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Anna Karenina
Leo Tolstoy, Louise Maude, Alymer Maude
Don't Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle - Daniel L. Everett This book has been on my TBR shelf on Goodreads for years, like literally for years. So not only am I very glad that I finally got around to reading it, but that I also found it extremely enjoyable! I put this book on my TBR because it hit all my buttons: travel memoir, the Amazon, native tribes, and linguistics and thoughts on the nature of language. However, even though I was sure there would be a lot to love about this book, I was hesitant about it for two reasons. First, Everett first comes to the Pirahã as a missionary. Although I know that missionaries the world over to wonderful work in regards to providing education, medical care, clothes, and other basic necessities, I admit I feel somewhat uncomfortable when I consider the fact that people travel the world to impoverished communities with the sole goal of converting people to a religion that is not a part of their native cultural context. My second concern was that I knew going into the book that, thanks in part to his experiences with the Pirahã, Everett eventually becomes an atheist; I have nothing against atheists or atheism but I was concerned that the book would start from a missionary perspective and eventually become focused on Everett’s conversion to atheism in the second half; I didn’t want a book on religion- I wanted a book about the Pirahã and their culture and language.

I needn’t have worried. The missionary institution that Everett was a part of believed that the best way to convert non-Christian peoples was through providing a translation the Gospel into their native language, so Everett’s official missionary work was to learn Pirahã . And Everett’s questioning of his own faith and the loss of his belief in God was confined solely to the Epilogue. The Pirahãs, their culture, and their language took center stage, which is just how I hoped it would be.

In over 200 years of contact with explorers, colonists, and Brazilians living in the interior, the Pirahãs have never learned Portuguese and there is not a single bit of evidence that any Pirahã has ever been converted to Christianity or left the tribe for life in the towns and cities of the Amazonian interior. The Pirahã are unique in this regard; most of indigenous tribes in the surrounding area have adapted Portuguese and became farmers and Christians (at least nominally) some time ago. The Pirahãs are different: they know only a few words of Portuguese (they refuse to learn it), rely on hunting (mostly fishing) and gathering, have little to no material culture, and although they borrow tools and larger canoes from the ‘outside,’ they refuse to make or maintain them even if they have been taught how to do so. The Pirahãs regard themselves, their language, and their culture as vastly superior to all others; they don’t want anther way of life, or a new religion as Everett finds out when they tell him point-blank that if he wants to stay in their village that he has to stop talking about Jesus so often.

In addition to having a culture different from the surrounding native tribes and Brazilians, the Pirahã also have a language that is not only different from those surrounding it but is also different from any known language in the world. They have no words for colors, no counting system, and, most significantly, no recursion in their sentences (they do not embed phrases and sentences within sentences- ie. ‘The man who is tall is on the path’). According to Chomsky’s Universal Grammar theory, recursion is an obligatory part of each and every language in the world. And yet Pirahã most certainly does not have recursion (although they will speak 2 or 3 sentences one after another in such a way that they function as a recursive sentence but the sentences themselves contain no recursion). This lack of recursion in the Pirahã language has forced linguists to reconsider the very nature of language, its evolution, and its components.

I can’t express how much I enjoyed this book. Everett’s writing is engaging and personable and his respect for the Pirahãs as a people and a culture is evident on every page. A warning: although the first half of the book focuses on Everett and his family’s experiences with living in and adjusting to life in a Pirahã village and to exchanging an American lifestyle for a way of living dependent on the Amazon for survival, the second half of the book is entirely forced on the Pirahã language. Everett does his best to keep it simple while still describing what is important and unique about their language and how his findings contradict many linguists ideas about language and, most importantly, Chomsky’s Universal Grammar theory. If you’re not a fan of linguists or the ins-and-outs of language, it’s syntax, and components, then the second half of the book might seem a bit too technical or to drag a bit. But since I find these thing interesting I enjoyed this section just as much as the first part. Overall, I’m kicking myself that it took me so long to read such an informative and entertaining book. I very much enjoyed my trip to the Amazon and learning about such a unique group of people through this Everett and his experiences.
His Majesty's Dragon - Naomi Novik This is the first book in the Temeraire series and it is also Novik’s first novel. The book starts off with Captain Laurence taking a French a ship; it is the Napoleonic Wars and so Britain and France are fighting. In the French ship they find a dragon egg- a great prize as dragons are rare and are used in aerial combat in times of warfare. However a problem arises when the egg starts to hatch while they are still at sea. Dragons must be ‘harnessed’ by the person who will become their commander soon after they hatch or else they will fly off and become ‘rogue’ or wild dragons which is now rare. The baby dragon takes a liking to Laurence and he is forced to harness it; he has to give up his life in the navy and join the aerial corps- the military group that trains both dragons and humans for aerial combat. However Laurence and the dragon (now called Temeraire) ‘s training is cut short when word reaches them that Napoleon is planning an aerial invasion of Britain. Laurence and the rest of the aerial corps must defeat the French or the war could vary well be lost.

There are so many great things that I like about this book. The fantasy is very light; besides the existence of dragons the world is exactly the same as it was during the Napoleonic wars. Novik sticks to the actual events of the war well. It’s a very easy read and the action is fast-paced. Laurence is a believable and easy to like character and I was eager to find out how he would adjust to the new circumstances that he found himself in.

Of course, the beast part of the book is the dragons. Dragons are capable of talking and they all have their own personality. There are a variety of breeds of dragons, each with their own distinct characteristics. Some can spit acid or venom. A select few can breathe fire. The dragons are different sizes and colors depending on the breed. Some are bred for speed and swiftness while others are bred for brute strength. But by breeding for certain characteristics sometimes intelligence is lost. But this is not the case of Temeraire; a Chinese breed of dragon, he is incredibly smart. He is too big to turn the pages of books so Laurence begins to read to him every night, something that they both enjoy. He is very curious and he has a bit of an independent streak. If he doesn’t understand why he is being asked to do something he wont do it. That being said he is very gentle and kind and he and Laurence’s relationship is one of equals.

Dragons aside there were a few things that I did not like about the book. I did not really buy into the romantic aspect of the book. Fortunately, it made up such a small part of the novel that it was not big problem for me. In comparison to other parts of the military and society in general the aerial corps are informal and more direct. That’s fine and all but I did get annoyed that she would stress this over and over again for no reason. I understand that they are more friendly and informal, I don’t need to be told so every few pages! The only other thing that I wished had been different was the battle at the end: I wished that it had been longer because I was really enjoying it and I wanted it to last longer! But these things were all small annoyances and didn’t drastically alter my opinion of the book.

This book is fun, has plenty of action, and is really entertaining. There are five other books in the series so far. Their titles’ are, in order: Throne of Jade, Black Powder War, Empire of Ivy, Victory of Eagles, and Tongues of Serpents.

I am definitely planning on continuing this series. I only own the first book but I think that will be remedied in the not so distant future
The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon - David Grann This book was so cool! It tells the story of Percy Fawcett, one of the last great Victorian explorers. The book follows him from his military days in Ceylon forward. Bored with his career, he decided to become an explorer in 1900. He joins the Royal Geographical Society and after completing a year long ‘explorer’ course he becomes one of the Society’s official explorers. He starts by trekking through the Amazon and mapping the borders of Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil which until then had never been explored or mapped. Fawcett was one of the last ‘traditional’ explorers: he hacked through the jungle on foot with only a few men. During his early days he and his men almost starved to death. Attacked by flies, hiking in swamps, worms burrowing under their skin, contracting malaria or yellow fever, and wary of attacks by Indians, some of his men died. But not Fawcett; he seemed to thrive under adverse conditions, often making his men march 17 miles per day through the jungle.

Partly based of his own experience and partly based off accounts he read of the conquistadors’ early accounts of traveling in the Amazon, Fawcett becomes convinced that there was once a great ancient civilization that flourished in the jungle. Temples, gold, jewels, and kings, it was a civilization comparable to the Aztecs and the Incas. And in the middle of it all was a vast city that he called ‘Z.’ Convinced that he had found the location of the lost city he was eager to set out, only to be delayed by the start of World War I. For 5 years he stayed at the front as a Lt. Colonel and he participated in the Battle of the Somme. But when the war was over he had trouble raising funds. Scientists didn’t believe that such a civilization could exist in the Amazon; the fact that Fawcett had started to dabble in spiritualism and occultism and believed that psychics telling him that he was right was credible evidence did not help his case.

In 1925, at the age of 57 he, his 21 year old son Jack, and Jacks best friend finally stepped into the jungle to find Z. They were never heard from again. Over the following decades many rescue parties were mounted, some of them to never be seen again. It is estimated that about 100 have died trying to find traces of Fawcett’s trail. David Grann, the author, also goes into the Amazon to try to discover what happened to the 3 men.

I don’t think that we’ll ever for sure know exactly what happened to them, although it seems likely that they were either killed by Indians or else died of malaria or some other sickness. But the amazing thing is that Fawcett was actually right about Z. It may not have been a civilization like the Incas or the Mayas but new discoveries have recently been made in the Amazon. Ancient pottery shards by the thousands have been found, as has evidence of large settlements supporting 1,000s of people. These towns were surrounded by moats and palisades and were connected to each other by 250 wide roads constructed on an E-W axis. There was even an astrological tower made out of 10ft tall stones weighing tons. All this, combined with the the new discovery that people in the Amazon fertilized the land with burned charcoal and human waste, has led scientists to believe that before disease drastically reduced the native population there could have been up to a million people living in the Amazon.

I really liked this book. Fawcett was a complex character who I enjoyed reading about. Grann really did a good job explaining just how terrible the conditions were in the Amazon for these men and the troubles they faced. I also appreciated how he told about how the natives were affected by the expansion of the frontier and the rubber boon and mining operations that were operated in the area. This book is narrative nonfiction so it is easy to read and it does a great job of creating atmosphere, from Victorian London to the depths of the Amazon. This book was just so interesting, especially the part about how there was a ‘Z’ out in the Amazon, although not in the form that Fawcett predicted. I hadn’t heard about any of the recent discoveries made so I was surprised in that regard. I wish there had been a bit more information about the discoveries rather then it just all being included in the last chapter. But that’s about my only complaint. When I started to read this book I wasn’t sure what to expect but my apprehension was more then worth it. I really enjoyed it. It came very close to getting 5 stars.
All Creatures Great and Small - James Herriot This book is a memoir of a James Herriot and follows him during his first two years as a country vet in the Yorkshire Dales. He joins the practice of Siegfried Frarnon and after Siegfried's brother Tristan fails his college exams he joins the practice as well. The book mostly consists of the various case that Herriot worked on during this time: from birthing calves and doctoring sick cats and dogs. Herriot began practicing veterinary medicine in the 1930's and so some of the illnesses described in this book are no longer a problem for today's vets. For example tuberculosis was a particular problem among cows during this time and today it is practically unheard of. But the 30's was also a time when veterinary medicine was changing thanks to then recent scientific advances. It was during this time that vets were beginning to stop mixing their own medicines using motor and pestle and instead receive shipments of pills and injections. But although these advances were being implemented Herriot often had to deal with the country farmers who still believed in traditional remedies that were mostly ineffective and sometimes caused more harm then good. A particularly funny case is when he is called out to visit a horse who was having trouble walking. Upon arriving he is told that the farmer had tried his own 'remedy' on the horse but that it hadn't worked. As the remedy consisted of sticking a raw onion up the horses butt Herriot (and myself for that matter) was unsupervised that the horse was still not walking normally. From being kicked by cows and bitten by dogs to saving kittens and doctoring sick pigs All Creatures Great and Small describes the trails and joys of being a country vet in rural Yorkshire in the 1930s.

This book was a pleasure to read. Each chapter is a different veterinary case and rarely goes over 10 pages so it is an easy book to put down and then come back to later. For a vet Herriot is an extremely talented writer. True, some of the dialogue is a bit stilled but overall I was impressed. What is great about this book is that you can tell that he truly loves what he is doing; his love for the animals and the surrounding countryside is evident on every page. And although not all the cases had a happy ending this is the kind of book that leaves you with one of those warm feelings inside when you've finished. It is an easy read and although nothing truly profound is said within its pages I was really glad that I decided to read it. If I had to describe this book in one word it would be: charming! There is a sequel called All Things Bright and Beautiful which I also have and he has written other books as well although I am not sure about the particulars of them. If you like stories about animals or just want a feel-good book this is one to put on your list.

However it should be said that although this book is mainly marketed as memoir Herriot altered some things. For the start James Herriot is a pen name; his real name was James Alfred Wight. In this book his wife's name is Helen when her real name was Joan. Siegfried and Tristan Farnon are based off of Brian Sinclair and Brian Sinclair who James worked with. This book was written in the early 70s at a time when it was considered unprofessional for veterinarians to advertise their services so it is understandable why he chose a pen name for himself and his peers. In the book James works in a town called Darrowby which is based off of the towns of Thirsk and Sowerby in North Yorkshire. In addition most of the anecdotes that take place in the book during the 30s actually occurred in the 60s according to James' son. I am not trying to discourage anyone from picking up the book based on these facts; I personally like to know when reading memoirs when the author has changed or altered some of the events in their book and so I thought I would share it with you. The fact that these details were changed did not lessen my enjoyment of the book in the slightest. The book is highly believable the way it is written and the essence of the book has remained true to real life events.

Paradise Under Glass: An Amateur Creates a Conservatory Garden

Paradise Under Glass: An Amateur Creates a Conservatory Garden - Ruth Kassinger Paradise Under Glass is a memoir about how a women in her forties with no experience creates a prosperous indoor conservatory in her own home after coping with tragedy. After her older sister dies a long painful death from a brain tumor Ruth herself is shortly afterward diagnosed with breast cancer. After a year of chemotherapy and several surgeries she is in remission. With her two oldest girls away at college she finds herself home alone with her husband, their dog, and their youngest daughter who will soon leave home as well. Kassinger lives in Maryland and one night she wonders into the US Botanic Garden's conservatory in D.C. shortly before closing time. She becomes entranced by the beauty and tranquility of the place and although she knows nothing about plants or indoor gardening she decides then and there to build a conservatory in her home. The book follows Ruth's journey as she learns about conservatories and their history, of her early triumphs and the plants that didn't make it, and of her travels into the world of indoor gardening. Along the way she visits famous greenhouses and indoor plant growers, takes a trip to Florida to visit a company that breeds butterflies just for indoor conservatories, and buys a truly extraordinary amount of plants.

This book was truly a delight to read. I personally know nothing about conservatories or gardening in general and yet I found the book truly engaging. One thing that Kassinger does really well is incorporating her research about the history and evolution of conservatories alongside her own personal experiences seamlessly. When she talks about buying her first citrus plants she also tells us about medieval orangeries which were the earliest versions of the modern day conservatory. She also talks about plant explorers who would travel through Africa and Asia in search of new plants and the trouble they had shipping their specimens back to Europe. I particularly enjoyed two chapters of hers. The first was when she travels to see a woman in Florida who breeds butterflies for people who have conservatories or butterfly gardens. Kassinger decides to buy catlipillers and hatch her own butterflies. She ends up running into trouble when she finds herself unable to grow milkweed, the only plants monarch butterflies eat. She eventually ends up having to scavenge the weed from the wild just to keep her catipillers happy until they pupate into adult butterflies. I also enjoyed the chapter on ferns and how in Victorian times fern hunting was all the rage. It was especially popular among women. Botany was considered a suitable past time for women and the subject matter was not thought to be so difficult as to incomprehensible to their weaker minds. In fact the study of botany become so popular among women that some began to wonder whether it was even appropriate course of study for men to take in university.

I did however have a few qualms with the book. Like I said I know next to nothing about plants. She often times just used the Latin word to name her plants. I had no idea what she was talking about when she did this. Other times she would use their common names or else use their Latin names with the common name in parenthesis or else the English name with the Latin name in parenthesis. I would have preferred for her to just stick to one method when naming plants instead of bouncing all over the place. Another thing that she would do that would pull me out of the book was that she would sometimes italicize words out of nowhere like when using the word neuron or something. She wasn't trying to emphasize anything so there was no reason to italicize. It was very annoying. I would also have liked the book to have been better edited. At one point she goes on for 14 lines just describing objects in this guys house. In another section she puts a whole paragraph in parenthesis. Basically I had some issues with the formatting of the book but not with the content for the most part. So even though I did enjoy this book I have rated it only 3 carrots instead of four because of the issues just discussed. That being said if you like gardening or have an interest in conservatories and their history this book would most likely be something that you would enjoy.