Category Archives: Animals

Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon

Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon

McPherson & Company, Kingston, New York, 2010

Borrowed from my library.  Winner of the 2010 National Book Award, on the 2012 Orange Prize longlist.

Somewhere near Wheeling, West Virginia, is a race track called Indian Mound Downs.  There horses run in claiming races and owners, trainers, grooms and jockeys try to grab some luck, win a bundle or just get by.  This is the world of cheap horse racing, violent and often ruthless.  Lord of Misrule follows several characters, and four horses, through a season.

These characters bring their dreams and their histories to the track.  There is Medicine Ed, 72 years old, a groom all his life, with an eye for horses and people and a hidden knowledge of “medicine”.  Tommy Hansel, a man with a plan.   Get in, make a bundle and get out quick.  And Maggie Koderer, Tommy’s girl, working as a groom, wondering how she’s ended up here, where she’s going and falling for horses in a way you know will break her heart.

Her hands felt their way blindly along the ridges and defiles of the spine, the firm root-spread hillocks of the withers.  She rolled her bony knuckles all along the fallen tree of scar tissue at the crest of the back, prying up its branches, loosening its teeth.  And it must be having some effect: when she walked Pelter these days he wasn’t the sour fellow he used to be, he was sportive, even funny.  She walked him this morning until the rising sun snagged in the hackberry thicket…  From Page 25.

Gordon knows these characters, knows these horses, knows this ugly side of the sport of kings.  I  sense that she chose her words very carefully, building a sense of rhythm, sometimes trotting, sometimes galloping.   The men think like animals, the horses act like men and often there is violence and decay buried in them.  This is a dark novel, full of menace and poetry.  I enjoyed it.

Not to long ago I read a startling article about horse racing in the New York Times.  Lord of Misrule reinforces its sad truth.

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Filed under Animals, LiteraryFiction, National Book Award

Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan

Rats: Observations on The History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan

Bloomsbury, New York, 2004

From my TBR pile.

Some of you may know I have a thing about animals.  Domesticated animals, wild animals, animals with back bones, animals with exoskeletons, and animals with no skeletons at all.  I  like rats and have even kept them as pets.

Rats is a book that made me laugh and made my skin crawl (not an easy thing to do).   A pair of rats can produce 15,000 baby rats a year.  Rats can gnaw through concrete.  A rat’s skeleton can collapse, allowing the rat to pass through a space the size of its skull.

Robert Sullivan, interested in rats because of their shared habitat with humans, spent a year investigating a rat-invested alley in New York City.  His book is crammed with rat facts, thoughts about rat-human interactions and the history of New York.  The people in this book are a fascinating and eccentric collection of city garbage managers, rat-catchers and rat specialists.   Sullivan takes full advantage of their stories as he makes some interesting connections about our relationship with these rodents.

Sometimes, I confess, as I sat in the alley late that summer and watched a rat emerge, as I studied its now predictable but still surprising path towards food, I felt an odd thrill of wild delight at the notion that I could perhaps  myself catch that rat, trap it.  It occurred to me that the rat catcher, spending his time in basements, dilapidated apartments and alleys, is, in a strange way, part of the rat’s natural environment, more so than the average rat-avoiding citizen. Trapping would provide a means to observing a wild Rattus norvegicus up close.   From page 130

Sullivan’s understanding of human impact on an urban environment, and his curiosity about the way we and rats have evolved to live together, make this a fun and enjoyable read (if it doesn’t gross you out)  and I have to say that the times I’ve spent in NYC I was much more freaked out by the scurrying of cockroaches than the occasional sight of a rat running up an alley!

Rats have adapted to live around and take advantage of humans.  It is not their fault that they are so smart and we are so messy.  An added bonus, the beautiful cover by Pete Sís.

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Filed under Animals, Natural History, Thoughts

Fauna by Alissa York

Fauna by Alissa York

Vintage Canada, Toronto, 2011

From my TBR pile.

I’m not sure what drew me to this one, maybe it was the title.

Edal Jones, a Federal Wildlife officer, is falling apart.  One too many baby tortoises, packed in egg cartons and crushed in a suitcase.  She is home, on leave, exhausted, emotionally spent.

One morning, on a bike ride, she sees a young woman picking up stunned birds from around the glass towers of downtown Toronto.  She follows this woman into the Don Valley and discovers a small group of people and animals living in ways very different from those around her.

Fauna is mainly Edal’s story.  Named after one of the otters from Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water, she had joined the Federal agency to help wildlife, and finds herself devastated by loss.

     Having entered that room full of oddities, her thoughts are inclined to remain there.  As Baloo and Bagheera chase through the jungle after their beloved man-cub, her mind’s eye moves over confiscated grizzly rugs and black bear galls, a dried tiger penis, a leopard skin coat.   When they make a friend of Kaa, the massive rock python, she can only see wallets and handbags, hideous pointy-toed boots.  She manages to focus again during the great battle at the ruined city know as the Cold Lairs, but only until Mowgli tumbles down into the abandoned summer house and lands among the hissing hoods of the Poison-People.  Why would someone shove a cobra inside a bottle and pickle it?  More to the point, why would anyone spot such an atrocity in a marketplace and long to possess it, let alone attempt to smuggle it home?  From page 88.

This novel is also an interesting mix of characters, both human and animal, that live in this city and of the fragile connections between them.  It reminds me of how, even in a place of glass and concrete, life can flourish.  Something I find I need to remember.

And mixed in with all this is a love of books.  Each of the main characters has an important book in their past.  There is also the thread of The Jungle Book, read aloud following group dinners, and the effect it has on all who read and hear it.  York’s writing is rich in detail, precise, and hard-edged.  I found Fauna an interesting, enjoyable book.

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Filed under Animals, Canadian, CanadianBookChallenge5, ContemporaryFiction, Thoughts

I Heart Corvids

I’ve seen this video on several of my favorite websites and had to pass it along.  I think the language is Russian.  Can anyone confirm?

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Filed under Animals, Corvids, Nature

Sunday Salon – Introducing Cassandra

Good Sunday to you and congratulations to all who made it through the 24 hour Read-A-Thon.  Cassandra has come out from under the covers and explored the house.  Turns out she is a very smart, affectionate and vocal cat.  And she likes books.  And she likes her furry black mouse.

The book, Vermeer in Bosnia by Lawrence Weschler, is a used copy I bought as a treat for myself after reading about his new book, Uncanny Valley.  Weschler has been a favorite  every since I read Mr Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder.  I also have a copy of Everything That Rises.  It is a book I pick up when I  want to be inspired.

I was also very please to see this list  posted on the Guardian website.  Many of my favorite authors are on it. And here is an interesting video about an Impossible Hamster.   Are you following  Occupy Wall Street events?

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Filed under Animals, Authors, Sunday Salon

Monster of God by David Quammen

Monster of God: The Man-eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind by David Quammen

W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2003

Borrowed from my local library.

A wonderful book by one of my favorite science science writers.  Quammen has given us an in-depth report on a  great struggle in human history.  What do humans do when they find themselves becoming prey and how do we learn to live with those animals who, like us, find themselves at the top of the food web?

…For as long as Homo Sapiens has been sentient-for much longer if you count the evolutionary wisdom stored in our genes-alpha predators have kept us acutely aware of our membership within the natural world.  They’ve done it by reminding us that to them we’re just another flavor of meat…

…While we humans may be the most reflective members of the natural world, we’re not (in my view, anyway) its divinely appointed proprietors.  Nor are we the culmination of evolution, except in the sense that there has never been another species so bizarrely ingenious that it could create both iambic pentameter and plutonium.  (from page 13)

By focusing on four top predators, visiting their home territory and interviewing local scientists, hunters and others about  human contact with those predators, the author reminds us of things we may have forgotten.  What it is like to live in a place where we fear being attacked, injured and possible eaten by the animals that live around us.  How have people managed to live in balance with those animals?  How can we insure their survival as more and more of their territory is destroyed by our need for control?

Asiatic Lions that manage to survive in a tiny area of Western India, Salt water crocodiles in Australia,  Brown Bears in Romania and the Amur Tiger in the wilds of Eastern Russia are featured in a book that blends the history, biology, politics and culture of human-big predator interaction.  One of my favorite parts is Quamman’s explanation  of human exploration and colonization, the “taming of the wilderness”.

     Achieving military victory over the indigenous tribes, whoever they are, is sometimes the easiest part of the whole process.  The land itself, the ecosystem, must be defeated too – or so the invaders think.  The foreign wilderness must be mastered, made tractable, if not utterly subdued and transformed.  That requires, at the lower end of the size scale, coping with pestiferous local microbes and parasites, which sometimes present the fiercest resistance of all.  Malaria certainly slowed the white conquest of Africa.  At the upper end of the scale it means rooting out those big flesh-eating beasts that rule the woods and the rivers and the swamps, that offer moral peril to the unwary, and that hold pivotal significance within the belief systems of the natives.  Kill off the sacred bear.  Kill off the ancestral crocodile.  Kill off the myth-wrapped tiger.  Kill off the lion.  You haven’t conquered a people and their place, until you’ve exterminated their resident monsters. (From page 254)

Another thing I enjoyed about Monster of God was the author’s inclusion of religion and mythology.  All of those monster stories, all of the tales of heroes conquering ravenous beasts and fire-breathing serpents came from somewhere.

Anzu, as know from Babylonian poetry, was a furious lion-headed eagle.  Polyphemus, son of sea god Poseidon, was the cyclops who ate several of Odysseus’ men, scarfed them like shucked crawfish, before Odysseus paid him back with that archetypical affliction, a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.  The Chimera was a fire-snorting goat-lion-snake.  The Sphinx was a sadistic woman-faced lion, who devoured people after teasing them with her stupid riddle.  The Labbu, another formidable Babylonian monster, was 630 miles long, with huge eyelids.  It’s high protein diet included fish, wild asses, birds and people, until Tishpak or some other heroic intervener (the sources are patchy) vanquished it.  The original meaning of the word labbu, by the way, was lion.  (from page 262)

I love this stuff.  And I appreciate the author’s sense of humor when dealing with an issue that have terrified humans since before we stood upright.  Monster of God is a joy to read  and a sobering reminder of our place in the world.

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Filed under Animals, Nature, Nonfiction, Science

Sunday Salon – Sad Days


No book news today.  It has been a rough few days at the Blue House.

Our 13 year-old pup, Kit, was diagnosed with a tumor in April.  She had been doing surprisingly well on pain meds and appetite stimulants right up until the middle of this past week and then she quit eating.  It was clear to us that she wasn’t going to rally and that she was beginning to suffer.

Yesterday we spent the morning in the garden.  Kit dug in the dirt and rested in the shade.  Then we went for a last car ride to visit her favorite veterinarian.  She is at rest now and we are sad.  We had a wonderful 12 years together.  I miss her.

Dogs have always been a part of my life.  During those few times when I have had to be without their company I felt a great lack.  Cats have been part of my life also but their company is different, more detached  I think.   It is amazing to me how big a part animals can have in our lives, how they become part of the family, even part of us as individuals.  I am fascinated by all of the research being done on animal behavior and their history as helpmates and companions.

We are grieving now but know that this will pass.  And Kit is running in the fields across the Rainbow Bridge.

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Filed under Animals, Sunday Salon

The Hopes of Snakes by Lisa Couturier

The Hopes of Snakes & Other Tales from the Urban Landscape by Lisa Couturier

Beacon Press, Boston, 2005

Borrowed from my public library.

This is one of those books I discovered while browsing the shelves.  This collection of  essays written about Couturier’s time spent in New York City and the Washington, DC area, reminds me that the city is, in fact, part of nature and that our ideas of nature are human constructs.  I know this, but it is easy to forget in my day-to-day living.

In essays that range from searching for Canada goose nests on an island in the Arthur Kill to hunting for Coyotes along the Potomac River through Washington D.C., Couturier drew me into her world and reintroduced me to the snakes and crows and foxes that live beside us in our urban habitats.

Her words convey deep respect for the “natural” world, they are filled with hard truths about human behavior.   I found these essays speaking to me, summing up my spiritual philosophy, my personal religion. I loved this wonderful collection.

What if God is the hawk, is the fish in the ocean, the fowl of the air, and every living thing that moveth upon the earth?  What if God is the grass the hawk sat in and the breeze the hawk flew through?  from page 17.

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Filed under Animals, Essays, Nature, Nonfiction, Review

Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites by Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson

Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites by Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson

Dark Horse Comics, Milwaukie, OR 2010

Borrowed from the library.

I love animals.  I love graphic novels.  What is not to like about Beasts of Burden?

The stories take place in Burden Hill, a peaceful place with lovely homes, picket fences and a group of dogs (and one cat) who are best buddies.  Then strange things begin to happen.  Frogs fall from the sky, evil kitties abound and Jack and Rex discover zombie roadkill.  The crew call on the Wise Dog to help them and eventually become a team of paranormal detectives.

Sometimes bloody, often beautiful, these are horror stories filled with good guys and bad guys, ghosts and witches.  Atmospheric artwork and animals with distinct personalities and quirky friendships that remind us of ourselves make this a dark and often humorous read. Dark Horse offers some of the Beast of Burden stories on their website.  You are welcome to check them out.

Other Reviews:

Mama Librarian

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Filed under Animals, Graphic Novels, Review

Tales of an African Vet by Dr. Roy Aronson

Tales of an African Vet by Dr. Roy Aronson

Lyons Press, Guilford, CT, 2011

Dr. Aronson sent me an email asking if I would be interested in reading and reviewing his book.  I jumped at the chance, so he had the publisher send me a copy.

Dr. Roy Aronson is a veterinarian living in Capetown, South Africa.  Besides his normal work with dogs, cats and other more exotic pets he has had many opportunities to treat African wildlife on  farms, ranches and private game reserves.  Along the way he has met and worked with very special vets and wild animal experts.

This small, quiet book is filled with tales of  treating different kinds of animals, from wolf-dog hybrids to lions, snakes and elephants.  Each chapter describes the ranch or reserve where Aronson, sometime with his wife Kathy, also a vet, does this difficult and dangerous work.  Sometimes it involves sedating a lioness to facilitate an operation on her eyelid, at other times it involved rangers rescuing a baby elephant from a mud hole, finding a home for him and raising him by hand.

Aronson’s tone is clear and direct.  He writes about the problems African animals face in the wild, hunting, poaching and human habitation being some of them.  He also describes the good work many people do to mitigate these problems.  It is heartening to read that wildlife habitat is actually increasing as people who own land choose to turn it into wildlife parks and reserves.

…There is a clear line between human habitat and the wild area occupied by animals.  It is a line that is often crossed.  We venture into nature, and sometimes wild animals enter into our domain.  Whenever there is a clash between wild animals and us or our pets, there should be respect.  With respect there can be coexistence.  Without it, there can only be tragedy.  We are the intruders here.  We have occupied the mountainside.  We are also the so-called intelligent species.  It is up to us to set the example of how to cohabit with other species.  If we do this with sensitivity, then we will all survive.  If we do this without it, then our fellow inhabitants of this planet will be harmed, and we will be the poorer for it.  From page 162.

I was happy to receive this book and thoroughly enjoyed reading it.  I would love to pass it on to someone in the US who would like to read and review it.  If you are interested please leave a comment with your email address.

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Filed under Animals, Memoir, Nature, Nonfiction, Review