Animals

Some Luck

Before this century, farming was a way of life for many Americans. In the 1920s, 20% of our workforce labored on farms. Now it is less than 2%.  This novel, the first of a trilogy, covers the lives of an extended agricultural family, the Langdons, from the 1920s to the 1950s.

In 1920 Walter Langdon, a young 25-year-old walks the land of his new farm. His father thought he didn’t need to start on his own yet, but Walter disagreed. He had a wife after all--the beautiful and practical, Rosanna--and now a six-month-old son, the treasured Frank. As the first grandchild in the family, he receives tons of love and praise.

The novel covers a cycle of births, deaths, marriages, and children coming of age for two generations. The pace is slow, the characterization, deep, and you feel that you are really experiencing life as it was lived on an Iowa farm.

The Tusk That Did the Damage

This timely novel set in South India tells the story of contemporary ivory poaching from three perspectives a documentary filmmaker, a poacher, and from an elephant named Gravedigger.

A calf who watched his mother and other members of the elephant clan die brutally, Gravedigger grows up in captivity until he breaks his chains and slips into the forest. There he seldom shows mercy for humans.

Tania James succeeds in showing each of these beings as having complex needs. Even the poachers, two brother, named Jayan and Manu, aren’t presented as evil even though Jayan is jailed for killing 56 elephants, including a mother who waited and grieved for two days after her son died.

But this book is not all doom and gloom. The author describes the setting beautifully and captures the pressures and love shared by Jayan’s family.  His wife, Leela, an ex-prostitute is one of the strongest and most interesting characters.  After one elephant death, she asks her husband, “Why did you kill a god?”

The Black Snow

Irish writer Paul Lynch begins his second novel with a vivid barn burning scene--one of the most powerful novel openers I’ve read in a long time. It starts out calm, some farmhands working quietly in a field, the farm owner’s wife, Eskra, baking, until the scent of smoke and a dark cloud rising suggest that something is very wrong.

The farmer, Barnabas Kane, races to the barn with a loyal worker, and Barnabas presses inside and nudges Matthew Peoples inside also. They try to rescue the fifty seven cattle that are banging their stalls in a frenzy of fear. A friend rescues the farmer, but the other man never gets out, nor do most of the cattle.

The book shows the aftermath of that fire.  For months, the house stinks of smoke: the towels, the sheets, even the wallpaper. In one scene, Barnabas rips down curtains, slashes the wallpaper, even tears his clothes off after recognizing their smoky smell. Eskra comes home and believes he has lost his mind.

H is for Hawk

I almost became a falconer once. The ad promised you hands-on training for catching raptors, and you would be working with ones needing care, so it seemed like the perfect volunteer gig.  However, our time in California was drawing to a close, so I never got to experience the drama and force of a raptor landing on my gloved hand. But, wow, did I love this book.

This memoir artfully intertwines three stories: Helen’s experience training her first goshawk, her grieving for her father, and author T. H. White’s mixed results raising falcons and hawks. All these stories are told powerfully, and the subject is so interesting that I found the book riveting.  

Training the small fierce goshawk Mable (the author chose the name as something opposite of what you’d expect) for a few hours every day away took Helen from her disabling grief over her father’s sudden death on the street taking pictures for his job. At one point, Macdonald describes his last photograph--at street level, a line of blurs and a patch of sky as her father fell and died from a heart attack.

Tales from Gombe

If you’re fascinated by some of our closest animal relatives, the chimpanzee, this delightful collection of photographs will delight and inspire you.

Gombe National Park in Tanzania is where Richard Leakey and Jane Goodall first studied these fascinating primates over fifty years ago. 

The married photographer pair, Shah and Rogers, made many trips over a period of ten plus years to the park. What makes this book special is to see how individual chimps changed over the years, from babyhood to young adult, to young adult to mature, from mature to old.

The photos show the chimps doing daily activities, hunting, food-gathering eating, grooming, nursing and taking care of their young, even displaying as powerful males and females do to show who is boss and on top of the hierarchy.

What I liked most were the family portraits, a line of chimps in a row, siblings and one or both parents.

For many years, scientists have named all the chimps in one family with names beginning with the same consonants for instance: Frodo, Freud, Fanni, Flossi, Faustino, etc. Representing the G family are Galahad, Gaia, Gizmo, and Google, among others.

It’s amazing how distinct the chimp’s faces are, just as distinct as those of humans.  Also, how intelligent and expressive their eyes are.  The book’s text describes the struggle for power in each community and how certain chimps are loners, while others go off and join other communities.

It also describes how they help each other, how siblings look after their younger family members, how even adults stay close to their parents.

Several photos document tool use by chimps, including the famous termite-foraging with long grasses that Dr. Goodall first discovered in November, 1960 that amazed scientists around the world.

This is a very beautiful book that will also fill you in on some of the latest chimp research in Gombe.  For more on Goodall’s fascinating work and life, try Jane Goodall: a Twentieth Century Life by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen.

Great Bear Wild: Dispatches from a Northern Rainforest

If one area of our continent calls to me more than any other it’s the Northwest, that region of coastal rain forests that extends from northern California to Alaska. 

This magnificent book of photographs covers one of the few unspoiled areas left there, the Great Bear Rainforest.

It’s located on the mainland slightly north of Vancouver and extends past Prince Rupert to the border with Alaska. Talk about wild: salmon, bear, wolves, sea lions, great Douglas firs and hundred-year-old cedars all thrive there.

Ian McAllister, who lives nearby and works as an ecologist, has taken many incredible photographs of the wildlife and the plants.  He also photographed the native people, including a few of the matriarchs of the Gitga’at clan.

The photos are thrilling including some of spirit bears—a bear I was not familiar with. They are white black bears (yes, that’s right) produced by a recessive gene. They are not albinos, so a spirit bear could have black-furred bear mother and siblings. Francis Kermode, a museum curator, first named them.

The chapter on sea wolves shows how tough making a daily living is for the wolves who have bred on this coastal area for centuries.  They must swim between islands to find food, and one young male, ostracized by his family is shown swimming away from all that he has known after his family boots him away because they cannot feed him.

In one charming photo, tens of curious stellar sea lion bob on the Pacific’s surface—only their heads showing. They stare straight at the photographer. McAllister reports that these wonderfully intelligent and agile creatures are making a comeback in the waters off the Great Bear.

If you’ve ever seen the starfish in the Northwest, you know that these echinoderms are huge and often bright orange. McAllister also takes incredible photographs of colorful underwater creatures: purple urchins and striking rose anemones. Some interesting shots focus on both above-water and below-water life in the same shot.

Like many pristine landscapes left in the world, McAllister reports that the area of the Great Bear Rainforest is under threat from oil drilling. Additionally, there are plans to create a large port in seas that are often stormy and dangerous. This motivated McAllister to publish these beautiful photographs. But the text of the book also provides much information about the creatures of the region.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year: 50 Years

Have a soft spot in your heart for animals? Love unexpected and mesmerizing nature photographs? If so, this coffee table book is for you.

This book features the best of the best: a sampling of fifty years of winners from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest as well as an essay describing and presenting the history of the art.

It also includes some early nature photography, photographs that inspired later nature artists including Ansel Adams' 1941 photo "Snake River, the Tetons" with its magnificent play of light and shadows, curvilinear boulders and twin mountain peaks. Another great find is Eric Hosking's 1938 weirdly titled "The Tawny Owl that Robbed Me of an Eye" which turns out to a true story.  Be careful while taking pictures of owls!

The New York Dog

There are dog people in this world and then there others! Sorry, cat afionados. But for you lovers of all things canine, this new book of photographs with New Yorker's "best friend" stories will charm you. When you think of it, what could be more counterintuitive than a Manhattan or Brooklynite pup? Imagine the crowds (homo sapien primarily), the honking horns, lights, and police and fire sirens. It's enough to set even a human howling.

The photos are lovely. They include: an endearing poodle with its mouth open leaning into the wind from a cab window, a Great Dane crossing a car-filled side street, and several mixed breeds running free past colorful graffitied walls. There's even a refreshing series of summer beach scenes with dogs coated in sand or racing into the surf. Famous photographer William Wegman is shown with four of his graceful dog models: Flo, Topper, Candy, and Bobbin.

New Life, No Instructions

Did you ever hobble around on crutches?  Discover that you most basic possession, your body, does not work as it once did? This excellent memoir about rehabilitation, friendship, loss, and the love of a great dog is a tearjerker at times, but always incredibly well-written. Wow, does Caldwell know how to spin a yarn.

Gail Caldwell suffered from polio as a small child. In this account she describes how her mother sprawled on the floor with her when she was young and did the tough leg exercises needed to strengthen Gail’s leg. 

All her life, Gail adapted to living with a bum leg. In her late fifties she decided to adopt a strong Samoyed pup. And as Tula grew, Gail soon found herself falling more and more often, and that she could no longer hike the three mile reservoir loop with her strong-willed pet.

Doctor after doctor told Gail that her limp, the weakness in her leg and her frequent falls were caused by her polio, but Gail finally sought another opinion. The new doctor asked to see her CT scans and X-rays but there were no recent ones. Upon doing them, he discovered that Gail’s hip was shattered with the ball absolutely flat.  She needed hip replacement immediately.

Dog Songs

Who can resist a good dog book? OK so there are a few cat people out there (right here beside me in fact), and bird people, snake people, even for Heaven’s sake, skunk lovers and gerbil-groomers.  But what makes this book special is that it’s a book of poems that gives tribute to the special dogs in renowned nature poet Mary Oliver’s life.

There’s Luke, the junkyard dog, Benjamin, the canine that is always dragging a chewed-through rope,  Bear the small curly-haired who hates to stay overnight at boarding, Bazougey “that dark little dog/ who used to come down the road barking and shining,” Ricky, the talker, and Percy named  after the famous poet Shelley. Oliver penned a tribute to this hound mischievously patterned after Christopher Smart’s “For I will Consider My Cat Jeoffrey.”

Luke was “born in a junkyard, / not even on a bundle of rags/ or the seat of an old wrecked car/ but the dust below.”  This beautiful German Shepherd loved flowers:  “her dark head// and her wet nose/ touching/ the face/ of everyone.”  In the poem’s closing Oliver expresses one thing dogs show us about the world: “we long to be--/ that happy/ in the heaven of earth--/ that wild, that loving.”

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