FoL Winter Sale Goodies…

We had the annual winter sale for our local FoL and as usual, there was an abundance of goodies for all… (I know. It’s not that I *needed* some new titles, but who am I to turn down unfettered access to tons of good new-to-me titles?)

So, let’s go through which titles made it through my marketing filter (with rather big holes!). At the top pic, from L-R (vertical titles):

  • The Pottery Barn: Bathrooms (NF)
  • The Pottery Barn: Living Rooms (NF)
  • Workspace (another interior design book)

Moving to the horizontal pile, from the bottom up:

  • When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals – Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy (NF)
  • On Doctoring: Stories, Poems, Essays – John Stone and Richard Reynolds (eds.)
  • Essays of E.B. White – E.B. White (love me some E.B.) (NF)
  • The Rosie Effect – Grahame Simpson (F) – continuation from The Rosie Project
  • The Barrytown Trilogy – Roddy Doyle (F)
  • Old New York – Edith Wharton (F)
  • All Things Bright and Beautiful – James Herriot (NF? F?)

And then this pile as well above (<smh>) bottom to top:

  • “Dress Your Best” – Clinton Kelly and Stacy London (NF)
  • “What Not to Wear” – Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine (NF)
  • “If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home” – Lucy Worsley (NF – social history)
  • “Lost Country Life” – Dorothy Harley (NF)
  • “Days of Grace” – Arthur Ashe and Arnold Rampersad (autobio)
  • “Great Tales of English History 2” – Robert Lacey (really interesting historian about UK history)
  • “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African” – Allison, ed. (NF/bio) 1798
  • “The Free People of Color of New Orleans” – Martha Gehman (NF/history)

And then this with the most gorgeous cover pic: “Living Earth” by DK Eye Witness (just love this series of books):

<rubs hands together with glee at glorious reading ahead>

Cowboy: Guest Post

Bones, our newest addition.

This (above) is Bones, who we adopted a month or so ago. The first few weeks we had her were rather concerning, as she was really weak and worried. But, lots of good meals and plenty of love have brought her out from under the bed and now she is starting to wander around the house and explore things a bit more. Phew.

Guest Post: Nova Dog and Bones the Cat.

(L) Nova Dog. (R) Bones the Cat.

We have adopted a new cat who was living in a bad situation. Called Bones (since she was sooo very thin and malnourished), she is slowly learning to trust us all and since she’s been having a healthier diet, she seems to be feeling much better and is starting to canter around the house and coming for regular snuggles. (Medically speaking, it was rather touch-and-go with Bones for a week or two. But phew. She’s pulling through now.)

Nova Dog (still bouncy at aged 3) is learning to respect boundaries (kitty claws and teeth along with hissing can be effective teaching tools), and as you can see above, Bones has laid claim to the large dog bed, leaving the floor for Nova Dog. Nova is not that upset by this turn of events, since she rarely uses the dog bed, but I think the principle of the thing is interesting. The tiny cat has the biggest bed. Seems rather Queen Victoria-ish to me. 🙂

(Cowboy Cat prefers to stay out of the squabbles. She’s snoozing in the other room.)

Fergus has a guest post…

This is Fergus the cat. She’s actually a “she” but some little kids around the corner named her when she was a kitten and that’s the name she has. She’s very passionate about everything: if you can feel strongly about something, she will. Also, if there is any kind of disagreement amongst the kitties, you can double-dog guarantee that Fergus is in the mix somewhere. Very sweet though, and typically very dirty from rolling in the dirt. Thus: Filthy Fergus. 🙂

I took this pic when I was waiting for Fergus to jump down from the bonnet/hood of the car so I could start the engine and get to work. Clearly, it’s not something she wants at this very moment. 🙂

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival – John Vaillant (2010)

This was, unusually for a reread, another great all-encompassing reading experience which managed to allow me to travel to the far eastern reaches of Siberia to follow the events that happened in a small struggling village deep in the forest. It’s what happens when humans and predators (of the animal sort) have to overlap due to reduced natural environment and resources, and it’s what can go extraordinarily wrong when this situation occurs. 

Vaillant is a well-respected journalist with work printed in prestigious outlets such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic, and his writing demonstrates his skill in how he handles the text. He was born in the U.S., but has lived in Vancouver for some time now, and most of his books cover current topics with a focus towards the natural environment. 

As mentioned, I’d read “The Tiger” before (preblog), and, being a little fed up with the never-ending sun and heat of the West Texas summer, I was searching for a read that would take me to a cooler location, even if it was only in my head.  Combine excellent writing and wordsmithing with an amazing true story, and you’ve got me. 

John Vaillant

The narration is mostly placed in eastern Siberia, in the area known mostly for logging. It’s sparsely inhabited (with ref to humans) and is a very harsh environment with temperatures regularly falling deep below freezing for weeks and months at a time. Only the hardy survive. 

Logging has been significantly reducing the forest (called the taiga) and there is widespread poverty amongst those who live there. Limited resources make people and animals desperate and the shrinking wild land makes it much more likely that human activity will necessarily overlap with natural boundaries already well established. 

It’s because of this growing overlap that Vaillant can write this riveting story. Amur tigers used to be quite a frequent sight in this region, but their numbers had been falling over the years. Already a predator, one of the local tigers had attacked and killed one of the villagers. But why? After decades of living quite peacefully together, each in their own world, what happened for the tiger to attack the man? And why did the tiger not only kill the man, but rip him to shreds, much more than would be necessary just to make sure he died? Absolute shreds.

When another villager has a similar hair-raising encounter (but this time he survives), the local nature reservation agents become alarmed. When the tiger starts behaving as though he (or she) has a personal vendetta against particular villagers, the occasion starts to take on a new level of importance. The villagers live deep in the forest and they would have little chance of staying alive without venturing into the surrounding forest for food and fuel… And why was the tiger suddenly paying attention to them? 

The book covers quite a short space of time, calendar-wise – perhaps one month or so – and through Vaillant’s careful and descriptive reporting style, you as the reader are taken along on the journey as local experts try to combine modern-day science with years-old traditional folklore to try to understand why the intricate balance has been thrown off between these two otherwise fairly symbiotic parties. 

By the time that I turned that last page, I was full of admiration for everyone involved: the tiger himself (who was only doing what years of evolution has taught him to do – plus a little personal vendetta-ing combined), the villagers (again, desperate straits) and the nature agents who were brought in to solve the conundrum. It was an extremely fraught situation but with climate change continuing to worsen at this point, I would bet that these sort of natural world overlaps will become more and more common as resources shrink. 

Quite an amazing story – even for a reread! Now, I’m adding Vaillant’s other work to my other TBR… 

The Lady and the Panda – Vicki Constantine Croke (2005)

Subtitle: The true adventures of the first American explorer to bring back China’s most exotic animal.

Strolling around the library bookshelves, I happened upon the biography section and then within that, the biographies-which-include-animals-somehow section. Oh happy times. I’m always up for an animal read, but combine that with the life story of an interesting woman doing exploring during 1930s Shanghai? You had me at hello.

This is the joy of browsing at the library. I had no idea this book (or topic combination even existed)… I’m psyched to go and dig around and find more treasures the next time I visit there.

So – about this title. As the subtitle briefly mentions, it’s a biography of American Ruth Harkness, who went to China to bring back to the U.S. its first live baby giant panda. At this time in the world, giant pandas were just being brought to the fore for the general public across the world, but the few pandas who had been brought to the West by (male) explorers had been killed for their skins. No one had even considered the possibility of bringing a live giant panda, let alone a live baby one. Add to that, the story of a neophyte female explorer traveling through bamboo forests without much support, financial or otherwise. There lies a fascinating tale…

Harkness with two of the young giant pandas she traveled with. (Credit: Mary Labisco.)

Some background: Harkness, quite a wealthy socialite, had met her husband at parties in NYC and he had been swept up in the exploring craze of the time. The hubby had planned several long trips to faraway places, including China, but on one of those trips, he became ill and then died.

Harkness had only been married a couple of years by then, but with her money, newly widowed and rather at a loss for something to do, Harkness picked up the exploring reins left behind by her husband – much to the horror and disbelief of her well-heeled friends and family. (Plus – she was a woman! Who had ever heard of such a thing?)

This tracks Harkness’s preparations (what little there were) for her first exploration trip. China at that time, was not that well-known by a lot of the West and so Harkness’s choice to travel to this mostly-unknown destination by herself to finish up what her husband had started was hard to believe for many people.

It’s really a fascinating story. Harkness doesn’t really seem like such a likable person, but she was determined, she didn’t know what she didn’t know yet and so in her view, this was just another adventure to a new place. This lack of knowledge really helped her, I think, as she wasn’t aware of some of the major difficulties that would lie ahead. Ignorance is bliss.

And she wasn’t the only Western explorer racing to bring back a live giant panda to worldwide zoos. There were other more-experienced and more well-funded men who were also in the race, so not only was this a project running against time and resources, it was also a gender-based race as well. The odds were heavily against Harkness.

Harkness appears to have been one of the few Western explorers who truly respected China and its people. Once she was there, she felt as though she had arrived home, and this connection pulled her through some of the more-challenging parts of the months-long journey. She also really cared about the well-being of the actual giant pandas that she found (compared with the other explorers who saw them only as a product, dead or alive).

It’s a fascinating read since it covers so much: the Jazz Age, Shanghai (from both the expat and the native perspective), the cultural mores of the time, and the numerous moving pieces that make up a lengthy exploring venture.

Croke is a sympathetic author and has done her research. She uses a lot of primary sources as reference material along with interviewing various Harkness relatives, even traveling with some back to China to retrace Harkness’ travels and to walk some of the same paths.

There are a few patches when Croke crosses over into FanGirl territory, but to be honest, Harkness was an admirable person in many ways so there’s not much wrong with that. Besides, the enthusiasm is well-balanced with less-savory aspects of Harkness so it worked for me.

This was such a good read about an interesting person at a time when much was changing across the globe. Add baby giant pandas to the mix, and it was a fun title to dig into this summer.

Recommend it.

Random note: I happened to be using a bookmark from the World Wildlife Fund, and their logo is a panda. Worlds colliding! 🙂

Indulging in some E.B. White…

Going to a couple of thrift shops, I had found a boxed set of E.B. White’s trilogy including Charlotte’s Web* (1952), Stuart Little (1945) and The Trumpet of the Swan (1970). I’d already read Charlotte’s story, but the other two were new to me… It was a hot day, I was tired from all the de-stoning of the flower beds (see previous entry), so I sat down to engage in some sweet reading.

Both were adorable reads (just as Charlotte’s Web was), and if you haven’t read them, I recommend them for an adorable hour or so of beautiful writing and lovely stories. (Plus – some more of artist Garth Williams’ perfect pics.)

Stuart Little is a smart little mouse who was born (in mouse form) to human parents, but who lives his life as a human would (just a very small human). Anyways, it’s so sweet (although not saccharine) to follow Stuart’s adventures and I loved this little jaunt with this rodent.

Then, I moved on to a read of The Trumpet of the Swan which follows the adventures of a young trumpeter swan who has no voice (and thus, can’t trumpet). Undeterred, he enrolls in school, and then falls in love with another swan. However, with no voice, how can he tell her of his deep love for her? Just adorbs.

(I’m very puzzled about how I missed these when I was a young reader who adored animals… Maybe it was an American book? Or I was too deeply attached to Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain?)

(I was obsessed with this book when I was little…)

(Interestingly, Garth Williams (the artist who had illustrated Charlotte’s Web only illustrated Stuart Little. Another artist ended up illustrating The Trumpet…, so I missed Williams’ style. Still lovely stories though.)

After reading some more of White’s work, I was curious about his life so toddled off to the library to see if I could track down a biography about him. I found one by Michael Sims: The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic (2011). Cool. I was psyched to learn more about the lovely Mr. White…

However, it was not to be. The author had completely butchered this biography, and to be honest, I’m not sure how this version made it through an editor. Not to be mean, but from a professional editor’s viewpoint, it was so sophomoric and read like a student’s early draft of a basic research essay. (Sorry. But it’s true.)

The author had included every single little fact that he had dug up about White, and then had just mushed it all together in a vague order, but goodness gracious. It was painful to read, and I didn’t want to sully White’s image in my head with this writing, so stopped after a hundred pages of so. Grr.

There are, however, other biographies of White out there to read, so I’ll try one of those. This title is off the list though. 🙂

Then to recover from that disappointment, I did a jigsaw puzzle… 🙂

  • If you google Charlotte’s Web, curiously enough, the first item that pops up on the search list is of the weed type that’s called that same name. Aaah. A sign of the times. 🙂