Category Archives: Wednesday Book Review

Zoophilia: Three Great Animal Books

I love animals. From elephants and panda bears to manatees and gorillas, you name an animal and the chances are high that I’m completely fascinated. (As long as they have legs. I don’t deal well with reptiles of the no-leg variety.)

So it’s logical that I am completely obsessed with zoos. I want to see them all! One of the few things I love with the same intensity as a good book is a leisurely afternoon at my local zoological garden. There is nothing more peaceful than sitting inside a darkened aquarium, watching the myriad of tropical fish and sea turtles mosey around their coral home, nothing more fascinating than observing a family of bonobos playfully harass one another, nothing as awe-inspiring as watching a tigress stalk around, waiting for her lunch, or as fun as seeing a troop of otters gleefully dive and run and chatter.

So, naturally, when my husband presented me with Betty White’s newest book, Betty and Friends: My Life at the Zoo, I promptly lost my mind.


Betty has been deeply involved with the Los Angeles Zoo and the cause of animal conservation for over 30 years. This book is a collection of antidotes and stunning photographs of the animal friends she has made over the years. It’s “her personal love letter to zoo’s and the animals in them.” The photographs are beautiful, and her stories are touching though brief. This reads more like a coffee table book, and is really best for the hardcore animal lover who won’t care that the photo-to-word ratio is rather high.

Of course if you’re looking for a more story-intensive offering (and most people spending upwards of $26 on a new hardback are), there are a few surprisingly good zoological tales out there.

Zoo Story: Life In the Garden of Captives, by Thomas French, gives a rare glimpse into the nehind-the-scenae workings of a zoo.


French spent six years researching in and reporting on Tampa Bay’s Lowry Park Zoo, and what resulted is an absolutely fascinating and touching account of the life of a zoo and it’s animal and human inhabitants. From the quirky (an alpha chimp with a fetish for blond women) to the painful (should we keep animals captive? Do zoos help accomplish or ultimately defeat their own conservation goals?), French, true to his journalistic heritage, does not shy away from any issue, nor does he seek to answer the questions or ease the tensions. What is left is a raw but beautiful account of the interdependent relationship of man and the lesser animals, and the stickier questions of our responsibility towards them. Both animal lovers and lovers of masterfully crafted nonfiction will be delighted by this fantastic book.

For a more warm, homespun tale, Benjamin Mee’s memoir, We Bought A Zoo, is just the ticket.


This is literally my dream. If I am ever independently wealthy, I plan to purchase two things: a book store and a zoo. (Side note: the chances of a housewife from San Diego who has problems saving money because she buys too many books and also really likes shoes becoming independently wealthy are slim. I know this. But even a housewife is allowed her dreams. What else am I supposed to do while scrubbing out the bathtub?)

Mee and his family- mother, Amelia, wife, Katherine, and a smattering of siblings- decide to use the inheritance left to them by their late father and husband to purchase the small, rundown Dartmoor Wildlife Park. They hope to renovate the dilapidated park and reopen it as not just a tourist attraction but a viable zoo that aids in the conservation and breeding of endangered animals.

Along the way, they run into their fair share of troubles: lack of funds, their own amateur naivety about the needs of a zoo, escaped jaguars and wolves, contentions between new and old employees, and Katherine’s reoccurring brain tumor all threaten to derail the dream. But the crux of the story is that through grief, overwhelming odds, and a steep learning curve, sometimes zoo dreams do come true. The Dartmoor Zoological Park, as it is now known, is a thriving, accredited zoo, and this little memoir is now a Matt Damon blockbuster movie that opened last week, just before Christmas. I haven’t seen it yet, but if it has as much gumption as the book it’s based on, I’m sure I’ll love it.

What about you, friends? Have you read any of these books, or any other good animal books that a zoophile such as myself shod check out? Or do you prefer your animals to be of the domesticated variety? If so, I have that too! Cambria has recently started working on her own memoir. The working title is: “The Story of Cambria: How A Stray Ally Cat Came to Rule the World.” Or something like that.



Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Odds and Ends, Some Thoughts, Wednesday Book Review

Happy 50th Birthday, Phantom Tollbooth! I Did Not Make Cupcakes, but I Did Make Mini-Reviews.

Dear Phantom Tollbooth,

Happy Birthday one day late! Many happy returns to yourself, and to Mr. Juster! I remember the first time my mother handed you to me. I was probably eight or so, and she was very enthusiastic for you had been one of her favorite books when she was my age. I opened to your first page, read your first chapter, and…I didn’t get it. I was a rather abstract child, but your genius was still rather beyond my brain power at the time. It took a few years, but the next time I peaked between your pages I was instantly enthralled. From the moment Milo rode through the booth there was no looking back for me. Thank you for your silly yet very intelligent puns. Thank you for opening my eyes to seeing things like time and the concrete aspects of language in a whole new, more adventurous light. But mostly, thank you for taking me away to the Lands Beyond on so many afternoons when, like Milo, I was bored with school work or television or toys. I count you among the precious books that fostered my love of reading and my active imagination, and I wouldn’t have become the student or writer or woman I am today without you and your peers.

In honor of your birthday, I’m going to review some of my favorite children’s books, both from my childhood and some of my more recent discoveries, on my blog today. I would have made cupcakes, but you have no mouth. Mouth or no, you, Phantom Tollbooth, will still retain the place of honor. After all, it’s not everyday that a book has their golden birthday! I hope that on this day you understand how much you are still loved and adored, by me, by your plethora of adult fans, and by the new, young ones who discover you each day.

With Deep Gratitude,


Amanda’s Mini-Reviews: Children’s Books From Then and Now.


The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster: Milo is a disenfranchised young man who is bored with life when one day receives a mysterious package: a play-sized tollbooth. He drives his toy car through the booth and finds himself transported to the Lands Beyond, where he and his trusty friend Tock the Watchdog, have all sorts of adventures, such as conducting a sunrise and rescuing peculiar princesses. Parents will appreciate the wit, and kids will be enthralled with the fanciful characters. Some younger elementary kids might be a bit confused, as I was, but by fourth grade or so this book makes for delightful reading. Verdict: Magical (Click here for a wonderful article about Phantom tollbooth by Norton Juster himself.)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, by Roald Dahl: I loved this book so much as a kid that I used to I hide it under my bed and read it at night by flash light. I discovered its sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, a year or so after I read it’s predecessor and loved it just as much. What child could help but root for the poor kid who never got any candy? I couldn’t, and my bet is that you’re mini person won’t be able to either. Verdict: Exuberant

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis: This is The Lord of the Rings light, with enough mythology and adventure to satisfy even the nerdiest kids cravings, but with a bit more of a twinkle in its eye. Four siblings discover a magical land in the back of an old wardrobe, which has been held captive for a hundred years by an evil witch who has made it always winter and never Christmas. What’s more, the siblings discover that they are the only ones who can free the land from its torment! This book and it’s six companions exude adventure of the most addictive kind. Verdict: The Grandest of Adventures

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert O’Brien: I’ve always loved a good adventure, but what I loved most about this adventure was that it could have taken place in my own backyard. Maybe there were colonies of highly advanced critters running around my backyard too! On top of that, I came to care deeply about what happened to Mrs. Frisby, her son Timothy, and all those clever rats. This is a loveable, unique story that also brings up questions of responsibility with animals. Verdict: Loveable

From the Mixed-U Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg: Sometimes you just want to read something fun, and this book is definitely that! Claudia and her brother Jamie feel underappreciated, so they run away from home…and to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC! They sleep in priceless historic furniture by night, and by day they peruse the exhibits, especially a statue of a mysterious angel that may or may not be a Michelangelo. With the help of an eccentric widow (Mrs. Frankweiler), they kids determine to learn the angel’s secret. Verdict: Excellent

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame: Mole is tired of his dark little hole in the ground, and so he blows off his spring cleaning to go for a walk. While walking discovers the most glorious river in the throes of Spring where he meets the River Rat, Mr. Toad, and the Badger, and together they have a host of adventures on the banks of their beloved river. This book embodies the very essence of childhood. Verdict:Beautiful

Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein: I believe one of the reasons poetry is a decreasing art form in America is because we see it as a serious business, too abstract or intellectual for children, and by the time those kids have grown and could appreciate it, they’re not interested anymore. But Silverstein and a handful of others are changing that with their sometimes silly, sometimes inane, sometimes shockingly deep poetry for children. I’ve loved everything about Shel since I was five, and my bets are you will love him too. Verdict: Delightful

A few of my favorite Silverstein poems, both a funny and a serious.


Horns and Wrinkles, by Joseph Helgerson: I discovered this gem while looking up books that include regional folklore for a college class. The northern Mississippi River is, apparently, overwrought with magic, particularly trolls, both river and rock, and blue-wing fairies. Claire doesn’t particularly believe it all, but then her cousin Duke falls in the river and comes home with a horn where his nose should be, and they are plunged into the world of river magic. This is a fun and inventive story, and I’m shocked it hasn’t picked up a wider reading audience. Verdict: Too Good to Stay Undiscovered

The Last Dragon by Silvana De Mari: The world is falling apart, rainy and dark, it is slowly spitting out its inhabitants. Yorsh is a young elf who awakes one morning to find himself orphaned- the last elf on earth. But he soon discovers that he is part of a powerful prophecy and he must travel to find the last dragon, and thus save the world from total destruction. Despite it’s dire sound, this book, original published in Italian, is surprisingly funny, lighthearted, and endearing, a statement from the author about fantasy writers who take themselves too seriously. Verdict: Whimsical

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle: I read this book as a child, but I didn’t truly appreciate it until college. A cosmic trip to lands strange, wonderful and threatening, Meg Murray , her little brother, Charles Wallace, and their friend Calvin must rescue Meg’s father from unknown peril with the help of Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit, three delightful interplanetary beings. The story is delightful, but it’s the message that stuck with me: you may have brains or endearing quirks, but it is your love that sets you apart. Verdict: Inspiring

Gossamer by Lois Lowry: Where do dreams come from? Littlest One and her people are dream-givers. At night they sneak into houses and collect memories which they use to give pleasant dreams, but they must be careful of the sinisteeds, dream-givers who delved too deeply and now give only nightmares. As the sinisteeds converge of the house of Littlest One’s charges, will she have the strength to hold them back? Lowry tells this story with both gentleness and strength, making Gossamer easy to read and to love. Verdict: Delightful

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke: The first of Funke’s Inkworld trilogy, this is a surprisingly dark and heavy book not to be trifled with. Mortimer is a bookbinder with a shocking ability- he can read books aloud and whatever he reads will come to life. This has shocking consequences for his daughter, Meggie, and his wife Resa, as well as all of Italy, for the characters he reads out are not pleasant folk, but rather harsh and cruel, and they will stop at nothing to dominate no matter what world they are in. Wildly imaginative, this fantasy speaks to a very real need to be cautious of what we create. Verdict: Fascinating But Dark

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo: Another college find, I discovered DiCamillo in my children’s literature class. I love all of her works, but the gentle, loving way she treated this tender tale about an incorrigible, fearless mouse, a peasant who has never truly been loved, a dungeon rat who just wants to bask in the light, and some rather hot soup makes this my favorite of all her works. Her undeniable message that everyone is worthy of love and respect has led me to love and respect this author. Verdict: Thoughtful and Loveable

A Few Of My Other Favorites:

The 21 Balloons by William Du Bois, Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, The Borrowers by Mary Norton, A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond, The Blue Umbrella by Mike Mason, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, Dusty Mole, Private Eye Series by Barbara Davoll, The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne, The Land of Elyon Series by Patrick Carman, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Marry Poppins by P.L Travers, Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes, Otto and The Flying Twins by Charlotte Haptie, Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson, Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan, Seven Kisses in a Row by Patricia MacLachlan, Something Big Has Been Here by Jack Prelutsky…I could go on, but I’ll spare you.

These selections are Cambria Approved!

PS: I found this in the back of my copy of Sarah, Plain and Tall (which I got at a library book sale a few years back) last night when I got it out to photograph it. I laughed. Kids amuse me to no end!

On the back of a library receipt for Hannah, dated 2000. I think you're cool too, kiddo.


Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Wednesday Book Review

Wednesday Book Review: Floors, and a Huge OMG Moment

First, my OMG moment. Look!

That's Me!!!

That’s me on the front page of, in their FreshlyPressed section! I always thought it would be cool to be up there one day, but I never expected it to actually happen. I mean, most of these people are amazing bloggers, and somehow I and my crappy iPhone photo made it up there. And for it to happen with a post that came about because I was being lazy, well, that’s just ironic. Maybe I’m at my best when I’m also at my laziest…hmmmm…. They’re probably just taking pity on me anyway. The WordPress gods are probably sitting there thinking, “Poor kid suffered through half an english major and journalism, and this is all she’s got? We can throw her a bone. Afterall, it won’t cost us anything.” To which I say, thank you WordPress gods. May you be blessed for your charity.

And now, moving on to the real reason you’re probably here…

There is no better remedy for a stressed out mind than a little lighthearted adventure. And there is no better place to find that adventure than on the Juvenile Fiction aisle. And I really have been rather stressed. There’s just no two ways about it, moving is stressful, and I am in the thick of it. Thus, I turned this week to Patrick Carman’s newest offering: Floors.

It was the ducks that got me, really.

I’m a big fan of Carman’s The Land of Elyon series, but I’ve skipped out of his last few capers because, for whatever reason, they just didn’t interest me. But this premise sounded fascinating: an excentric hotel filled with wacky inventions and hidden floors? A mysterious disappearance? Ducks that could save the day? Yes, please!

One part Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, one part A Series of Unfortunate Events, and two parts pure fun, I really enjoyed this little book. Leo and his widower father, Clarence, are the maintenance men at the Whippet Hotel, a strange, fascinating place with exotically themed rooms such as a room made of cake, one that functions as a giant pinball machine, and a room run entirely by robots. There is also a park on the roof, which is home to the hotel’s six pet ducks.

It’s an idyllic life for a young boy, until his best friend, the hotel owner, Merganzer D. Whippet, goes missing, and the hotel mysteriously begins to fall apart. As Leo and his dad rush to keep things running, Leo begins to suspect someone is trying to sabotage his hotel. But who? Could it be Ms. Sparks, the grouchy hotel manager? What about the snooty Yancy’s, the hotel’s newest guests, and their bratty daughter, Jane? With so many odd people inhabiting this place, it could be almost anyone! He also starts receiving mysterious boxes, apparently from Mr. Whippet. Leo doesn’t know what’s going on, but one thing is clear: it’s up to Leo and his new friend, Remi, to get to the bottom of this, and save the hotel!

This was a really fun, quick read, and I really enjoyed it, but it wasn’t Carman’s best work. His Land of Elyon series was more enthralling, deeper, and I thought it was more original. The elevators and innumerable secret floors and rooms smacked of Roald Dahl, and though he began to touch on important subjects, like deceased or absentee parents, he never brought those topics to any fruition. But, I could be proven wrong. During the last chapter, I closed the book for a moment, and discovered that this is just the first book sin a series.


Notice the sign above the elevator? How it's pointing at one, but can go as high as three? How much you wanna bet that there will the three books in the series? Tricky, Pat. Tricky.

So maybe he will hit on those things in later books. He certainly left it open for subsequent editions with a clear-cut nemesis (Ms. Sparks), and a recipe for trouble (a ten-year-old hotel owner? Yeah, that’ll turn out well).

I really did enjoy this little journey, though. And ten-year-old me would have enjoyed it even more. I’m not sure, however, if I’m committed enough for two more books. We shall see.

Currently, I am still plugging away at Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, though it’s something that I find myself reading in spurts. I’ve set aside The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb for now, not because I couldn’t get into it, but because I don’t have time to move and read a full-sized novel all at once. So instead, I’m reading these two skinny books:

Coraline by Neil Gaiman, and Annie Dillard's The Writing Life. I apologize for the blurry-ness. Remember, crappy iPhone pictures?

I’ve wanted to read both of these for a while now, and I only have the time/attention span for something short right now, so it’s perfect.

What about you, friends? What are you currently reading? Have you had any OMG moments of your own this week?


Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Wednesday Book Review

Wednesday Book Review: A Gaggle of Mini-Reviews

I’ve read all sorts of books: the good, the bad, the great, the ugly, the blah. But this past week I have had zero time to read. Seriously, I’ve read 47 pages in seven days. Pitiful. So I thought I’d give a quick overview of ten or so of the books I’ve already read this year but haven’t reviewed, just in case, you know, you actually want to read one of them someday and need an opinion. Or if I go senile and can’t tell books apart from rocket ships. Either one. (If there’s one on my list that I haven’t listed here but you’re interested in, just let me know and I will make sure to give you my official opinion.) Without further ado, I introduce you to…

Amanda’s I-Was-Too-Busy-and/or-Lazy-to-Read Mini-Review:

Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin: This is historical fiction at it’s best. The story revolves around the facts of what we know for certain about the life of Alice Liddell, the real Alice in Wonderland, and Benjamin fills in the gaps seamlessly without falling into the trap of over-romanticizing. I couldn’t put it down.Verdict: Great

A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz: Jane Austen has millions of devotees around the globe, but William was a reluctant one. He always thought Austen and her romances were a bit ridiculous, until he started reading her in earnest on the eve of writing his Master’s thesis. This book was excellently written and intelligently conceived. I genuinely learned a lot from this book,  not only about Austen, but about growing up and living with integrity. Verdict: Excellent

Angry Conversations With God by Susan E. Isaacs: Susan is a successful actor and comedian…almost. She’s also a very dedicated Christian….mostly. It’s not that she’s not talented or doesn’t love God, she’s just still in the process of figuring several things out. And some of those things make her angry, so she decides to write a sketch where she takes God to couples counseling. This hilarious book is what ensues. Verdict: Hilarious 

Anonymous by Alicia Britt Chloe: We all have bare, bleak times. Times when we’re waiting, or growing silently in the corner like a tree in winter. What is the purpose of these quiet times? What was the use of Jesus’ quiet time in the thirty years between Christmas and when he turned the water into wine? With deep insight and wisdom, Chloe discusses these times on anonymity. If you read it, you will be changed. Verdict: Powerful

Bittersweet and Cold Tangerines by Shauna Niequist: I really enjoyed both of these books, one which is about being thankful for the small things in the happy season of life, and one is about learning to still be thankful when life is painful. Niequist has a conversational, engaging, and artful way of writing that was really enjoyable. Verdict: Excellent

The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad: Seirstad spent a year living with a wealthy Afghani book merchant and his family. This is their story. It is enlightening and moving, and I enjoyed every page of the journey into a culture so very opposed to my own. Verdict: Excellent

Bossypants by Tina Fey: I heard all this nonsense from reviewers about how they expected more from Fey than this. Psshhh. Please, stop taking yourself so seriously. It’s Tina Fey writing funny stuff, I don’t really care if I learn anything. It’s easy to read and it will make you laugh a whole lot, what more could you possible want? Verdict: Hilarious

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero: This was the first book I finished this year, and it had a deep impact on me. It discusses the need to take care of yourself emotionally in order to be truly healthy spiritually. What I learned in the book enabled me to be able to start saying “no” sometimes , and it helped me identify some of my weak areas. Verdict: Powerful

The Girl With Glass Feet by Ali Shaw: The premise of this book intrigued me. It seemed to be a less romance-y version of Magical Realism-a genre I adore, which it was, but not in a good way.  This book was haunting and the language was beautiful, but the story was rather sad, and not in a Hemingway-and-Fitzgerald way, in a depressing way. There was a film of gloom over the whole endeavor that made it hard to enjoy even thought it was well written. Verdict: Okay

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain: I had read about Hemingway’s’ first wife, Hadley, before in passing, but I very much enjoyed getting to know her in a more in-depth fashion. McLain also manages to give the book the same texture as a Hemingway story while still retaining her own style. I recommend this book to any literary buff. Verdict: Excellent

Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott: Anne is a controversial writer. She’s a Christian, but one with very liberal parameters. She and I don’t agree on a lot of the finer points, but she treats every subject with such honesty and openness, that I wish she were my kooky aunt. I wish I could just hang out with her and talk about life, even if we don’t agree on everything, because I know she’d be honest, and I know she’d love me anyway. Verdict: Refreshing

The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure: The Little House on the Prairie books were McClure’s favorites as a child; now an adult, and a children’s book editor, she decides to trace their steps. From churning butter the way Laura would have in her own living room to exploring every homestead site mentioned in the books (and a few that were not), this book is a fun ride for any Laura Wilder fan. (I would caution, however, that this is definitely an adult book. Even if Little House is little cousin Suzie’s favorite series ever, don’t share this memoir until she’s at least in high school.) Verdict: Fun


Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Wednesday Book Review