The Dirt on Clean by Katherine Ashenburg

Read  November 2017
Recommended for clean historians
★    ★    ★    

I love a clean house. I actually like cleaning, particularly when it involves dusting my bookshelves. There’s something about a room where I’ve just removed the dust, hair and debris that says, ‘order,’ followed by ‘exhale.’ In the old days, I used to need/have to clean my room before I could work on any term papers. So when I saw this title, I was intrigued. I’m well aware ‘clean’ is psychologically, personally and culturally defined. I have, after all, lived with other people, one of whom would have dust bunnies the size of hamsters under the bed, and another whose tolerance for dirty bathrooms inevitably resulted in me cleaning it. Every. Week. But I digress. Unfortunately, The Dirt on Clean is largely about Western bathing rituals, from early Greek and Roman period to the English in the Middle Ages and 19th centuries, and then finally modern American. It was vaguely interesting, in a sleepy-time bath kind of way.

On the entertaining side, if you’ve ever wondered how Western bathing rituals evolved through the years, you’ll find a reasonable detailing here. The ancient Greeks (no mention of the modern ones) were well known for public baths, plumbing, and a culture that encouraged bathing for both social and health reasons. Hippocrates apparently believed hot and cold baths could bring the body’s humours into balance. Of course, bathhouses also served as an important social setting.

Ashenburg then devotes a chapter to Christianity and bathing, particularly the unusual non-emphasis on physical cleanliness/ritual as compared to other religions. In fact, excessive washing “signified vanity and worldliness,” (p.59) as well as potentially immodest exposure. Hot baths might also be stimulating, a concept that would be echoed in the Victorian era.

Several more chapters discuss varying aspects of bathing through Europe during the next millennia. Some areas retained bathing and bathhouses (the Swiss, the French) through the 1300s, but the plague ended up being a fatal blow to the conception of water as healthy because of the growing belief that baths and water opened the pores and let “pestiferous vapour in” (p.94). Mr. Francis Bacon, as a matter of fact, had a regimen where a person had a pre-bath oil and salve routine to close pores, sat in the bath for 2 hours, then wrapped in a waxed cloth that had herbs and resin for 24 hours, intending to re-close pores and ‘harden’ the body.

Further chapters explore the return of cold water bathing in the 1700s which coincided with the view that the pores should be open so that germs could be flushed away from the body. Technology facilitated the rise of bidets and ocean ‘baths’ in the 1750s. As the trend gained traction in the upper classes, the issue became how to convince the lower classes to clean up, covered in the return of baths/bathouses and development of showers in the 1800s that was connected to cholera. A subsequent chapter looks at plumbing in America during the same time frame, followed by soap and marketing in the early 1900s, and the crazy war on germs from the 1950s onward.

My problem with this book is that it was neither fish nor fowl. On one side, it talks about cleanliness from a ritual and conceptual standpoint, occasionally tying it into medical theory or physical resources. The problem with this approach is that she also uses stories as examples of rituals, when–as readers know–sometimes stories are as much about what we wish or fantasize about rather than what is. Or, you know, metaphor. Like using Fifty Shades of Grey to talk about sexual rituals in 21st century America; although they are connected, there’s a difference between cultural practices and cultural entertainment.  So my academic criticism would be that she muddles her anthropological analysis. For instance, getting the lower classes to bathe was illustrated by Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady. I’ll also note that although she rarely brings in examples of various bathing rituals in other countries, it usually lacks context.

On the other side, she also enjoys sharing the Trivia(l) Pursuit or Entertainment Tonight type of stories where we get the scandalous and shocking details of what they did Way Back When, such as when Jean-Jacques Rousseau griped that a house was so full of “maids and teasing lackeys [that] I do not find a single wall or wretched little corner” to pee in. She also tries periodically to bring in the issue of ‘smells.’ Although in the opening chapter she recognizes smell as cultural concept, she still brings it into many of the chapters where people had habits that would be considered culturally unsavory now, but then slams modern (American) culture for being so smell-conscious now.

In an effort to be appropriate, I usually read it in the bath, which accounts for the many days it took to complete my reading. it might have also contributed to its soporific effects, in contrast to those crazy Victorians thinking it heats the blood. It’s not a bad book, but when it comes to non-fiction, I prefer less attempts to be titillating and more focus on substance.

 

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No Time to Spare by Ursula K. Le Guin. Make time.

Read  November 2017
Recommended for people who want to think
★    ★    ★    ★   1/2

Ursula Le Guin is one of my heroes, in as much as I have them. Which is, to say, hardly at all, but her writing has often astounded me, literally impacting how I perceived the world. When I was a teen, ‘The Left Hand of Darkness‘ did more to challenge my conception of gender identity than anything I would read or hear for years. However, her writing has also felt somewhat laborious to me, so when I saw this book of blog-style posts, I leapt at the chance to read it (figuratively, naturally. You think I leap at my age? What am I, a frog?) At any rate, I absolutely loved her in short-form, her words seemingly a little less crafted than her novels, sounding more like her voice, talking about everyday things–“The point of a soft-boiled egg is the difficulty of eating it, the attention it requires, the ceremony”–writerly things and general opinion pieces.

It’s really, really good.  The book comes with an introduction by Karen Joy Fowler and a note from Le Guin about her purpose and the informality of the writing. Part One: Going Over Eighty is one of my favorite sections. Part Two: The Lit Biz is in theory about literary stuff and contains some insight into the life of the writer –readers’ questions and awards’– as well as discussion on things like ubiquitousness of swearing and narration.  Part Three: Trying to Make Sense of it is the most topical section. It was interesting, but not as favorite. Part Four: Rewards shines, with writing beautiful enough, polished enough to remind me why she’s a master. Parts One, Two and Three are all followed by The Annals of Pard, brief pieces about her latest cat. I have a ridiculous amount of highlights, my Kindle equivalent of ‘mm-hmm’ affirmations.

The posts on aging are excellent and I probably could have just highlighted the entire piece of ‘The Diminished Thing.’ It does not sound as if aging has come easily, and I appreciate that she is both honest and old in claiming it. “Old age isn’t a state of mind. It’s an existential situation.” How beautifully she negates the ‘you are only as old as you think you are’ mouthings!

I admire how she somewhat irascibly shares what she perceives as her failings. I love that she calls out the new generations of almost-memoirs with a writerly note on genres, and then gracefully turns it into a discussion of Delores, her ‘hired help’ who was so important to her (‘Someone Named Delores’). I was fascinated by the entries on Pard, the latest cat, and his periodic skirmishes with mice. I think she summarized the entire problem with modern politics in three sentences (from ‘The Diminished Thing’ in Aging, no less):

“This is morally problematic when personal decision is confused with personal opinion. A decision worth the name is based on observation, factual information, intellectual and ethical judgment. Opinion–that darling of the press, the politician, and the poll–may be based on no information at all.”

There’s an interesting piece on what fantasy is that affirms why I’ve read so much in the field. My favorite highlight: “It doesn’t have to be the way it is. That is what fantasy says… Yet it is a subversive statement.” Can we please remind those who are nostalgic for the sprawling epic fantasies of the 80s and 90s or the pulp fantasy of the 50s and 60s that we can do more?

Part Three definitely spoke to me, with parts of it echoing my own hopelessness. From ‘Lying it All Away:’  “It appears that we’ve given up on the long-range view. That we’ve decided not to think about consequences–about cause and effect. Maybe that’s why I feel that I live in exile. I used to live in a country that had a future.”

It makes me wish for a coffee conversation, time to dive in and chew at these ideas. I wished I knew even more about her life, because I sense a kindred spirit, an introvert who communicates best through words, who appears transparent about ideas but extremely private about details of real life. The closing piece, is so crafted and beautiful it makes me tear. From ‘Notes From a Week at a Ranch in the Oregon High Desert’:

“Hundreds of blackbirds gathered in the pastures south of the house, vanishing completely in the tall grass, then rising out of it in ripples and billows, or streaming and streaming up into a single tree up under the ridge till its lower branches were blacker with birds than green with leaves, then flowing down away from it into the reeds and out across the air in a single, flickering, particulate wave. What is entity?”

 

Many, many thanks to NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the advance reader copy. Quotes may change in final publication but are included to give a sense of the excellent writing.

 

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Necropolis by Michael Dempsey. I’d live there.

Read  November 2017
Recommended for fans of Blade Runner
★    ★    ★   1/2

I keep my eye out for urban fantasy with an unusual angle. By ‘unusual,’ you can assume a distinct lack of werewolves and vampires. This one caught my eye with a combination of police detective, New York City, and the idea that the dead return to life. Not as zombies, mind you, but just as people–but aging backwards.  Within the first few pages, the detective Donner and his wife, Elsie, are killed in a bodega. Next moment is at graveside, as a team of people are disinterring and transports Donner to a hospital to repair his life-threatening wounds, throwing in a replacement liver as a bonus. Donner has become a ‘reborn,’ marked by white hair and black nails, and current society seems to hate them, perhaps for being the reason NYC is now surrounded by a force field and isolated from the rest of the world in hopes of keeping the virus contained.

It’s really an intriguing set-up, and trying to work out both the mystery and the world kept me engrossed. Divided into three parts, the first centers on Donner’s rebirth, and a certain investigation he’s forced to take on. ‘Part Two: The Underneath,’ centers on a the results of that investigation after some very significant events. The last third, “Unicorn Hunt,’ is the classic resolution. Chapters are often very short, some only two pages long, and take a variety of perspectives and formats. There are a couple that are transcripts of conversations, and a couple that are part of internet broadcasts. Sections written from Donner’s perspective tend to be longer.

“No escape. Even the sky was wrong, swirling and out of focus behind the magnetic Blister. The whole thing, the combination platter of styles and periods, made me want to curl into a tight ball right there on the cold street.

I’d busted this crack fiend once. He’d been a real hardcase, back from a two-week suicide run during which he’d stolen his grandmother’s silver, gotten kicked out of another shelter and flushed his last chance at redemption down the crapper. I remember him telling me as the cuffs clicked shut, ‘I got no place to go that I understand.’

Now I knew what he was talking about.”

When I read ‘about the author’ at the end, this started to make more sense; the author has extensive television writing experience, including Cybil (with Cybil Shepard) and numerous plays. So my difficulties with the book largely had to do with this choppiness of perspective. Even before I knew Dempsey was a tv writer, I guessed it, as scenes began to visualize as I read. ‘Cut,’ cue ‘flashback scene with wife,’ ‘cut’ cue ‘current scene where Donner has a dramatic revelation’ ‘cut’ ‘scene with villain showing them doing something villainous.’

On the upside, this made for a relatively fast-paced, easy read; no small feat given a decently-written trade paperback at 360 pages. On the down side, there were several sections that were extraneous (the viewpoint of a rich teen whose father became a reborn, for instance) that were mostly serving to build suspense at how dastardly the forces Donner was investigating were. The transcripts were too clever, attempting to foreshadow a predictable ‘mysterious figure’ but then blindsiding the reader when the figure’s full history was unveiled.

The underpinning of the book is the Philip Marlowe school of detection. Some will argue that the characters were stereotypical, but I believe that is kind of the point. We have the alcoholic detective, the gamine Girl Friday, the sultry woman wanting a favor, the contacts in the police force, along with all the plot stereotypes it entails. But wrapped around it all is a Blade Runner sci-fi world with flying cars, a ‘net that holds all information ever needed, ‘smartie’ artificial intelligence that look just like humans, and the seeds of revolution in the hotbed of the city (It also put me in mind of Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, not the least of which one of the watchers to the unburial is named Kovacs). It probably isn’t sci-fi as much as some would like–there’s some hand-wavy genetics going on–but it is certainly an intriguing ride. I think I’ll keep it around my library for awhile and hopefully give it a re-read.

Old interview with Dempsey at MyBookishWays

First chapter of Necropolis at Goodreads

 

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The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie

Read  November 2017
Recommended for fans of Christie
★    ★    ★   1/2

 

Imagine: a Christie I hadn’t read. Ever. But I’ve re-read enough Christie in my adult life to know that sometimes she works well, sometimes less so. Which would this be?

It turns out, a strange mix of classic Christie, modern Christie, Christie commentary and something unfinished that makes it a most odd kind of book.

It begins with Christie’s traditional rather anonymous, milquetoast narrator, something along the lines of Roger Ackroyd. He is supposed to be working on his latest manuscript on Mogul architecture when he “had suffered from one of those sudden revulsions that all writers know…. –all the fascinating problems it raised, become suddenly as dust and ashes. What did they matter? Why did I want to write about them?” He takes a coffee in Chelsea, musing on the sinister noise of modern conveniences, when two of the ‘off-beat’ (and we chuckle a little at the naivete of the narrator) clientele get in a fighting match over a boy one has stolen from the other. I was struck by how present Christie seemed in his words, Mark’s musing on writing, the lament of “contemporary noises,” and dress styles of the new generation no doubt echoing her own.

Only a week later, Mark is reading the obituaries and realizes one of the young ladies who was in the fight has suddenly died, and will not be getting her kicks in Chelsea any longer. He feels sympathy, but then notes, “Yet after all, I reminded myself, how did I know that my view was the right one? Who was I to pronounce it a wasted life? Perhaps it was my life, my quiet scholarly life, immersed in books, shut off from the world, that was the wasted one. Life at second hand. Be honest now, was I getting kicks out of life?”

Really quite brilliant, both in hearing the author’s experience and age coming through, and in justification for Mark’s future actions. But not right away, of course. First he must pay a visit to his friend Ariadne Oliver. And once again, I heard Christie loud and clear: “Or, it might be someone wanting an interview–asking me all those embarrassing questions which are always the same every time. What made you first think of taking up writing? How many books have you written? How much money do you make. Etc. etc.” Just as I was chuckling over that, she launches in the oddness of murder in real life compared to books:

“Say what you like, it’s not natural for five or six people to be on the spot when B is murdered and all to have a motive for killing B-unless, that is, B is absolutely madly unpleasant and in that case nobody will mind whether he’s been killed or not…”

‘I see your problem,’ I said. ‘But if you’ve dealt with it successfully fifty-five times, you will manage to deal with it once again.’

‘That’s what I tell myself,’ said Mrs. Oliver, ‘over and over again, but every single time I can’t believe it and so I’m in agony.’

Really, the beginning bit of the story feels so clearly Christie commentary, that though the murder came along by page twenty, I was enjoying the digression and insight. So I was all set to adore, the meta and the concrete blending so nicely, when it turns out that a large portion of the plot is the new-fangled notion of the psychology of the individual (echoes of Poirot) being convinced through a combination of psychology and superstitious belief that they are ill, soon becoming truly physically ill, only to finally die. That sort of pre-60s, recast 1900s mysticism. Yes, there is a séance.

Then she interjects herself again, in the form of a chemist who is very excited to be a witness to the murder, having practiced memorizing faces for just such an opportunity. Oh, Christie, you sly dog. I might have giggled when he came along.

The Pale Horse was, I believe, was close to her fifty-fifth book, and just lacked something for me in terms of plot translation. Add to that that the transitions between sections was particularly abrupt, it wasn’t the charming, insightful read I first thought. The plot meandered for a bit, following the local coroner and detective, the coroner conveniently a friend of Mark’s. There is more than a bit of atmospheric silliness at the end that completely failed to develop much of an atmosphere for me–had we been talking decades earlier, perhaps I could have taken it more seriously–but there were a solid couple of plot twists at the end that I appreciated. So, mark down as enjoyable, diverting; worthy of thoughts on a long career and social change, but not one to add to my own library.

 

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The Monkey’s Raincoat by Robert Crais

Read  November 2017
Recommended for fans of classic detectives
★    ★    1/2

 

If you’ve followed my reading recently, it’s no secret I’ve been enjoying Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole books. Somehow, I started with book three, Lullaby Town, perhaps because it was the first book in the series with an above four-star average. Thank goodness I did, because what a difference five years makes in personal changes and skill. Crais’ first book, The Monkey’s Raincoat, is full of one P.I. trope after another, with a 1980s plot ripped off from Miami Vice, and characters created with the depth of pop psychology from Donahue.

We begin in Elvis’ office, where he’s busy staring at his Pinocchio clock. Ellen Lang arrives, best friend dragging her through the door. Ellen’s husband, Mort, is missing, and even more importantly, her son. It becomes rapidly apparent that Ellen is essentially an abused wife, psychologically if nothing else. Her friend, Janet, is technically there to support her, but badgers, eye-rolls, and criticizes as she tries to get her to answer questions. Elvis wisecracks from the start, much to the confusion of Ellen and the annoyance of Joe, as well as Reader Carol. Elvis somewhat unwillingly takes the case, later asking around and discovering Mort has a girlfriend on the side. Not long after, Ellen and Mort’s home is tossed, requiring Elvis to come to the rescue and wisecrack with the cops. When Mort is found dead, the case suddenly becomes even more serious–but not so serious that Elvis can’t take time out from protecting to have sex with the best friend.

I hate to expound too much further at the risk of spoilers, but these details barely made it to short-term storage. As Elvis investigates, he learns about a shadey co-worker at the studios and a recent party they all attended, thrown by a famous personality and former top matador. In true villain fashion, he and Elvis have a dramatic moment where they size up each other’s… egos. Ellen disappears and Elvis keeps trying to call up Joan to offer support, but she’s totally frosty to him. This will make it okay for when Elvis goes on to sleep with other women. There’s a little detecting, a little lying to the cops, stakeouts, a shoot-out or two, and a miraculous makeover courtesy of a supportive dude. Hurrah!

Joe Pitt is introduced, but in his case, he hasn’t become the completely taciturn individual in later books. It’s kind of a nice change for his character. The cat is also introduced and is appropriately cranky. There’s a nice surprise twist at the end, but now that I think about it, it doesn’t square in the least with the earlier characterization(s).

Overall, it was diverting, if a bit eyerolling. Unless you have time in your life to be a series completionist, I’d generally advise skipping this and starting at Lullaby Town instead. It isn’t until that book five, Voodoo River, that an overarching emotional plot begins. I plan to have my mom start at that one, but I’ll go on to the next in true completionist fashion.

It’s a solid four on the oink scale. Skip unless you feel forgiving, because Crais will go on to do much better than this.

 

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The Saturn Game by Poul Anderson

Read  November 2017
Recommended for fans of classic sci-fi
★    ★    ★  

Winner of both a Nebula and a Hugo, The Saturn Game tempted me by being a mix of both fantasy and sci-fi. I’ve had some success with Poul Anderson when younger. Alas, The Saturn Game did not connect; although written very well, it felt dated and failed to ignite my interest.

“There was no describing it, not really. You could speak of lower slopes and palisades above, to a mean height of perhaps a hundred meters, with spires towering farther still. You could speak of gracefully curved tiers going up those braes, of lacy parapets and fluted crags and arched openings to caves filled with wonders, of mysterious blues in the depths and greens where light streamed through translucencies, of gem-sparkle across whiteness where radiance and shadow wove mandalas–and none of it would convey anything more than Scobie’s earlier, altogether inadequate comparison to the Grand Canyon.”

Anderson, although not as well-known as his cohorts, was one of the greats of the sci-fi Golden Age. The premise here is that an exploration ship, followed more slowly by a colony ship, is nearing the end of its journey. The highly competent crew has needed distraction during eight years of space travel, particularly with television systems only allowed three hours of the day (funny commentary from 1981!). A group of people has found escape through a ‘psycho-drama,’ which sounds a great deal like a more verbal, less board oriented, Dungeons and Dragons. When the crew at last approaches Saturn’s glacier-covered moon, they begin to have a hard time separating reality from fantasy.

Narratively, it’s third person omniscient, with each section beginning with a pseudo-lecture about the mental hazards of prolonged travel. I don’t know if Anderson was the first to use the device, but it has been replicated many times since. When three of the crew members slip into fantasy, the text shifts to italics, and as they become more confused about their reality, the shift is more and more frequent.

“‘I stay far aloft,’ Kendrick says. ‘Save he use a scrying stone, the Elf King will not be aware this beast has a rider. From here I’ll spy out city and castle.’ And then–? He knows not. He knows simply that he must set her free or die in the quest. How long will it take him, how many more nights will she lie in the King’s embrace?

‘I thought you were supposed to spy out Iapetus,’ Mark Danzig interrupted.

His dry tone startled the three others into alertness.

Jean Broberg flushed with embarrassment, Colin Scobie with irritation; Luis Garcilaso shrugged, grinned, and turned his gaze to the pilot console before which he sat harnessed. For a moment silence filled the cabin, and shadows, and radiance from the universe.”

Between the vivid description of the snows and scientific discussion of the strata, there’s meaty imagery. However, the pedestrian nature of the fantasy–essentially a knight, a sorcerer, and a noble lady, the ol’Camelot type trope–just lacks interest. The fantasy lacks the insidiousness of Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, making it hard to immerse myself along with the crew. What I mostly felt was annoyance by their foolishness as they explore the ice equivalent of the Grand Canyon, and at their companion’s relentless nagging as he waits on the ship. The psychology of it didn’t fit for me, that after eight years together, the interactions would fall out the way they did.

It isn’t a bad story, or ill-done by any means. It just didn’t strike that chord for me.

 

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Yellow Elephant: A Bright Bestiary by Larios and Paschkis

Read  November 2017
Recommended for fans of lithographs, animals
★    ★    ★    ★   1/2

I have a long affection for children’s picture books, despite having no children. When I saw a review on this and a small sample of the artwork, I was motivated to find out more.

A sort of variation on the beloved “Color Kittens,” this combines a color and a familiar animal, sometimes in unusual combinations.

Each picture is accompanied by a poem, with a strip of colorful detail.

I think the vivid colors will work for young eyes, as well as the crisp lines.

Occasionally it is stylized enough that it may be less accessible, but the variety in style means some pictures should still work well.

 

 

I’m in love with the colorful artwork. I’d love to have a a group of these as prints. It even sent me to Paschkis’ site to learn more about her work. Alas: no prints of these for sale.

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The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan

Read  November 2017
Recommended for fans of light mysteries
★    ★    ★ 

“The next morning Inspector Chopra awoke for the first time in thirty-four years without the knowledge that he was a police officer.

For a while he lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling. He felt his body urging him to get up, shower, and put on his uniform. Inertia; wasn’t that what people called it? After all, when one has been running, it takes a while for the body to stop even though the finishing line has been crossed. When he arrived at the breakfast table, dressed in a plain white shirt and cotton trousers, he felt strangely naked.

Poppy was already bustling around the kitchen with the housemaid, Lata, and flashed him a welcoming smile. ‘How nice to have you home for breakfast,’ she beamed. ‘I’ve made your favorite: masala dosa with sambar.'”

Inspector Chopra has spent over thirty years on the police force in Mumbai, and the day before he is to retire for medical reasons, he receives a note from his uncle leaving him a baby elephant. But he can’t deal with that now; there are too many things on his mind. What about the distressed woman accusing the local police that they don’t care about her dead son? And what about his wife, Poppy, and her conviction that anything non-sedentary would cause him another and potentially fatal heart attack?

It’s an interesting tale, set in the wildly growing city of Mumbai, where money greases all wheels. True to the detective tradition, the setting comes alive as Chopra travels from place to place. Any inadequacies in visualization are solely my own, hamstrung as I am by life in the U.S. and lack of travel. The puzzle unfolds quite well, with one discovery leading to the next, although Chopra also spends hours and hours on stakeout. I found myself partially distracted with concerns on the care and feeding of elephants, which was likely not Khan’s intention. He should be careful how he uses pachyderms! The end takes a surprisingly dark and deep turn, perhaps incongruous with much of the earlier story, but I think perhaps fitting for the idea Khan wants to convey about Mumbai. But it all comes out well in the end.

I enjoyed it and will no doubt try the next in the series when in the mood for a gentle mystery. Recommended for fans of Inspector Singh (Shamini Flint), Dr. Siri (Colin Cotterill) and of Precious Ramotswe (Alexander McCall Smith), as well as anyone else who enjoys a mystery sans blood and gore.

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Wild Neighbors by HSUS

Read  November 2017
Recommended for people having animal conflicts
★    ★    ★ 

 

Written in 1997, Wild Animals is no less pertinent today. I picked it up largely out of curiosity, as I’m one of the ones that feels like I’ve generally learned to live with the vertebrate populations. I do occasionally wish the rabbits wouldn’t be quite so fond of my yard, although, to be totally honest, the real issue is my empathetic distress when my dogs wound or kill them. (I miss my rottweilers, who were generally lazy and preferred loads of loud barking over actual physical conflict). So I’ve already mastered strategy number one: learn to live with the animal. At any rate, it’s a solid book, full of general information for those who are new to the issue, say, new homeowners that never spent time re-reading wildlife magazines.

It’s divided into three sections, ‘Living With Wild Neighbors,’ an animal index, and various supporting appendixes. ‘Living With’ is a surprisingly well-balanced section. It begins with overall strategy, which follows a well-known problem-solving pathway of determine the problem, identify the damage, assess the seriousness of the damage, evaluate options and act. It’s good advice: my mom, for instance complains about the little vole pathways in the snow every year. Is it actual damage? No. Health issue? No. Solution is to stop feeding birds sloppy seed. Will she change? No. Maybe we should look for a book on Zen.

The authors note that a lot of apparent ‘conflicts’ may not be a conflict at all, but end up perceived as such because of a sighting. Many animals have larger territories and a sighting may be the result of an animal on a regular patrol. Another possibility it the dispersal of young seeking new territories. That’s were having environmental changes helps (lack of denning space, baffles, etc). There’s then an overview of types of agencies that might help someone take action and consideration of action in light of laws. Hint: you don’t get to randomly shoot stuff.

The section on ‘Health Concerns’ ignores the ‘fluffy bunny’ aspect of wildlife and goes straight for the jugular. Or should I say, the bubonic plague? Yes, that’s right–every year in the Southwest U.S. there is a case or two of plague, primarily flea-transmitted and then acquired through domestic pets exposed to fleas on rodents. Other familiar ones are chlamydia, salmonella and Lyme disease, as well as genuinely fearsome ones like the Hanta virus. There’s also brief information on how to clean bites (soap, running water, ER visits). Just in case you were getting the idea that you wanted to, you know, invite the critters into your home.

Most potentially interesting was a ‘Tools and Tactics’ section. I was hoping for something that actually evaluated some of the products out there–ultrasonic machines, scarecrows, baffles, sprays and the like. Most effective techniques rely on physical deterrents–covering the chimney, rabbit-proof fencing, caulking by power/water meters, etc. There’s a few notes on effectiveness, but no evidence provided of hard data. Occasionally, such as in the section about hair (deer/rabbits supposedly avoid it), it says, ‘it’s worth a try.’ No, it’s not–if it involves embarrassing myself by asking a a hair salon for a bag of hair, I want to be right, not weird. It lists common products, pesticides and stuff marketed as repellents. Here’s where being 20 years out of date is a weakness. But as I try to remind my mom–if spraying it kills something living and breathing, what, precisely, do you think it does to you?

The animal section will be familiar to anyone who owned one of those Guides to North American Animals (cough, cough). It divides into history, habitat, diet, reproduction, various problems, various solutions. Pictures are drawn, not photographed, sadly. It also contains animals that are common, but I marvel a little at a couple of the choices. I mean, if you are going to include cougars and bobcats, which are notoriously secretive and generally rare even in farm-like landscapes, you might as well include moose, which are slightly more common and as belligerent. Other animals are armadillos, bats, beavers, black bears, chipmunks, chimney swifts, mice, house sparrows, snakes, and woodpeckers, among others.

The appendixes include other sources of information, including HSUS and USDA offices, sources for products and a glossary. Sadly, I’m sure much of it is out of date. However, overall, not a bad introductory guide for the animal-naive homeowner who is dealing with various ‘somethings’ invading their territory and wants information on how to actually deal with the problem–if it is one.

Oh, and the section on rabbits says this about repellents: “Many homemade repellent strategies have been tried, with the usual varying results that taunt anyone trying to make real sense out of them. These include soap and hair as recommended sometimes for repelling deer. While we cannot endorse any of these procedures enthusiastically, they may be worth trying and certainly are an inexpensive form of entertainment if nothing else.”

Smarty-pants.

 

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Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Read  November 2017
Recommended for fans of skewed myths
★    ★    ★    ★  

 

Fairy tales, myths, folklore; these small, archetypal tales that have endured through generations of childhood. Seanan McGuire reinvented them once again for the current decade. Solid writing, acceptable plotting, imaginative characterization all combine to make this an intriguing read.

Nancy is the New Girl, arriving at the Home for Wayward Children after having disappeared for weeks. Her parents don’t know what to do about her almost-starvation, her stillness and her predilection for wearing black. She’s met by Eleanor and put in a room with Sumi, a whirling dervish of color and energy. Sumi and the rest of the young adults at the Home have all been to other worlds and back, and they are all longing to be somewhere else.


“‘Going back’ had two distinct meanings at the school, depending on how it was said. It was the best thing in the world. It was also the worst thing that could happen to anybody. It was returning to a place that understood you so well that it had reached across realities to find you, claiming you as its own and only; it was being sent to a family that wanted to love you, wanted to keep you safe and sound, but didn’t know you well enough to do anything but hurt you. The duality of the phrase was like the duality of the doors: they changed lives, and they destroyed them, all with the same, simple invitation.”

And there, my friends, is half of what I both hate and love about McGuire. She was showing us this, with the suitcase full of rainbow clothes left by Nancy’s parents. Why did she have to tell us this? Yet it is so beautifully worded and such a wonderfully full underpinning to a story.

The conflict within the children has an interesting foundation–the difference between Virtuous worlds, and those that are Wicked–but is clumsily executed, appearing only after the first incident. Nancy thinks her world would be on the ‘Wicked’ access because it was ruled by the Underworld, but it’s clear it isn’t any more violent than the others. Yet this is supposedly the basis for the teens’ animosity. I think I would have liked to see more of the interpersonal tension develop from the beginning instead of feeling like a tired behavior trope was being hauled out for convenience and to escalate conflict. It’s not clear why Eleanor jokes–I think–about Nancy and Sumi killing each other and yet finds it acceptable to room them together. In retrospect, I’m not sure the conflict between students was needed at all.

I found the details regarding sexuality distracting and rather awkward. In the end, it felt like McGuire Had A Point To Make, rather than being a more organic part of character and world-building. I’ve thought about it a bit, and wonder if she was trying to make connections between growing up, identity, and belonging, with sexuality as a component of those things, but it felt incompletely realized. It was also too fast, too out front; if one knows anything about teenagers and alternative lifestyles, it’s that they aren’t going to share unless they are Making A Point or feel very safe. The ambiguity in interpretation means it doesn’t quite reach a five star for me. The terribly overt messaging, a few too many deaths, and lazy group dynamics prevent it from reaching stellar. Quite good, though.

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