Book Review: Things That Are

Book Review: Things That Are by Amy Leach

“The secret to crypsis is placing yourself among things you look like, but in a scene where no one will expect you, like Willie Nelson with Lithuanian peasants.”

Essays are short pieces in which the author attempts to set down their thoughts.  They can be formal or informal, informative or fanciful.  This book is a set of prose essays by Amy Leach, collecting them from various previous publications.  The title is inspired by an epigraph from John Donne.  Inside, the essays are divided into “Things of Earth” (primarily plants and animals) and “Things of Heaven” (primarily space objects.)

Things That Are

Ms. Leach’s language is poetical and heavy on the similes.  I am happy to report that it works most of the time, and is pleasant to read.  The words flow smoothly as the ideas dance from one related topic to another.  My personal favorite of the essays is “Goats and Bygone Goats” as my family raised these creatures on our farm long enough ago that many of the memories are pleasant.  The essay “God” on the other hand came across as pretentious.  And “The Safari” just goes on and on with its extended animals as memories metaphor.

The edition I have is from Milkweed Editions, with rough-cut pages and illustrations by Nate Christopherson.  I like the illuminated beginning capitals.  There’s a short glossary at the end that sometimes makes certain words clearer in meaning.

These short, calm pieces make the book a good choice to read between heavier or more emotionally demanding material; this is a good book to read before bedtime, or sipping a cup of tea.  It also sounds good read aloud.

Recommended to…just about everyone, really.

Book Review: The Naturalist

Book Review: The Naturalist by Darrin Lunde

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), 26th President of the United States of America, was big on nature.  Specifically, he had a strong interest in natural history, and wanted to become/be known as a naturalist.  This new biography focuses on that part of Roosevelt’s life, from his boyhood collection of stuffed birds to his African expedition for the Smithsonian Institute.

The Naturalist Theodore Roosevelt

The author is himself a museum naturalist, so the narrative is perhaps a bit biased in favor of those who go out to collect specimens for natural history museums.  Roosevelt considered himself a “hunter-naturalist”, someone who went out, observed nature carefully, then killed animals for scientific study.  Sickly as a boy, with bad asthma, Teddy had to re-invent himself several times in his youth.  He worked hard to build up his body and mind, engaging in outdoor activities and especially learning about animals in nature.  His family was involved with the founding of the New York Museum of Natural History, which gave him a head start.

Interestingly, Roosevelt’s choice to go to Harvard seems to have doomed his ambition to become a full-time naturalist–according to this book, the college’s natural history program was dominated by laboratory work, not the field expeditions Teddy favored, and he met his first wife and realized that a naturalist’s pay wasn’t going to keep them in the style they were used to.

Instead, Roosevelt studied law and got into politics, with the results I mentioned in the first paragraph.  While he certainly made some headway as President, including creating America’s first wildlife reserves and other environmentally friendly actions, Teddy chafed at not being able to hunt properly and the last months of his term were largely taken up with preparations for his African expedition.

There were many bits of knowledge in this book that I either had not known before or had long forgotten.  Theodore Roosevelt’s poor vision meant that he was a bad shot, and often had to use far more bullets to bring down specimens than was ideal (and sometimes this meant he wound up killing more animals than he wanted!)

I found the literary feud between Roosevelt (and other scientifically-oriented naturalists) and the “sentimental” nature writers as exemplified by the Reverend William J. Long interesting.  Dr. Long heavily anthropomorphized the animal behavior in his “non-fiction” stories, and often depicted events that were so unlikely that naturalists accused him of just making things up.  (Side note:  I looked up Dr. Long’s work and among other things he penned an entirely serious book on the subject of animal telepathy-not just non-verbal communication, telepathy.)  In response, Dr. Long said that President Roosevelt could only touch the hearts of animals…with bullets.

The book stops with the aftermath of the successful African expedition-the less happy Amazon expedition does not get mentioned at all.  As is common with these specialized biographies, any parts of Roosevelt’s life that did not have a bearing on natural history get short shrift, and the serious student should also read a more general biography to get a balanced picture.

A heavy emphasis is placed on how Roosevelt’s practical experience with hunting influenced his ideas on conservation.  He could see with his own eyes how over-hunting was wiping out game animal populations, even within the span of a few years.

There’s a center section with black & white photos, and a few more scattered through the book.  There are extensive end notes, a bibliography and index.  Bright senior high students should be able to handle the material and language.

I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to those interested in Theodore Roosevelt, natural history and the role of hunters in nature conservation.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through Blogging for Books for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Book Review: Greek Myths: A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys

Book Review: Greek Myths: A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Tanglewood is a large country house out in the Berkshires which is owned by the Pringle family. They have a great many relatives with young children who often come visiting, and it frequently falls to their sole teenage relative, Eustace Bright, to entertain the younglings. It’s a good thing that young Mr. Bright knows many fascinating stories, and delights in the telling of them! Through the year, he regales his audience with tales of Greek mythology.

Greek Mythology: A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys

Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of the great American writers, creating The Scarlet Letter among other fine books, and was part of the Romantic and Gothic movements in literature. As seen in the introduction to this volume, he was also a firm believer in the right of writers to adapt and modernize stories in the public domain to match the needs of a new audience.

So it is that Eustace Bright feels free to switch details up, omit large sections and invent new plot points or characterization as he tells six stories from the Greek myth cycles. Covered in this volume are: Perseus & Medusa (which was also covered in The Blue Fairy Book which I have previously reviewed); King Midas and the Golden Touch; Pandora’s Box (lots of liberties taken here); Hercules and the Three Golden Apples; Philemon & Baucis; and Bellerophon & Pegasus. Introductions and postludes detail how each story comes to be told and the children’s reactions.

Mr. Hawthorne has some fun with his characters–Eustace has the sympathy of the narrator, but we are reminded from time to time that he is, after all, just a very bright teenager. The words “sophomoric erudition” are used, and Eustace has a fourth wall-breaking speech in which he admits that Hawthorne could in fact rewrite him and all his relatives at will. The member of the child audience who gets the most development is Primrose, a saucy thirteen year old lass who pokes fun at her older cousin’s self-importance even as she clamors for more of his stories.

The writing is lively and often humorous, but the “modernization” of the Greek myths ironically makes the telling seem old-fashioned. On the other hand, modern children might find the sections set in “the present day” more alien than the familiar stories of myth. There are also many fine illustrations by Walter Crane, including several color plates–sensitive parents should know that there’s some artistic nudity. And though some of the ickier aspects of Greek mythology are glossed over or omitted, there’s still plenty of violence.

The edition I have is a Barnes & Noble reprint; unlike The Blue Fairy Book it seems not to have been shortened. It’s a handsome book that should withstand being read by children.

Recommended for parents who want to introduce their children to relatively child-safe tellings of Greek mythology. I would suggest reading it with your children the first go-round to explain the setting of the frame story and help with some archaic words.

Book Review: A Weird and Wild Beauty: The Story of Yellowstone, the World’s First National Park

Book Review: A Weird and Wild Beauty: The Story of Yellowstone, the World’s First National Park by Erin Peabody

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.

A Weird and Wild Beauty

In early 1871, the readers of Scribner’s Magazine, one of the best-selling periodicals in the United States, were treated to an article about a mysterious land south of the Montana Territory.  According to the article, there was a place of geysers that shot steaming water hundreds of feet into the air, where mud pools exploded on a regular basis, and trees were encased in stone.  This was the first widely-published  account of the Yellowstone, and many dismissed it as an absurd traveler’s tall tale.

But the Yellowstone River and its surroundings were very real.  It had been named “Mi tse a-da-zi” (Rock Yellow River) by the Minnetaree tribe, and translated to “Roche Jaune” by French trappers before English speakers gave it the present name.  Native Americans had often visited or lived there for its special properties, and stories of it were shared by the few hardy white people who’d managed to survive a visit.  They were generally disbelieved by those who had not been there.  It took a proper expedition organized by former banker Nathaniel Langford and staffed by sober, reliable citizens to show the reality.

This volume is a history of how Yellowstone became a National Park written for young adults by a former park ranger.  The primary emphasis is on the two important expeditions, first Langford’s and then a full scientific expedition led by government  geologist Ferdinand Hayden.  In addition to the hardy scientists and support staff, the expedition had two artists and photographer William H. Jackson, and their visual evidence was key in convincing Congress of the reality of the fabled wilderness.

The writing is clear and concise, rated for twelve and up, but quite readable for adults.  There are multiple sidebars about related subjects such as the Transcontinental Railroad and Henry David Thoreau, and many illustrations in both black & white and color.

The history section briefly covers what is known of the history of the Yellowstone area before the expeditions, and up to the point where the National Park bill was signed into law.  More recent events concerning the park are not covered in the main text, although some are mentioned in the sidebar.

After the history section, there’s a map of America’s National Parks and other federal preserves, then a couple of chapters on the science of why Yellowstone is a unique area.  There are endnotes, a bibliography, index and photo credits (in readable sized font!)

Part of Yellowstone’s importance is mentioned in the subtitle; it was not just the United States’ first National Park, but the world’s.  Previously, when land was set aside to preserve it, it was only for the powerful (“the King’s forest”) or the very wealthy to enjoy.  This was the first time a national government had set aside wilderness for the sake of the public at large.  And just in time, as the Hayden expedition had already run into people planning to exploit the Yellowstone area for private commercial gain.  (At this point in history, the U.S. side of Niagara Falls had already been completely privatized and commercialized!)

The book briefly touches on mistreatment of Native Americans, the extinction or near-extinction of animal species and other difficult topics, but these are not the main concern.  The bibliography contains books that go into much more detail on these matters.

Most recommended for teens interested in history and the outdoors, but also good (and affordable) for adults with similar interests.

Book Review: White Fang

Book Review: White Fang by Jack London

Like many a lad, I read this classic adventure story when I was quite young (despite it most assuredly not being a children’s book.)  I have long planned to reread it when I had the opportunity, and was fortunate enough to get it for Christmas.

White Fang

For those who have forgotten the plot, or somehow never got to read the book, the title character, White Fang, is a wolf-dog crossbreed who is born in the wilds of the Yukon Territory.  He is captured by native humans and trained as a sled dog, then sold to a cruel white man who uses White Fang in cage fights.  Finally White Fang comes into the possession of a kind man who treats him with compassion and retires to California.

This book is based loosely on Mr. London’s own experiences as a sourdough in the Klondike gold rush, and is a mirror to his book Call of the Wild, which is about a dog from California that is shanghaied to the Klondike and eventually goes feral.  The story takes its own sweet time getting to White Fang.  The opening paragraphs begin with spruce trees and ice in the Wild, then introduce dogs, then the sled they are pulling, and only then the humans who own the sled.

These humans are fleeing a starving wolf pack, and they don’t all make it out alive.  We then follow the wolves for a while as their party dwindles.  Finally two are left, and they spawn a cub who is named White Fang a couple of chapters later.

The harsh realities of death are constantly brought up in the story–most of the animals and several of the humans we are introduced to die, some of them at the fangs of our protagonist himself.    There’s also a fair bit of musing on the “nature vs. nuture” question, though never put in those terms.   White Fang’s behavior is based on his inherited instincts, but heavily modified by his environment; thus when he is finally shown compassion, White Fang can learn to love.

This is contrasted in the final chapter with an escaped convict, Jim Hall, whose circumstances have turned him into a hardened killer.  (And in an instance of dramatic irony, has a genuine reason for his grudge against the judge who sentenced him to prison–he was innocent that time!)  Hall never got that moment of compassion, and has passed beyond human redemption.

As you might have gathered, there are many scenes of animal abuse in this book which may be too intense for young readers.  In addition, the story is a product of its time, and its portrayal of First Nations people is antiquated.  (While White Fang “instinctively” knows that the white men are superior to the Indians, it’s made clear that this superiority is confined to ability to project power.  The cruel Beauty Smith is a much worse dog owner than the harsh but practical Grey Beaver.)

There’s also some dubious canine behavior, some of which may be because Mr. London was genuinely mistaken, and other bits exaggerated to make the story more exciting.

Overall, this is really one of the great dog stories, and highly recommended to readers mature enough to handle the themes.  This story is in the public domain and you should be able to find it in an affordable edition (often paired with Call of the Wild) even new, or readily available at any used bookstore or library.

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