Look at you, Pikachu!

Meet Pikachu – the newest member of our menagerie.  Also called ‘bug’.

After our last 3-cat stint with Wasabi, we swore there was NO WAY we’d ever be a three-cat household again.  NO WAY.  Uh-uh.

My consolation is that MT caved first.  The pet supply we shop at has been working in partnership with a cat rescue for the last few years – the start of which is when I stopped going into the pet supply store, because I want to save All. the. Kitties.  MT has held strong the last 3 years but recently, he just couldn’t take it any more, and after going through the long application process, we found bug.

Easter and Carlito are plotting their revenge.  I can tell it’s going to be a protracted revenge that will include much hissing, spitting and screaming on Easter’s part and long diatribes on Carlito’s.  But I’m hoping Pikachu will win them over; she’s achingly sweet, and is 100% human oriented, which means she has no interest in playing or cuddling with our two curmudgeons.  Hopefully when they start to understand that, peace will return to our land.

In the meantime:

Midnight Blue-Light Special

Midnight Blue-light SpecialMidnight Blue-light Special
by Seanan McGuire
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780756407926
Series: InCryptid #2
Publication Date: March 1, 2013
Pages: 353
Genre: Fantasy, Urban Fantasy
Publisher: DAW Books

A re-read that not only held up well, but one that I enjoyed more the second time around.  My first readings of McGuire’s books always start off feeling tedious, but picking up so much that I end up really enjoying them (though Imaginary Numbers flipped this around).  This re-read didn’t feel tedious at all and except for the scene where Verity is captured, which felt way too long, I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of it.

As an aside, MT saw the title and commented that it sounded like the stupidest book he’d ever seen me read.  Being not-American, I had to explain to him about the Kmart blue-light special days of yore.  (He conceded that the title made a smidgen more sense.)

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Genres: Natural Science, Science
Format: Paperback
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
by Frans De Waal
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781783783069
Publication Date: July 26, 2017
Pages: 340
Genre: Science
Publisher: Granta Books

Short answer:  no, of course we’re not.  For a lot of reasons, but mostly because of thousands of years of cultural confirmation bias.

For the long answer, you can’t go wrong reading this book.  De Waal writes a very readable treatise on the subject – where we started regarding our beliefs about animal intelligence, and how we got to where we are today, using a well balanced blend of anecdotes and scientific experiments.  While his area of study is primatology, he also delves into research conducted by colleagues on birds, elephants, dogs, a few fish wales, dolphins, and the octopus.  He systematically addresses each of the arguments that have been made as to what sets humans apart, and how these arguments have been torn down by research over time.

The book didn’t get the full 5 stars because, oddly enough, I felt De Waal was being too politic about at least one question: why are researchers, scientists and laypeople so historically stubborn about insisting that humans are above, and superior to, all other animals?  To me, that answer is obvious, though I can see why scientists equate objectivity with atheism.  The truth of the matter is that the Western world has been culturally inculcated by Judeo-Christian teachings, whether scientists like it or not, on such a fundamental level, that I doubt many are aware of it.  Specifically, Genesis 1:28:

And God blessed them, saying: Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth.

Personally – and this is just me – I’ve always had doubts about the original translation of Gen. 1:28 – specifically the words “subdue” and “rule”; I have to wonder if the original language wasn’t closer to something akin to ‘guard’ or ‘protect’, given that Earth may be our home, but it isn’t our house, so to speak.  And while I’m going a bit off topic here, I’ll also just say that I do believe that God gave us something that separates us from the other animals: free will.  In all my readings and my meagre experiences, we’re the only animals that can choose to be evil for the sake of being evil; we’re the only animals that can choose to hurt ourselves; we’re the only animals that will push our own boundaries just for the sake of pushing them.

Anyway – back on topic – De Waal doesn’t address deeply embedded cultural bias, which struck me as odd.  But that’s really my only niggling objection.  Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the book and found much in it that made me think hard about animal intelligence and what it means to be aware of self, others and our surroundings.  But then again, I’m his audience:  I have always believed animals are smart, aware, and cognisant and that humans have never been as special as we think we are.


by Emily Chase
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 0590328433
Series: The Girls of Canby Hall #1
Publication Date: March 28, 1983
Pages: 220
Genre: Young Adult
Publisher: Scholastic Books

I saw a mention of this title somewhere on the ‘net last year, and it was like a lightbulb going off in my memory.  This was the book that inspired by adolescent desire to go to boarding school (unfulfilled, which is probably just as well, as I doubt the reality would have equalled the fantasy).  I immediately tracked down a copy for nostalgia’s sake, and the forgot about it until it showed up in my mail several months later.

I really expected it not to hold up to time, but I have to say, I’m impressed and how well it did.  There were some incredibly frivolous moments, but there were some weightier ones as well, including racial stereotypes and running away.  Not up to today’s standards, but respectable for the early 80’s, I suppose.  Either way, I enjoyed it for the quick, easy read it was and still is.  I still want to go to boarding school.  And summer camp.

Extraordinary Insects

Format: Paperback
Extraordinary InsectsExtraordinary Insects
by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780008316372
Publication Date: April 2, 2020
Pages: 294
Genre: Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Mudlark

A Sunday TimesNature Book of the Year 2019

A journey into the weird, wonderful and truly astonishing lives of the small but mighty creatures we can't live without.

Insects influence our ecosystem like a ripple effect on water. They arrived when life first moved to dry land, they preceded - and survived - the dinosaurs, they outnumber the grains of sand on all the world's beaches, and they will be here long after us.

Working quietly but tirelessly, they give us food, uphold our ecosystems, can heal our wounds and even digest plastic. They could also provide us with new solutions to the antibiotics crisis, assist in disaster zones and inspire airforce engineers with their flying techniques.

But their private lives are also full of fun, intrigue and wonder. Here, we will discover life and death, drama and dreams, all on a millimetric scale. Like it or not, Earth is the planet of insects, and this is their extraordinary story.

Either something was lost in translation, or this book is a much better fit for middle grade readers.  Given the excellent english of absolutely everybody I’ve ever met from Norway (and I worked for a Norwegian company for years), I’m going with this is a great Middle grade read.

Extraordinary Insects is a brief introduction to most of the broad families of Insects, written by an enthusiastic scientist who obviously loves her work.  It’s a fun book, engagingly written, but at a level that would appeal to strong readers in the, say, 10-13 year old range.  That’s not an insult to this book in the slightest, but those who are looking for a deeper overview of the insect world and their importance on Earth (life as we know it can’t exist without insects, but nothing but the rats and cockroaches would even notice our absence), might find this book a little frustrating for its lack of depth, and its very enthusiastic tone.  It’s a good book, but I kept thinking it would be a better fit for my niece (who just turned 11).

A great book for a budding young insect enthusiast or for anyone who has avoided ‘bugs’ but would like to dip a toe into learning more about them.

Wilding: The return of nature to a British Farm

Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British FarmWilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm
by Isabella Tree
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781509805105
Publication Date: March 12, 2019
Pages: 362
Genre: Memoir, Natural Science, Non-fiction
Publisher: Picador

Forced to accept that intensive farming on the heavy clay of their land at Knepp was economically unsustainable, Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell made a spectacular leap of faith: they decided to step back and let nature take over. Thanks to the introduction of free-roaming cattle, ponies, pigs and deer - proxies of the large animals that once roamed Britain - the 3,500 acre project has seen extraordinary increases in wildlife numbers and diversity in little over a decade.

Extremely rare species, including turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons, lesser spotted woodpeckers and purple emperor butterflies, are now breeding at Knepp, and populations of other species are rocketing. The Burrells' degraded agricultural land has become a functioning ecosystem again, heaving with life - all by itself.

This is one of those books where the content overcomes the writing.  The writing isn’t bad by any means, but it definitely lacks the spark of personality.  Either Isabella Tree lacks anything resembling charisma, or she was holding herself back.  I choose to believe the latter, because I believe anyone willing to embrace the project she and her husband embarked on has to be inherently likeable and not a little bit charismatic.

In spite of what was often bland writing, the book is a brilliant record of the amazing achievements Tree and her husband managed on what was poorly producing farmland that was losing money.  By allowing it to revert back to its natural state, with as little human interference as possible, they accomplished so much on so many fronts.  The wildlife recovery, the flood mitigation, the general health of the land itself – all of it happening at speeds that make me optimistic that humanity hasn’t completely destroyed our planet just yet.  Lest I got too optimistic though, Tree’s documentation of the uphill battle they had to fight with government agencies who nominally existed to protect the environment put me right back into my proper, cynical, place.

Wilding is a thoroughly well researched, excellently laid out recounting of one couple’s determined efforts to restore their patch of British soil to what it was meant to be, and all the excellent rewards that came with it.  The writing may be less than enthralling but the content more than makes up for any missing sparkle or wit.  If you’re interested in the natural state of things, this is definitely worth the time and effort.

The Stone Boudoir: Travels through the Hidden Villages of Sicily

Format: Paperback
The Stone Boudoir: Travels through the Hidden Villages of SicilyThe Stone Boudoir: Travels through the Hidden Villages of Sicily
by Theresa Maggio
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9780738208008
Publication Date: April 4, 2003
Pages: 246
Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Perseus Publishing

Thoroughly average.  While Maggio had moments in the book where she really brought the villages to life, overall the narrative fell flat and failed to do justice to what I’m sure is a beautiful and rapidly disappearing way of life.  It was one of those books that was interesting enough to keep reading, but not so interesting as to make it hard to put the book down.

I suppose it’s for the best, as the book hasn’t dampened my desire to go to Sicily, but neither did it light a fire of “must plan a trip NOW” magnitude, which given current conditions might have proved more frustrating that reading a bland book.

So I fell down this rabbit hole…

I wouldn’t normally call myself an obsessive personality, but I do occasionally get a little hyper-focused on something that appeals to me for whatever reason.  A TV show that resonates, a foodstuff that meets some mysterious physiological need (apples and peanut better are a cyclical favorite), a genre of fiction that I suddenly need to devour.

But generally, I’d call myself a curious plodder, or maybe a dabbler.  Open minded to a degree, but mostly even-keeled.  Which is why the last couple of months have taken me by surprise, because I have become obsessed with a board game.

In my last random, non-book post, I mentioned Wingspan.  It’s an engine building game with an ornithological theme.  It’s all about building out bird habitats, which sounds so boring I’m impressed you made it to the end of this sentence.  But oddly, it’s not.  It’s a compulsively playable, gorgeous, game – so much so that I’ve bought both available expansion card sets (they plan on one for each continent) and upgraded to a wooden dice roller and storage set.  I have been thoroughly sucked in.  And not just me; MT has, to my astonishment, been just as thoroughly sucked in.  So much so that he’s starting to recognise and identify birds we see out on our weekly hikes.  We play at least once a day, and often twice (games last about 45 minutes); it’s turned out to be a great way to relax and de-stress, which has become more important than ever in these crazy days.  I’m still a little confounded by its ability to captivate me, since the last game I bought and played with enthusiasm is Scrabble, but it’s been a lifesaver, so I’m embracing it.

I’ve still been reading and up until last week, still thoroughly on my non-fiction streak.  Lately, I’ve been weaving in fiction re-reads from my adolescent years, and just yesterday, picked up a Seanan McGuire for a re-read.  For the first time all year, I’m thinking about buying books again, curious about new titles for the first time in recent memory.

In retrospect, it’s obvious that I needed to unplug and remove myself as much as possible from humanity.  People were – are – stressing me out in a myriad number of ways and, as I was getting dangerously close to taking a flamethrower to most of my interpersonal relationships, both online* and in real-life, unplugging and distancing myself was probably a wiser move.  I’m still not sure I’m ready to mix and mingle, but I was delighted when I woke up this morning and felt like sitting down to enter my read books and writing up a post or two.  That hasn’t happened in a long time.  So, Yay!

  • Nobody specific, just an accumulation of frustration and fed-upped-ness with the general stupidity of online discourse in light of recent (read: the past several years) events.

Hopefully everyone has been doing well and enjoyed their holidays.

Life on the Mississippi

Life on the MississippiLife on the Mississippi
by Mark Twain
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 2006
Pages: 384
Genre: Literature, Memoir, Non-fiction
Publisher: Folio Society

Fashioned from the same experiences that would inspire the masterpiece Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi is Mark Twain’s most brilliant and most personal nonfiction work. It is at once an affectionate evocation of the vital river life in the steamboat era and a melancholy reminiscence of its passing after the Civil War, a priceless collection of humorous anecdotes and folktales, and a unique glimpse into Twain’s life before he began to write.

Written in a prose style that has been hailed as among the greatest in English literature, Life on the Mississippi established Twain as not only the most popular humorist of his time but also America’s most profound chronicler of the human comedy.

I have to admit, here, to a bias; a prejudice.  It’s a bias that I have fought against a spare few times in my life, but by and large, it has ruled my reading life.  The bias is this: It is my perverse nature to avoid books and authors considered to be classics.

I know it’s contrary and based on no rational; I just don’t like being told what to do and what to like.  Occasionally, the grown-up in me will rear her annoying head and insist that I at least try a classic or two – who knows?  I might like it, and I don’t have to finish it if I don’t.

This it is why Life on the Mississippi has been sitting on my TBR shelf; that, and the fact that I found a Folio Society copy for a bargain.  I grabbed it earlier this month, figuring that I could fulfil my yen for non-fiction and mark off a classic author at the same time.

The Introduction to my Folio edition doesn’t fill the reader with optimism.  The story of Life on the Mississippi‘s creation is interesting, but finding out that fully half the book was considered ‘filler’ is not an auspicious start.  The author of the introduction made it sound like Twain just filled out the second half of the book with a hodgepodge collection of other peoples’ articles and anecdotes.  Which he does, but what they don’t tell you is that he folds it all into a cohesive narrative that works fairly well, if a little chaotically.

So with this introduction read, I resigned myself and started.  What I found was a very time-consuming, but absorbing read, made enjoyable by Twain’s voice and trademark humour.  Definitely not riveting, but it draws a picture of life in the late 1800’s that is vivid and brings both a pang of nostalgia for those easier days and a relief not to have been born in that age.

Twain gets full marks for making the life of a steamboat man sound romantic; it’s a testament to his talent that he even makes it interesting to read.  And while I can’t say I loved it, or that I’ll ever really re-visit it, except for perhaps to randomly dip in and out, I can say that I feel I got something out of it, if only a better respect for the mighty Mississippi as it once was, wild and independent.

Random update about my 2021 reading so far

As I write this during a new, snap 5 day level 4 lockdown in Melbourne, looking at events of the last 6 weeks, it certainly appears as though 2021 doesn’t have much more to recommend it than 2020 had.  It’s early days yet, and at least 2021 has offered hints for optimism here and there.  It’s not much, but in the absence of water, people will drink the sand, to quote Aaron Sorkin.

Still, I’ve tried not to let it all bog me down too much – or at least any more than it already has.  I’ve been reading consistently, though not as frequently as I usually do.  This has more to do with a birthday gift than it does current events though.  Anybody heard of the board game called Wingspan?  I hadn’t until I received it; it calls itself an engine building game – your goal, using cards, food tokens, and eggs, is to build out a bird habitat.  It’s a beautiful game, but we were dubious – the instructions cover 3 different booklets!  Still, we gave it a go and after a few awkward games, started to get the hang of it and now we’re hooked.  We play pretty much every night, at least one game, sometimes 2.  It’s not a high-intensity, action packed sort of game, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable.  I’ve already bought the European expansion pack and have put my name down for the back-ordered Oceania expansion.

In other bird related news, the beginning of our snap, 5 day lockdown coincided with the Great Backyard Bird Count, which I’d planned to hit big with several national park excursions.  That was obviously nixed, but we did hit a couple of local parks within our 5km limit.  No new and exciting birds, but one or two less common ones were spotted.  And of course, I’ve actually counted the birds in my own backyard.

A Long-billed corella, dismantling pine cones from the top down.

I’ve been on a non-fiction reading streak; 2021 has not seen a single fiction title read so far.  Which is good, since I have an alarming number of non-fiction titles on my TBR, so I may be reading slower, but I am accomplishing a more significant TBR reduction.

Also unusual this year is that to date, every title has been written by a man.  I don’t make any effort to read more of one gender than another; my natural reading taste for mysteries makes my shelves female heavy without any effort, and even a large percentage of my non-fiction, popular science books are written by women, so the string of all male authors felt unusual.

The biggest accomplishment amongst these reads it my completion of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, which has been on the TBR some years now.  I’ve also completed a long-in-process book about feeding wild birds.  Both reviews will be forthcoming.  Just the other night I grabbed another book – non-fiction, travel, but the first by a woman for me this year – called The Stone Boudoir about small villages in Sicily.  Yes, please.