Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sara Midda "In and Out of the Garden"

Gardening tips, recipes and lore, beautifully illustrated.

Barbara Bash "True Nature"

"True Nature: an illustrated journal of four seasons in solitude"

Filled with the author's thoughts and drawings taken down in different occasions while spending time alone in a secluded cabin. A gem.

Amy Stewart "The Earth Moved"

"The Earth Moved: on the remarkable achievements of earthworms"

Leave it to Amy Stewart to write a book about earthworms that is actually a page turner. Taking her cue from a famous worm-lover, Evolution dad, Darwin, Stewart explores the natural history of worms: what are they exactly, how do they work, what do they do and how they do it.

Interviews with worm scientists (oligochaetologists) involved in different projects (taxonomy, for instance, since many earthworm species are yet unnamed and undescribed; their impact on ecosystems that evolved without worms; their possible role in waste management; and their quantifiable benefits in crop yield, for instance) are interspersed with tales of the author’s worm compost bin and vegetable garden.

More and more it amazes me how our very survival in this planet is intimately tied with creatures we don’t think much about and some of us even find repulsive. While large animals, predators and herbivores alike, are the poster children of conservation movements everywhere we are more intimately connected with insects – I find that humbling and somewhat magical.

The scientists Stewart interviews have a common tale of underfunding and little interest. No-one cares that you might want to devote your life wholeheartedly to worms and that they in turn, have many secrets to unravel or that agricultural fields rich in worms are many times more productive than the ones without. Pandas they are not.

And yet, according to Amy Stewart worms are probably the perfect pet. While I’m not completely sold on that one, “The Earth Moved” did convince me they are fascinating, mysterious and if not exactly beautiful, at least kind of cute.

Holley Bishop "Robbing the Bees"

"Robbing the Bees: A biography of honey, the sweet liquid gold that seduced the world"

“Robbing the Bees” divides its pages between a modern day bee-keeping operation in Florida and a world history of bee-keeping.

In apiculturalist Smiley, Holley Bishop seems to have found the perfect guide into the world of commercial bee-keeping. A competent businessman who is also deeply entranced with his charges and finds that the best part of the job is the constant learning experience.

Accompanying the season of tupelo honey, the book is as close to a documentary as you can find on the written page. From the first tentative blossoms, the placing of the hives in the fields, until the sales calls, the reader gets a complete tour of contemporary honey gathering. There is also a quick tour of a truly gigantic honey venture where bee-keepers send excess production that gets used into cereals, candy and the like.

Along the way, Bishop presents a history of apiculture from Stone Age to our days. It was very interesting to learn that the hive, as we know it is actually a recent invention (XIX century) and that for the most, our experience of honey gathering was dangerous, even life-threatening (as it still is in some regions).

There are tales of scrumptious recipes using honey (the ancient Greeks were particular fans), honey used as currency in various civilizations, a chapter on that mind blogging substance that is wax and the many uses it was put to. My favorite was probably the chapter on the medicinal (and cosmetic) uses of honey.

And yet, great as this book was, it seems to have let me far from satisfied as far as honeybees go. This is not in the least “Robbing the Bees” fault – but the more I read about these mysterious insects, the more my curiosity stirs. Bishop’s book left me hungry for more, which is a recommendation by any account.

Stephen Budiansky "The Nature of Horses"

"The Nature of Horses: their evolution, intelligence & behaviour"

Just like his books on cats and dogs, Budiansky’s “The Nature of Horses” follows the same path: it explores their evolution, intelligence and behaviour (hey, just like it says in the sub-title!).

As with his previous books I was more interested in the natural history and the history of domestication, and somewhat bored by the chapters on intelligence testing. The physiology part didn’t much stir me either. Now, the thing is, I don’t know how much of it is related to my personal history with horses which is exactly…non-existent.

I think I’ve ridden a horse the grand total of…once. It seemed incredibly tall (and I’m not crazy about heights) and impossible to control.

But like everyone else I was not immune to the cultural image of the horse, having grown up reading a lot of cowboy themed comics and watching them portrayed in television and film as ultimate symbols of freedom, beauty and grace.

I have toyed with the idea of horse-riding lessons a couple of times and at the same time it always seemed like such an exploitative past-time (and watching a bunch of kids taking classes didn’t much help either – poor ponies). The bit, in particular, has always seemed like an incredibly cruel gadget.

In this sense, Budiansky didn’t exactly put my fears at ease. The “domestication” of horses was brutal business and most ancient riding gear worked by enforcing physical pain. Not for nothing each horse, even today, must be “broken” before it can be ridden. Horses are not born with a wish to carry us on their backs, but they are born social animals that respond to hierarchy and are good at learning. Of these natural inclinations, humans have been able to extract great advantages.

Another thing I’ve always disliked about equestrianism is that it is the domain of the wealthy. Of course it is, Budiansky explains, and has always been. Horses have, from the first connections with man, been tied both with war and wealth – symbols of power, dominance and status, a connection deepened with the establishment of the first equestrian games.

It all made me feel somewhat sorry for horses, forced to go to war for millennia, then to carry unbearable loads and finally unbearable brats. And made to play polo and race…uhg it’s too sad. I hereby foreswear horse riding forever.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum "A World Without Bees"

Just what is up with the vanishing honeybees?

The mysterious ailment with the X-files worthy name of “Colony Collapse Disorder” has scientists stumped since the spring of 2007 when American bee-keepers opened their hives to find a whole lot of nothing. Pretty soon European bees were disappearing too.

“A World Without Bees” is a fascinating, if unsettling book, which for some reason, I really didn’t get into when I first got it, a couple of years back.

I opened it again recently and became enthralled – sometimes you have to pick up a book at the right moment, I guess.

Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum have put together a very readable, detailed and interesting overview of CCD, that is also an exposé of modern agricultural practices and our very civilization’s dependence on bees.

Think I’m exaggerating? Well, consider that bees are responsible for pollinating something like 70% of crops: everything from most fruits and vegetables to cotton, needed for clothing manufacture, and coffee, not to mention most crops used as animal feed. No more bees = no more steak, milk, etc. Scary, hum?

In “A World Without Bees” several usual suspects are carefully looked over: monoculture techniques of growing crops, the massive transport of beehives to sites, viruses old and new, pesticides, climate change.

Even if scientists have yet to understand the mechanisms at work in the mysterious disappearance of honeybees one thing is made clear by the surprising picture painted by Benjamin and McCallum: agriculture these days is sounding more and more like a soil form of fois-gras production. We can’t expect to keep up it up without something going very wrong. For all intents and purposes it seems it already has.

A great book.

Jeffrey Masson "The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats"

Another recommendation from DogEar Diary", I enjoyed reading about Masson’s adventures with his five cats.

Trained in psychiatry and a militant vegan Jeffrey Masson always has his own way of telling animal tales. While “The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats” may not shed much light on the behavior of cats, except to reinforce, once again, how deeply alien they are to us humans and simultaneously how fascinating, it is a wonderful read for the scenery alone.

Living on a beach house in New Zealand, surrounded by rain forest with five cats (kittens, really) allowed to fully express their natures, come and go, seek human company when they wish, cavort on the beach…it’s a wonderful holiday book even if it does get one slightly jealous…

Konrad Lorenz once wrote that it’s a magical thing having a cat that you take walks with (more pointedly that allows you to join his walks). For most of us it might be as close to having a connection with a wild animal as it gets…

However, as in “Dogs Never Lie About Love” there was one thing that nagged at me: in the beginning of both books the author seems to “collect” animals from shelter and breeders with the clearly stated purpose of “studying” them. Then in this book we find out that the dogs and cats of “Dogs…” were all given up. While none were abandoned I have to admit I have a problem with this. The author says it was because he and his wife had to move a lot during a couple of years, but it just seems like carelessness from someone who makes a career out of being an animal rights spokesperson…doesn’t it?

Stephen Budiansky "The Truth About Dogs"

I didn’t enjoy Stephen Budiansky’s book on dogs as much as I did his cat one. Maybe, as Laura Miller refers in a scathing dog and cat book review, “while most human-dog bonds are fairly similar, there seems to be so much variety in cat owners' relationships to their pets -- every cat is a custom job”. But dog books somehow can never avoid the subject of “leadership” which is a concept that in animal relations, as in life, never fails to annoy me.

This is undoubtedly why my dogs are such brats (and why I was the worst substitute teacher in the world). I can’t tell people what to do, much less 10 year olds or dogs. I don’t get why they don’t do their own thing without constantly causing mayhem.

Anyway, back to “The Truth About Dogs”. The beginning was hilarious and highly promising. Like me, Budiansky has some qualms with the prevailing western cultural image of dogs: “unconditional love”? “best friend”?

“Dogs take from the rich, they take from the poor, and they keep it all. They lie on top of the air-conditioning vent in the summer, they curl up in front of the fireplace in winter, they commit outrages upon our property too varied and unspeakable to name. They decide when we may go to bed at night and when we must rise in the morning, where we may go on vacation and for how long, whom we may invite over to dinner, and how we should decorate our living rooms. They steal the very bread from our plates.”

So true.

Even though one passage is titled “Dogs aren’t wolves”, Budiansky actually spends most of the book using wolf behavior as a way to make sense of dog behavior. Most dog books, since Konrad Lorenz do this, so it didn’t feel very surprising. As in his cat book my favorite parts dealt with history (although there is little cultural history here; on that subject, the fascinating “Lost History of the Canine Race” is unsurpassable) and my least favorite with intelligent testing.

I did learn something, however: wimps make awful dog owners. If you are not willing to assert dominance (and occasionally, physical dominance) over your dog, she will probably develop all sorts of undesirable behaviors not to mention outright aggression.

So here I was, thinking what a coincidence it is that I always end up with super independent, stubborn dogs when all along, I’m the problem in the relationship (I also fall in another dangerous category according to Budiansky: owners who desperately want their dogs to love them)…

It might sound as if I’m being ironic, but it was actually pretty insightful, not to mention the first time I read about it in such unapologetic terms (and to give credit where it is due, my husband had already alluded to my general disinclination to discipline as a problem).

All around, a good dog book for those who haven’t read too many already. I’m reading his book on horses now (both of these a kind heads-up from Jeane at “DogEar Diary” so stay tuned…

Friday, July 02, 2010

Diana Killian - "Mantra for Murder Mysteries" Series, vols I, II & III

Corpse Pose
Dial Om for Murder
Murder on the Eightfold Path

I enjoy dipping into the “cozy” genre every once in a while. Sure, you have to be in the right mood, but I’ve enjoyed Maggie Sefton’s “Knitting Mysteries” and some of Joanne Fluke’s “Hannah Swensen Mysteries” as well as a few others.

However, Dianna Killian’s series “Mantra for Murder” is just on a whole different level. Intelligent, very well written, with a rhythm that carries you along effortlessly and a strong, visual feel to it – I could easily see it turned into a tv series or film – it is a delight to read.

What frustrates me with “cozies” sometimes is that these women (the heroines are mostly female, just like the intended audience) seem to live in a bubble. There never seem to be any “big issues” addressed (discounting the rising body counts, of course) and they don’t seem to watch tv shows, read books or magazines or read any blogs for that matter! It’s like they live outside of time, if that makes sense, in a sort of post-Millenium St Mary Mead. Also, there is usually precious little humour.

What I loved in this series were the cultural references, popular and otherwise and the fact that the author isn’t afraid to approach issues such as veganism right in the middle of narrative. And the humor…ah! Very dark, and very funny.

The theme is, obviously, yoga, as our protagonist, A. J. Alexander receives a very large inheritance from her aunt Diantha, owner of a successful yoga studio in a small New Jersey town, which includes the school itself. A. J.’s former life included being a fast-paced marketing consultant in the big city as well as a marriage that failed when her husband Andy, came out of the closet.

As heroines go I found A. J. incredibly likeable – I think throughout these three books she only annoyed me once or twice, which is great. However, credit is due to author Diana Killian for creating, to my knowledge, the only “cozy” mother-daughter duo. Elysia, former screen sex-kitten and star of “Avengers” style series “221B Baker Street” provides much of the comic relief and is an absolutely priceless character – she is the one who generally convinces A. J. to partake in a spot of sleuthing. I do hope she continues to be a staple in the series.

What about the love interest, you ask? Gotta have that love interest. And it’s mostly law enforcement or construction as these thing go. Here we have ruggedly handsome Detective Jake Oberlin: he wears snug jeans and listens to The Boss (I imagined him sort of like Saving Grace’s Butch Ada), takes himself a little too seriously and…well, the poor guy is probably the Achilles heel of this roster of characters. It almost made me hope ex-husband Andy would move to Stillbrook (and he does, temporarily, in vol. II - yay!). I do wish "cozy" love interests could be more original…like an oddball inventor or a kindergarten teacher… strong silent types are so…not funny. Oh well.

The mysteries themselves I found quite satisfying: the solution was neither obvious nor mind-boggling difficult. And anyway, as the Bard says “It’s as much about the journey as the destination”.

The “cozy” market is so huge right now that I can’t be certain this is the best series out there – but, so far, it is certainly the best I’ve come across.