehy has seen things I seen and shown me new ways to look at them. I can imagine the delight of reading this book to a child.

As a book person, I wonder how this clever work was manufactured. I hope the people in Thailand who put it together were fairly paid for their work. At $29.95, it is bargain for art. It probably will not withstand use by young children, who might view it with an adult. Welcome to the Neighborwood would make a great present for a mature child involved in either art or nature study.

Sheehy, Shawn. Welcome to the Neighborwood. Candlewick Press, 2015. 18p. ISBN 9780763665944.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Fastest Things on Wings: Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood by Terry Maseur

I have read bird rescue stories before, but I never imagined that emergency relief could specialize in just hummingbird rescue. I realize that hummers differ from other birds in some ways and emergency helpers might need special knowledge and skills, but I never realized that there would be enough rescues to keep anyone busy. Obviously I have not lived in the Los Angeles area where there are far more hummingbirds and species of hummingbirds than most parts of the United States.

From reading Terry Masear's book Fastest Things on Wings: Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood, I have learned there are many hummingbird-human interactions in L.A., and many end badly for the hummingbirds. Often after trees or shrubs are pruned, nests with tiny hummers are discovered. Unless a homeowner can rehang the nest in its exact previous location (not even a foot away), the parent hummingbirds will never find it. Usually baby hummers will need rescue services after pruning. Other people find their cats have killed parent birds, leaving needy nestlings. Also many adult hummers are stunned or injured from running into picture windows or even moving vehicles.

Masear handles several hundred cases annually. Her Hollywood home is filled with cages and aviaries. An English professor during the rest of the year, she devotes her springs and summers to hummingbird rescue and is often up through the night feeding nestlings or nursing injured birds.

Fastest Things on Wings may sound like just another cute animal book, but it is not. Partly this is due to the hummingbirds not really being cuddly birds. Some are downright mean and attack Masear and other hummingbirds in her care. Another factor is the strange variety of people who contact Masear when birds need rescue. The author fills her book with their desperate stories, giving much insight into living conditions in Southern California.

I found Fastest Things on Wings compelling, entertaining reading.

Masear, Terry. Fastest Things on Wings: Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. 306p. ISBN 9780544416031.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce

In her comments after writing The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, Rachel Joyce said that she resisted writing this companion book to her wildly popular The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. She thought there was nothing more to be said, but people kept asking about Miss Hennessy. Years passed and suddenly one evening at dinner with her family the author had an idea that brought the story of the woman dying of cancer to life in her mind. She paused her other projects and returned Harold Fry's world, for which many readers are now grateful.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is not a sequel or a prequel. It stands well alone, which is good, for I had forgotten so much of what happened in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. I had retained the story of the walk across England and the public reaction but had specifically forgotten the sad bits. The sad bits return in this new book, and some are really heartbreaking. As a reader, I sometimes wanted the painful episodes to end, but I realize they gave the comic bits depth. In that way, the story is very real.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry has proved to be an excellent choice for book discussion groups. I believe The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is its equal in this regard, but do not wait to have your group assign it to read it.

Joyce, Rachel. The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy. Random House, 2014. 366p. ISBN 9780812996678.

Audiobook: Random House, 2014. 9 compact discs. ISBN 9780553410105.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family by Roger Cohen

In the case of The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family by Roger Cohen, the subtitle is a better indicator of its subject than the title. Cohen's book is not focused on one person who came from a particular place, that being a neighborhood in Johannesburg, South Africa. Instead, the book is a sweeping family history, recounting the lives of the author's ancestors and their descendants in Lithuania, South Africa, England, the United States, and Israel. In one sense the book is a where-I-came-from memoir, but it is much more. Through telling about his family, Cohen recounts the global story of Jewish people from the late 19th century to the present.

Having now finished, it is hard to remember the point at which Cohen starts his story, for he goes back and forth in time and from place to place frequently. The reader has to stay alert to track the various members of his mother's and father's families as they migrate to new lands that promise greater freedoms and a chance of fortune. The true starting point of the family was the Lithuanian shtetls of Zagare and Siauliai. Many of those who stayed there survived pogroms only to exterminated by the Nazis in World War II. Many of those who move suffer new injustices and mental illness in new lands.

In its lyrical telling, The Girl from Human Street reminds me of The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. Both stories evoke both pride and regret for the past actions of families. Both will help readers get beyond textbook histories of the modern world.

Cohen, Roger. The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family. Alfred A. Knopf, 2015. 304p. ISBN 9780307594662.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

The Melting World: A Journey Across America's Vanishing Glaciers by Christopher White

I had two primary reasons for reading in The Melting World: A Journey Across America's Vanishing Glaciers by Christopher White. The first was my general interest in environmental issues and the conservation of wild places. The second more specific reason was that Bonnie and I are going to Glacier National Park later this year.

Having now read The Melting World, I see another way that it satisfies my interests. I enjoy stories told by naturalists working in the field. Much of White's book accounts for his days spent outside with the shrinking glaciers in the remote national park. On each of these days, he treks many miles with dedicated researchers to measure and observe ice and snow. The team utilizes many tools; GPS, portable and stationary weather stations, and a variety of cameras are primary sources of data. They also count wildlife species and record the levels of the streams and lakes feed by glacial melting. In five years, they discover many reasons to be concerned about the future of Glacier National Park and the planet.

While not a travel guide, I did learn much about the mountains, glaciers, and bodies of water as well as flora and fauna. Unlike White, I will not be able to go far into the back country, but I want to see as much as I can. I know I will better able to make sense of the place having read this book.

The Melting World is a worthy item to add to current natural history collections.

White, Christopher. The Melting World: A Journey Across America's Vanishing Glaciers. St. Martin's Press, 2014. 272p. ISBN 9780312546281.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab by Steve Inskeep

What forces shaped the culture, politics, and economy of the American South? The factors were many - it was not one man's doing - but NPR correspondent and author Steve Inskeep suggests that one particular man in the early 19th century played a key role in a struggle that allowed the South to develop as it did. That man was Andrew Jackson, and the issue was the forced removal of native tribes from the South. Inskeep tells the story in Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab.

In Jacksonland, Inskeep focuses on two men. The first is, of course, Andrew Jackson, an icon of American history. The second is Cherokee chief John Ross, whose name is mostly forgotten today. Jackson and Ross were not always opponents, as the latter served in a Cherokee regiment under Jackson in the War of 1812. Ross was elected to the Cherokee Council in 1817, became its president in 1819, and spent the next twenty years negotiating with government officials in Washington to protect tribal land. Jackson and his wealthy friends, however, had designs on that land. When Jackson became president, the removal of the Cherokee tribe from the South became inevitable.

As the subtitle suggests, Jacksonland is a book in which the author's sympathies are apparent. What will interest many modern reader are the stories showing that Jackson seemed like a cad to many in his own time. Critics, mostly in the North, decried the forced removal of native tribes who had previously been assured by treaties of their territory in the South. For a while, the issue was hotter than slavery.

I listened to Inskeep read his book on compact disc. I especially liked the final section that brings the story to date, telling how many Cherokees never left and others returned to the South. The audiobook was good listening for commuting and gardening for a week.

Inskeep, Steve. Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab. Penguin Press, 2015. 421p. ISBN 9781594205569.

Audiobook: Books on Tape, 2015. 10 compact discs. ISBN 9781101914953.