Books in Brief: Five I Loved Recently

zookeeper'sThe Zookeeper’s Wife

By Diane Ackerman

A different sort of Holocaust story, set at Warsaw Zoo in the years surrounding World War II. Even after Nazis dismantled their zoo and killed many of the larger animals, Jan and Antonina Żabiński stayed at their home and used the zoo’s premises for storing explosives and ammunition for Jan’s work in the Polish resistance as well as sheltering “Guests,” Jews passing through. This is a gripping narrative of survival against the odds, with the added pleasure of the kind of animal antics you’d find in a Gerald Durrell book. Their son Ryszard kept as pets a badger who bathed sitting back in the tub like a person and an arctic hare who stole cured meats like “a fat, furry thug.” Much of the book is based on Antonina’s journals, but I wish there had been more direct quotes from it and less in the way of reconstruction.

 

walking awayWalking Away: Further Travels with a Troubadour on the South West Coast Path

By Simon Armitage

As a sequel to Walking Home, the account of his 2010 trek along the Pennine Way, Armitage walked much of England’s Southwest Coast Path in August–September 2013. As before, he relied on the hospitality of acquaintances and strangers to put him up along the way and transport his enormous suitcase for him so he could walk about 10 miles a day to his next poetry reading. Emulating a modern-day troubadour, Armitage passed around a sock at the end of readings for donations (though the list of other stuff people left in the sock, with which he closes the book, is quite amusing). Along the way he meets all kinds of odd folk and muses on the landscape and the distressing amounts of seaside rubbish. His self-deprecating style reminded me of Bill Bryson. A pleasant ramble of a travel book.

 

winter worldWinter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival

By Bernd Heinrich

This great seasonal read carefully pitches science to the level of the layman. Heinrich, an emeritus professor of biology at the University of Vermont, surveys various strategies animals use for surviving the winter: caching food, huddling together, hibernating or entering torpor, and lowering their body temperature – even to the point where 50% of their body water is ice, as with hibernating frogs. He carries out ever so slightly gruesome experiments that make him sound like a lovably nutty professor:

To find out how quickly a fully feathered kinglet loses body heat, I experimentally heated a dead kinglet and then measured its cooling rate. … I do not know how many seeds a chipmunk usually packs into each of its two pouches—I easily inserted sixty black sunflower seeds through the mouth into just one pouch of a roadkill.

His passion for knowledge carries through in his writing. I came away with a fresh sense of wonder for how species are adapted to their environments: “Much that animals have evolved to do would have seemed impossible to us, if experience has not taught us otherwise.”

 

poor your soulPoor Your Soul

By Mira Ptacin

Ptacin’s memoir is based around two losses: that of her brother, in a collision with a drunk driver; and that of a pregnancy in 2008. She skips back and forth in time to examine the numb aftermath of trauma as well as the fresh pain of actually going through it. In places I felt Ptacin sacrificed the literary quality hindsight might have allowed, prioritizing instead the somewhat clichéd thoughts and responses she had in the moment. Still, I loved so much about this book, especially her memories of growing up in the cereal capital of America and the account of her mother coming to America from Poland. Her mother is a terrific character, and it’s her half-warning, half-commiserative phrase that gives the novel its title (not a typo, as you might be forgiven for thinking): a kind of Slavic “I pity the fool.”

 

miss fortuneMiss Fortune: Fresh Perspectives on Having It All from Someone Who Is Not Okay

By Lauren Weedman

Weedman is a playwright and minor celebrity who’s worked on The Daily Show, Hung and Looking. This is a truly funny set of essays about marriage (from beginning to end), motherhood, working life and everything in between. Self-deprecatingly, she focuses on ridiculous situations she’s gotten herself into, like the world’s unsexiest threesome and an accidental gang symbol tattoo. Amid the laughs are some serious reflections on being adopted and figuring out how to be a responsible stepmother. With a warning that parts can be pretty raunchy, I’d recommend this to fans of David Sedaris and Bossypants.

 

My rating for all: 4 star rating

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16 thoughts on “Books in Brief: Five I Loved Recently

  1. Gah! I want to read them all! But, if I had to choose just one it would be the one about walking. I’m a sucker for the hiking books, but I don’t know of many good ones. Any more suggestions? (I’ve already read Wild and Walking in the Woods, and I have one on my tbr pile right now called Becoming Odyssa.)
    I am also very sorely tempted by Winter World (I have a degree in biology). Okay, I’m going to have to add that one, too…

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    1. Turns out I haven’t read as many long-distance walking books as I thought I had 😉 I looked back through my travel books shelf on Goodreads and found The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane. There’s also two by Colm Tóibín, but I didn’t like them as much as his fiction. Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit is a great multidisciplinary book about walking. They’re not about walking as such, but Sara Wheeler’s are among my favorite travel books.

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      1. I just looked up Sara Wheeler – she’s written a lot of nice-looking books!

        I wonder if there just aren’t that many *good* hiking books. The problem is that you need to be a hiker and a writer… What about you? Do you like to hike? 😉

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      2. I do like hiking, but I’ve never done anything very intensive. My mom and sister live near the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania, so we go walk portions of it sometimes — but literally like 1-2 miles, nothing more!

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    1. We have friends in Devon so the thought of walking parts of the Southwest Coast path is appealing, but I doubt we’d be nearly as ambitious in terms of mileage. He’s also dissuaded me from visiting the Isles of Scilly due to the dreadful ferry ride to get there!

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  2. By coincidence, I happen to have Simon Armitage’s Book of Matches on my bedside bookshelf (very hard to find here–had to order it from the UK). My husband and I saw a show about his walking and translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and I’ve been fascinated ever since.

    Totally agree on the Ackerman. There’s a review of that book somewhere back in my archives . . .

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  3. I love Simon Armitage, but have yet to read this one or the first of his hiking books. He always comes across as droll and unassuming, yet with his poet’s eye has a great way of putting things.

    For a rather different kind of hiking book, try London Orbital by Iain Sinclair, a psychogeographer who walks around the M25.

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