Thursday, February 26, 2009

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields

This volume, billed as a “portrait” of Nelle Harper Lee, disappointed me a bit. Shields primarily writes young adult non-fiction, and although the jacket claims he was trying to write an adult book, I fear he has fallen a bit short.

The story is quite repetitive, and the tone definitely favors teen readers. In addition, I noticed a few grammatical and spelling errors. A couple of sentences really required me to pause and dissect them before proceeding.

Another problem with the book involves a chapter and another long section which focuses more on Truman Capote and the writing of In Cold Blood than on Lee and To Kill A Mockingbird. In fact, the best chapter deals with Lee’s experiences in New York surrounding the writing and publication of her novel. Unfortunately, the next chapter rather boringly surveys the critical reviews of TKAM.

All in all, I have to classify this as a mildly interesting, so-so read. 3 stars.

--Chiron, 2/26/09

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle won the Mann Booker Prize for Paddy in 1993, and this wonderful novel is my latest attempt to read all forty Booker Prize winners. I already have completed 15, so the list is down to 25 right now.

Paddy Clarke, at ten years of age, sees the world through innocent eyes. The summer of this novel involves sleeping late, playing a variety of games with his friends, including his best friend, Kevin and two brothers named Aidan and Liam, and interacting with his parents, a younger brother Sinbad, and his infant sister, Catherine.

The snatches of adult conversation Paddy picks up come across as funny bits of gossip the young boy does not understand. However, Doyle accurately captured the wonder and innocence of a ten year old along with the humor that comes from the mouths of children. Try this quote: “We didn’t need bikes then. We walked; we ran. We ran away. That was the best running away. We shouted at watchmen, we threw stones at windows, we played knick-knack and ran away. We owned Barrytown, the whole lot of it. It went on forever. It was a country. Bayside was for bikes” (150). What ten-year old hasn’t had these thoughts! I know I have, dim as those memories are now.

The only problem I had with the book involves some slang terms. I could deduce a few from the context, a few I knew from my reading of James Joyce, but many bewildered me. I wonder if there is a dictionary of Irish slang to go along with my Webster’s Dictionary of American Slang. My favorite mystery word, “pruned,” seems to resemble some sort of “wedgie.” Quite a few Gaelic words have footnotes for translation.

Also, a couple of jokes evaded me. For example,

“---Where was Moses when the lights went out?
I answered.
---Under the bed looking for matches.
---Good man, he said.
I didn’t understand it but it made me laugh” (145).

Doyle uses Joyce’s convention of dashes to indicate dialogue. Makes me want to go back for another reading of Portrait!

Nevertheless, a delightful, pleasant, thoroughly enjoyable way to while away some hours with a cup of tea, a lap full of cat, and a handful of doggie ear. 4-1/2 stars

--Chiron, 2/20/09

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women's Medicine Edited and Translated by Monica H. Green

Since graduate school The Book of Trotula, as the professor referred to it, has fascinated me. A class text I used had only brief fragments and sparse explanation about the origin and author of the book.

This thorough and comprehensive study of an important medieval collection of writings on women’s health, diseases, and remedies might startle the modern reader. The cures for sexual problems, birth control, abortion, and other gynecological issues truly amazed me. Such an enlightened view of these topics, from about 900 years ago, contrasts with the sexist attitude today. Apparently, birth control and abortion did not pose any moral dilemmas, because of the writings of the early church fathers, who believed the soul was breathed into the body by God after birth, as the Bible relates following the creation of Eve.

As long as women deferred to their husbands on these matters, no moral issue arose for the medieval church. With the rise of the women’s movement in the 19th century, men, fearing loss of control over women and their reproductive rights, mounted a campaign to condemn and forbid these practices.

Quite scholarly, but highly interesting nonetheless. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 2/12/09

Falcons of North America by Kate Davis

I met the publisher of this book at the Mid-Winter American Library Association Convention in Denver, Colorado. Since back-yard bird feeding and watching is a hobby of mine, I was curious about this book. I did not expect to see any falcons in my home town, but I recognized the bird on the cover – an American Kestral. The section devoted to Kestrals showed me a bird I had observed in my backyard but could not find in any of my bird books.

The illustrations are colorful and plentiful. The book contains a lot of technical information about these raptors, but the bulk of the book remains accessible to an amateur birder like myself. Wonderful! 5 stars.

--Chiron, 2/12/09

Cry of the Kalahari by Mark & Delia Owens

I first read this book nearly 25 years ago when first published in paperback. The story has not aged and still enthralls. Two young American graduate students sell everything they own to purchase a round-trip ticket to South Africa. They board the plane with about $6,000, and buy train tickets in Johannesburg for Gaberone, Botswana. Arriving there, they burn through quite a bit of their money waiting for permits to study the wildlife on a game preserve. A few months later, they buy what supplies they can, including a beat up Land Rover, and set off for the Kalahari Desert with the idea of finding some unstudied animal life. No experience in the desert and nothing more to guide them than their love and enthusiasm for wildlife speak of tremendous courage and dedication.

When their adventure began, in the middle 70s, they had great respect for the animals and the environment. They carefully observed lions, leopards, jackals, and brown hyenas, along with the myriad ungulates, birds, rodents, reptiles, and insects, while trying not to intrude or disturb them in the least.

The area of the desert they chose had never been visited by humans. They made friends with lions and much of the other wild life they encountered. At first, surrounded by a pride of curious lions, Mark and Delia, seem scared but calm. Gradually, the lions accepted them as part of the landscape. Numerous photos depict the close contact between the Owens and the big cats, as well as hyenas, which became one of the principle foci of their work.

The couple shared the writing of the book, and the chapters written by Delia display a somewhat more technical style, while those by Mark are more concerned with observing the landscape, the wildlife, and the climate.

Today the couple runs the Owens Foundation for Wildlife Conservation based in Stone Mountain, GA. Their website is . Donations are welcome. Their story tells of the struggle for preservation of the predators of the Kalahari, as well as a constant struggle for funding to continue their work.

If you love animals, adventure, courage, with funny moments mixed in, this book is a must-read. Five stars.

--Chiron, 2/10/09