Monday, September 28, 2009

Horsey Reads

It would appear good horse literature is harder to find than good dog (and cat) literature.

Case in point – “Riding Lessons” by media darling Sara Gruen (she of “Water for Elephants” fame).

Annemarie Zimmer is an Olympic bound equestrienne who suffers a near fatal riding accident. Fade to black. We next meet her on the day she is fired, her husband leaves her for the secretary, her mother announces father is dying from Lou Gehrig's disease and her daughter continues to be a very adolescent teen (or the other way around). So mum and daughter take off to the legendary horse farm where she grew – is this sounding like a bad movie, yet? – oh wait, can it be that Annemarie, who has never ridden again since her accident will reacquaint herself with the equine and boyfriend of yore (who is a horse vet, a real man, not like her effeminate lawyer or whatever, husband)? Yes, it can. But since she is also one of most egotistical, unsympathetic, irresponsible and hysterical characters ever, she also finds time to two-time the poor guy with the French horse trainer (this character is soo stereotypical it’s offensive), ignore the fact her father is dying and run the farm to the ground.
Scared? You should be.

Obviously Sara Gruen learnt A Lot (although seemingly intelligent readers disagree) from this first novel (and sequel “Flying Changes”) in order to write the bestseller “Water For Elephants”. However, I’ll just have to take everybody’s word for it – since her very name causes me feelings of literary indigestion.

“Chosen By a Horse” – is actually a very nice book – a memoir of Susan Richards’ life with horses put into motion by her a adoption of a very neglected mare. I actually felt I learned a little about horses with this one (not knowing anything, that is) even though the focus is on the emotional. I liked her childhood memories and the whole moving story of the year she lived with Lay Me Down. I didn’t so much like the part where she starts dating again and encountering the mother of all douche bags, keeps on dating the guy for no understandable reason.

Needless to say my equine-lit hunger was not satisfied. Suggestions welcome.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Jon Katz - Izzy and Lenore

Jon Katz’s “Izzy and Lenore” was not exactly the fun, doggy lit romp I was anticipating. I got more than I bargained for with this one: it’s not just tear-inducing, it’s enervating.

It touches a lot of spots most of us (and I’m definitely in the group) would rather leave in the dark until we’re absolutely forced to confront them: depression, death, loneliness, solidarity and the roles our dogs play in the middle of the confusion that is a well-meaning human being.

Certain animals seem to manifest in our lives at key-junctions: for Katz it was a border collie rescue, named Izzy, so magically attuned to the needs of humans he pushed the author into fulfilling his wish of becoming a hospice volunteer – with a canine aide.

The dying patients that Izzy visited make up for most of the moving chapters in “Izzy and Lenore”. They are mostly elderly, but there is a middle aged man and a little boy. Interestingly, there is only one truly distressing case – a man who has yet, along with his family, to accept that these are his last days. For all the others, acceptance, seems to have brought about a merciful serenity.

Not all dogs are as wonderfully perceptive as Izzy, but they fulfill equally important roles in our everyday lives: as Katz plunges into depression he decides to self-medicate with the addition of a black lab puppy to his menagerie.

It’s not easy to give an opinion on “Izzy and Lenore” not having read any of the author’s previous best-sellers – and it’s even harder because I genuinely thought this would be a happy-go-lucky, shelter-to-sofa, kind of story and well, it wasn’t. It was hard to read at times but absolutely amazing and moving.

I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone – it certainly gave me the blues.

Jiang Rong - Wolf Totem

After I finished “Wolf Totem” I went online in search of reviews. To my surprise critics everywhere seemed (at the very least) hesitant about this great book: most were uncomfortable at the harsh criticism of Chinese mentality (because they're on “our” side now and we mustn’t bother them), many resented the fact that characters talk at length about their world-views (“didactic” is now a four letter word, apparently), and quite a lot were genuinely upset at how long the book is.

I almost let out an audible sigh of relief as I read Jonathan Mirsky’s words for the Literary Review – I might not be as clueless and ignorant a reader as I thought.

Ursula K. LeGuin for the Guardian: “…that is the sorrowful theme of the rest of this long book” (which I honestly cannot believe she actually read, since she doesn’t mention the main theme of young man/ wolf cub relation). And how offensive is this entry line?
“I don't know what it means to sell four million copies of a book in China - that's a lot of books, but there are a lot of Chinese.” – ah yes, the old “there are so many of them” schtick…

Pankaj Mishra for the NY times: “It’s even more remarkable that a novel so relentlessly gloomy and ponderously didactic has become a huge best seller”

German critic Wolfgang Kubin, got so hot and bothered over “Wolf Totem” he deemed it “fascist” …

Literary critics being so much more cultured (clutered?) and informed than the rest of us, have to read this book in light of their extensive knowledge of millennia of Chinese culture and a complete understanding of contemporary politics – however, the rest of us might enjoy it for what it is: a spellbinding tale, that is also cautionary.

Clifford Coonan wrote in the Independent that “Wolf Totem” can be seen as “a moving novel of nomads and settlers and their relation with wolves on the Mongolian steppes, a guide to doing business in New China, an ecological handbook, or a piece of military strategy.”

To me, the strongest motif was one of condemnation of human nature. As we witness Chen Zhen embark on a series of bad decisions, all of them motivated by his very real love of wolves it becomes impossible not to feel strongly that human love and interest often ring the death toll for the object of their attention. Zhen regrets stealing the wolf cubs, leaving the mother bereft and the siblings dead at human hands, he regrets forcing his own bitch to nurse a wolf against her instinct, he regrets keeping the cub chained under the scorching sun, unhappy he cannot run or play with the other puppies, he regrets breaking the wolf’s incisors rendering him useless for a life in the wild and breaking his will with violence. And yet, all the time, the protagonist rationalizes to himself and others that this is the only way to “understand”, to “learn” about wolves.

Is “Wolf Totem” a rant against Chinese culture? Or is the real reason it bothers western mentality so much, the fact that it indicts all of us? Hasn’t our society been built upon the continual destruction of resources without care for the cycles of Nature? Isn’t our relation with animals built in terms of function? – for food, for work, for lab research, for our pleasure and entertainment? Aren’t we all part sheep, part Han Chinese?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Where the Wild things are

Search for the Golden Moon Bear: Science and Adventure in Search of a New Species - Sy Montgomery

Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind - David Quammen

Spell of the Tiger: Man-Eaters of the Sundarbans - Sy Montgomery

Summer Red Reading

A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage and the Quest for the Colour of Desire - Amy Butler Greenfield

Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale - Catherine Orenstein

The Red Canary: The Story of the First Genetically Engineered Animal - Tim Birkhead

Monday, June 29, 2009

Summer is the time for Murder

Fred Vargas:
This Night's Fowl Work
Coule la Seine
L'homme a l'envers
Ceux qui vont Morir te Saluent

Dorothy L. Sayers:
Strong Poison
Busman's Honeymoon

Jefferson Bass:
Carved in Bone
Flesh and Bone

Dr Bill Bass & Jon Jefferson:
Beyond the Body Farm

Santo Piazzese:
La Doppia Vita di M. Laurent

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

believe me when I tell you these are great...

...but I'm not in a reviewing mood - it's too hot

Golden Boy - A Hong Kong Childhood
Martin Booth
I honestly did not want this book to end

From The Ground Up - The story of a first garden
Amy Stewart
I think I'll re-read pieces of this one - and not necessarily wait until I have a garden of my very own

...and this one is not worth your time

documentation and bibliography are iffy
the better known episodes deserve books of their own, the others are just boring and how did the authors manage just 5 pages on the Krakatoa eruption when Simon Winchester wrote a whole book on it.

I liked the Naked Baroness (Elisa von Wagner) story, but she must be the least explored character on the whole cyberspace - she doesn't even have a Wikipedia article if you can believe it - and the Italian book on which the authors base their tale is from 1978 and apparently out of print...oh well it wasn't that interesting...

Monday, June 08, 2009

Yummy Wishlist

Reading memoirs and chronicles that center around food is something I love, but haven't really done lately. Last books I read on the subject were "Climbing the Mango Tree" by Madhur Jaffrey and Elizabeth David's "My Life in France". I much preferred the first - I like my books, if not my food, on the exotic side.

Then I read the second part of Ruth Reichl's autobiography: "Comfort me with apples" which honestly wasn't that good, especially compared with her first "Tender at the Bone", and sort of let the food thing slide for a while.

But no more! I found these three books which I feel certain will provide hours of food craving:

Staling Buddha's Dinner: A Memoir - Bich Minh Nguyen

Bento Box in the Heartland - My Japanese Girlhood in Whitebread America - Linda Furiya

Serve the People: A Stir-fried Journey through China - Jen Lin-Liu

Although, in the spirit of thrift I should probably get to these two - which I got on may last food book binge and still haven't read:

The Passionate Epicure - Marcel Rouff

Endless Feasts: sixty years of writing from Gourmet

My absolute favourites in this collection, you ask? Why, here they are:

Clémentine in the Kitchen - Samuel Chamberlain

Katish - Our Russian Cook - Wanda Frolov

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Kiwi's Egg - David Quammen

Kiwi's Egg - Charles Darwin & Natural Selection

I liked the image of Darwin pregnant with his evolution theory just as a female kiwi is enlarged with her egg (the only bird whose egg comprises 25% of her body weight). Yup, he was just about to burst. But it was a long pregnancy and in the end, labor had to be induced – by the young fella Alfred Russel Wallace.

Wallace basically scared Darwin’s big idea into the public domain. The older man had been sitting on it for a couple of decades and was seemingly in no hurry to present the British public and scientific community with rope to hang him.

But as the young upstart sent him a sketch of his ideas from far away Indonesia he realized he best get to it. We can see Darwin’s reluctance to publish his ideas as a sign of arrogance – obviously he didn’t think anyone else would get there too; or, more in tune with Quammen’s portrait, as a mark of someone so uncomfortable being under the spotlight that he truly dreaded the attention that was sure to follow the unveiling of his ideas.

In “Kiwi’s Egg” Quammen decided to start his mini-biography were others would willingly end it – as Darwin descends the Beagle never to travel again outside his native island. Surely this is where the exciting part of Darwin’s life ends?

Well, maybe. But after all, his voyage was a fluke and while it might have changed his professional plans (from man of the cloth to man of science) and given him plenty of intellectual fodder for years to come, it didn’t change who he was. He was a man who liked to think things through – really thoroughly – he made a list of pros and cons on marriage, after all, so he wasn’t about to rock the core of science and eject religion from the map without being sure of it, either.
I was amazed at how complex Darwin’s character was – he was capable of great generosity and great egotism; a shy man who avoided travelling from his country house to London, electing letter-writing as his favorite means of communication with the world at large, and yet, someone who moved very fast (and cunningly) to assure a younger man wouldn’t get full credit for a theory he considered his. Complex characters, after all, don’t make good icons. Fortunately Quammen doesn’t seem willing to participate in Darwin’s canonization just yet.

Some of the story – especially the part where Darwin’s path crossed Wallace’s - had already been told by Quammen in “Song of the Dodo” albeit through Wallace’s perspective. Not that it bothered me in the slightest – for one it’s a great story, second Quammen uses a different angle in “Kiwi’s Egg”, third I’m glad he didn’t try to bury Wallace – it’s obvious that if it wasn’t for him Darwin, wouldn’t have published his theory so soon (in fact, he had already left written indications for his wife to publish his notebooks after his death – indicating he was definitely in no hurry) – their stories are truly inseparable.

Another thing readers might not be aware of is that Darwin didn’t exactly become Mr Popularity right after “The Origin of Species” was published. It’s not like everyone (or even anyone) cried “Gosh, we’ve been so stupid, believing for generations that species were immutable and created just as they are and put just where they are by a kindly Divine hand – and by the way, don’t we look incredibly like chimps? Hooray for Mr Darwin!”. Nope, it was more like “What a crazy old coot. Sigh. Chuckle. Next please!”

We seem to resent being enlightened – most prefer being saved – heck, sometimes thinking is a right nuisance.

But after all is said and done, Quammen rocks.

All Things Reconsidered - Roger Tory Peterson

All Things Reconsidered - my birding adventures

I had some trouble getting into this book. I guess one reason is, while I love birds very much, I’m not (yet, maybe) a bird-watcher, so many bird names in the book, especially the first pieces didn’t really mean much to me.

I also didn’t know much about Roger Tory Peterson except for a couple of articles I read on New York Review of Books (one, a review of this book). I knew only that he was considered peerless in his artistic portrayals of birds and that his bird identification guide (published in 1934) revolutionized the field-practice. So with that in mind I think I bypassed the two large groups of people this book is aimed at.

These are a series of articles publishes in the magazine Bird Watcher's Digest from ‘84 to ’96 (the year of his death at 88) ranging a breath of subjects: many are reminiscences of the author’s first steps into bird-watching (among my favorites), exotic expeditions, smaller adventures near-home (some of these were also beautiful), eulogies of colleagues, reflections on conservation and wild-life art.

His style is very polite, very soothing even gentlemanly. Reading “All Things Reconsidered” I really got a sense of how important Peterson was in the bird-watching and conservation world in the U.S. He was one of the first to witness the damage DDT spraying was causing among birds, and to demand its eradication; he also was the driving force behind many sanctuaries both in the U.S. and outside, not to mention his activities within the Audubon Society, his work with young people and teachers, some of the first bird-watching expeditions aimed at tourist, and of course, his guides, who found a way into every bird-watchers pocket everywhere around the world.

A Venetian Bestiary - Jan Morris

This is a tiny, off-beat book by famous travel-writer Jan Morris. It’s the first book of hers I’ve read. I loved all 90 pages including the illustrated ones. It tells of the animals of Venice which might be real birds, cats and dogs, or statues of winged lions and horses.

She knows Venice so well she travels deftly between everyday life, history, art pieces and architectural markers. It’s a joy to be lead by someone so knowledgeable and clearly passionate about this magical city.

Now, I’ve never been to Venice, but I can tell you I will not set foot on that boggy water without first having read Morris’ renowned book of the same title. In fact, I’ll very likely read the book anyway and skip the journey. Great travel writing gives you permission to do that.

Bob Tarte - Fowl Weather

Fowl Weather - how thirty-nine animals and one sock monkey took over my life

The title does not lie. This one’s a bit of downer. In fact, unless you read the author’s first book “Enslaved by Ducks” and liked it, I’d say skip this one. If you have no prior reading relationship with Bob Tarte and his mad menagerie there is no reason you’d want to endure hearing about the worst years of his life.

Sometimes life sucks. After Tarte’s father unexpectedly passes away, his mother starts fast descending into senile dementia. And at the same time he’s trying to cope with that, many of favorite pets seem to start kicking the bucket too. I told you it was depressing. The only good thing is that new pets keep showing up – although some of them don’t fare too well either.

It’s not that I didn’t like the book exactly – I guess in a way I kinda did. I like reading about all the parrots, bunnies, cats, geese and ducks. Sometimes life sucks and there is no good reason not to write about it. But it did get me down.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Orchid Fever - Eric Hansen

Orchids seem to bring out the wackiness within. Who knew? Not me. I thought they were pretty plants who usually die despite my best efforts, or whose flowers smell like carrion like a specimen I was once presented with (thanks.).

Turns out there’s a whole orchid “sub-culture” out there – where nurseries are patrolled by armed security and people get into fist-fights over bulbs. (Two things that are usually found in close proximity to orchids I found, both through reading “Orchid Fever” and a spot of internet research are guns and reptiles. Go figure.)

Now, I had already read “Tulipmania” which is often mentioned in reviews of Hansen’s book, but let me tell you those sixteenth-century tulip lovers didn’t have anything on these guys and gals.

However, Hansen delivers a double-whammy with “Orchid Fever”: it’s not just about the orchids and human eccentricity, the things we hold as valuable and what we’ll do to get them; Hansen also constructs here a very powerful condemnation of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) policies which, in the best case scenario, are not doing much to protect endangered species, and in the worst case, are building a corrupt network of officials, lead by ignorant lawyers who as one character puts it “don’t know a blade of grass from an orchid” – with this ignorance extending to many other species, both animal and plant, one imagines.(And to think orchids are actually their logo. Crazy.)

It’s not the first criticism of CITES I’ve read, but certainly the most powerful because Hansen merely needs to tell his subject’s encounters with Convention officials for it to become apparent that this organization is a nest of rabid bureaucrats with little idea of what’s going on with the species they are ‘protecting’. Certainly CITES is only concerned with ‘trade’ which means that, if you witness deforestation in Borneo, for instance, and grab a couple of plants listed on Appendix I to save and/or try to take them across borders – you are getting fined, big time and maybe even arrested. Meanwhile does anyone care about the fate of the animals and plants, losing their habitats? Not CITES. They’ve got their officials making the rounds at every major airport/port. If that’s supposed to keep species from going extinct, God help us all.

“Orchid Fever” is a great book, filled with impossible characters (seriously, if you read about these people in a work of fiction, you’d be like ‘That’s soo far-fetched). It made my eyes pop in astonishment but it also got me angry. So c’mon people, who’s gonna write me a CITES exposé? I’ll be first in line to buy that sucker.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Amazonian Expeditions OR Why I could never be a biologist

Journey of the Pink Dolphins - Sy Montgomery
A Parrot without a Name - Don Stap

At one point in Sy Montgomery’s expedition in the Amazon it seems as if every other hut on the river is inhabited by a grad student. Scary. Some tag turtles, some count fish, some get bored out of their mind and others get sick (has a ring to it, doesn’t it?).

Montgomery’s journey to find the Amazonian pink dolphins was not ‘scientific’ but rather a voyage lead by the imagination and emotion. That’s what makes her book so appealing even though, the pink dolphin itself, is so often elusive. After all, as the author says in the book (in a passage, I can’t for the life of me find right now): “to follow” doesn’t only mean to pursue in a linear fashion; it also means “to be guided by”, “to grasp the meaning”, “to engage”, “to take as model”. Her pursuit of these primitive dolphins is more telepathic and poetic. When the author borrows radio antennae to track dolphins that have been tagged, she comes up with nothing. Almost as if the animals were trying to tell her “that’s not the way to get in touch with us”. Yet her dreams are filled with dolphins. When she finally gets a chance to swim with them – to engage them on their own terms, on their own realm, that’s when a real interspecies conversation takes place. This is a beautiful book for all who dream of following their own familiar – a journey mapped by little else than a humble intuition of an ancient bond.

“A Parrot without a Name” also speaks of something ancient: human obsession with naming, cataloguing and “understanding”. That which is unnamed is nonexistent. Surely some Greek philosopher said something along those lines. Just as the verb “to follow” has many meanings so too does “to understand”. In a biology dictionary, though, I’m afraid it mostly means “to take apart in order to catalogue and name” rather than the actual meaning of “to have sympathy or tolerance”.

For those of us ignorant of what goes on in an actual ornithological expedition (to Peru near the Brazilian border) these days, this will be something of a shocker. Yup, they kill birds. Loads of birds. Scientists will set up mist nets (the kind I grew up watching in nature documentaries as being the fare of evil bird smugglers) to catch birds, including many that may not be of interest in that particular case. If they are of interest, the scientist will perform a maneuver called “squeezing” where force is applied by the fingers to the bird’s thorax until he stops breathing. If the specimen is large a pentobarbital shot is given. They also shoot them right from the trees. Since the obvious purpose is to conserve plumage and shape (although sometimes also internal organs), ornithologists will have to kill numerous birds, since some are damaged by the bird shot.

Author Don Stap makes a proficient enunciation of all the reasons killing birds is important to science. Guess what? I didn’t think even one was reasonable. And the way he felt compelled to go through them, tells me he probably wasn’t either. Anyways, the holy grail of ornithologists today is to discover a new species (yup, that’ll really make you a superstar, apparently). But to get your discovery approved by the scientific establishment (who resemble Kang & Kodos, or so I’m told) you Must Bring Proof. Dead Proof. Many Dead.

Stap followed an expedition in 1985 that hit the mother load: on his last day on camp, someone shot a couple of small green birds, that didn’t exactly fit any of the described species of the area. They ended up shooting 18 birds. In 1991 the Amazonian Parrotlet (Nannopsittaca dachilleae) finally became a recognized species. It’s such a rare species that for awhile it was believed they had gone extinct. But what the hell – there are 18 specimens stacked up in a university somewhere.
We can all breathe a sigh of relief. Where would we be without Science after all?

My advice? Take a picture. Seeing as museum specimens are taken care of, it will definitely last longer.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Murder & Flowers

Gilding the Lily - Inside the Cut Flower Industry - Amy Stewart
Oscar Wilde and the Candelight Murders - Gyles Brandreth

I'm done with faux-epoch mysteries. After "Crocodile on the Sandbank" and "An Expert in Murder" and now "Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight murders" it's plain to see this genre is not my cup of tea. Gyles Brandreth's book also has some of the most outrageously exaggerated blurbs I've ever seen: (my favourite "If Oscar Wilde himself had been asked to write this book he could not have done it any better" - Now, I don't know if Alexander McCall Smith owes Brandreth money or if the guy has kidnapped his pet, but those are the only two scenarios where I could excuse this absolutely unbelievable comment - Or, maybe he means that if Wilde had been asked to write a mediocre, mistery-that-forgets-it's-a-mystery-because-it's-too-busy-meandering-so-it-can-name-drop-not-so-obscure-period-references-and-implying-Wilde-was-never-an-homosexual he couldn't quite have achieved this massively uninspired and pedestrian book? If so, hats off Mr McCall Smith, you're probably quite right).

Phew. Thank heavens Amy Stewart's book on the flower business is something altogether different. Well-paced, readable, informative and interesting.
It's always difficult to think of flowers as part of an 'Industry' (same with chocolate, I guess) but they are. A massive one, at that. And as with any business some people involved are passionate about the product, others about profit. As a global industry the flower business does its share of wrecking natural resources and exploiting third world workers. But it also offers a way out from a life of poverty and a real opportunity for 'green' credentials and certificates that want to make a difference.
While most information on "Gilding the Lily" wasn't completely new to me (I saw a French TV documentary on the flower business a couple of years ago) I still really enjoyed having the facts more thoroughly explained (not that Stewart ever goes too deep into the boring, fact&figure stuff). She travels to big flower farms in the States and in Ecuador and of course, to the Netherlands and meets many interesting characters that make their living out of roses, chrysanthemums and lilies, in farms, airports, auction houses and flower shops. Stewart has a really sympathetic and friendly narrative tone and I just kept thinking what a nice person she must be. If you're into flowers (who isn't?) or just looking for an interesting, well written, non-fiction book, I'd recommend this one.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Daniel Kalder - "Strange Telescopes"

“Lost Cosmonaut”, Kalder’s first book, was already hovering close to genius with its whole “anti-tourism” schtick (travelling to “nowhere”, or more precisely, those unknown bits in the middle of Russia), but “Strange Telescopes” just raised the anti-travel-writing gambit further: this time he visits universes that only exist in his interviewees heads’.

But first, some infidel bashing: back in 2006 travel writer Rory MacLean (am I the only one who’s thinking conflict of interests?) reviewed “Lost Cosmonaut” and wrote the following:

“(…)as a traveller he has a problem. He doesn't 'much like talking to people'.

(…)He refuses to see that beyond the sterile heritage centres, the superficial cultural resemblances and the wastelands of our age, the world still remains diverse and full of wonders. But then to appreciate that diversity and to experience these wonders the traveller must do one thing first. Talk to people.”

Well, I have a couple of things to say about that for myself and everyone else that dislikes “talking to people”: it is obviously an idiotic notion to think that if you chat up a couple of locals you’ll be anywhere near understanding the place in question – more than likely these are the same people who hang around public squares and monuments trying to find an unsuspecting tourist (or travel writer) to feed the same old stories to. Anyone anxious to talk to a foreigner is probably not that interesting anyway (but try explaining that to tourists).

Second, I read MacLean’s book on the hippie trail “Magic Bus” and have to say that not only it managed to completely bore me on a subject that has interested me since adolescence; it is also completely forgettable (proof? I can’t remember anything about it and I read it last year).

So, with that out of the way, it must be stated that Kalder got over his (perfectly reasonable, if you ask me) dislike of engaging others in conversation, in a spectacular manner. In “Strange Telescopes” he talks to people most of us would avoid making eye-contact with. He enters their homes, travels with them, obeys their commandments, steps wholeheartedly into their worlds.

They are Sergei, leader of the “Diggers” who live on the tunnels beneath Moscow, Edward, hell-bent (excuse the pun) on proving to the world the real danger of demonic possession, Vissarion, the Siberian Jesus and Nikolai Sutyagin builder of a fairy-tale/ horror movie construction, a sky-scraper made entirely of wood.

Is Russia an especially fertile breeding ground for alternate realities? It’s hard to say, though there is definitely something intrinsically Russian about these characters, as they each make clear by their stories.

The best thing about “Strange Telescopes” is its tone. Now don’t get me wrong, Kalder can do dark and even risqué humor with the best, but with his subjects he never falls into the easy trap of condescension. Sure, sometimes they are incredibly frustrating, annoying or just plain boring, but there’s never that disgusting faux “understanding”, that wink-wink “aren’t they just the biggest wackos ever?” best epitomized in this ABC story on Vissarion.

Looking at the world through someone else’s eyes is a difficult feat at best – and when it involves going down a sewer drain, attending an exorcism in rural Ukraine, travelling to Siberia in the dead of winter and risk being mauled by Caucasian Shepherd dogs, who wants to try, anyway? Why, someone who doesn’t like talking to people, of course.

A small parenthesis here:

Travel writing is something I used to think I liked. Then I started getting one pompous, tedious book after the other. Most of the time the (British/American/Canadian) writer will talk a lot - but only to English-speaking expats or the feeble-minded who wait around for Anglo-Saxonic writers in order to bait them with “interesting” stories. It just might be the most masturbatorial genre out there (and let’s not even get into the I-moved-to-(Spain/France/Greece/Portugal/Marocco, etc)-with-(a cello/a parrot/my grandmother) gig). I finally figured that what bothers me about it is the same thing that bothered me about my once upon a time major, anthropology: like it or not, they both suffer from a Tarzan complex “Me-study” “You-subject”. There is always the unspoken fact that we are allowed to observe them, because we can make sense of them. And XX century tourism, of course, followed the same path.

And…end small parenthesis.

So, if I wanted to get all structuralist on your ass I’d tell you that what this Kalder fellow has got going on here, with his anti-tourism, anti-everyday thingy is nothing short of an epistemological revolution. Unfortunately I graduated before I could fully understand these (and other concepts).

Coming from a cold and depressing place to Russia is probably a good antidote against trying to romanticize/criticize every step of the way. Still, let’s give credit where it is due: Kalder avoided with all his might the western need to “make-sense-of”, whether looking for stuff he never got to see, seeing stuff he couldn’t quite believe or listening to people who make incomprehensible choices. Most of the time he didn’t even feel the need to ask “why?” – it was enough just being around them. That’s right folks – he didn’t even talk that much.

The ultimate act of surrender – deliver yourself to the natives.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Yes, yes, yes!!

Have I been looking for a mystery series with loads of published books?
Have I pined for the comfort of a series with a strong sense of place?
Have I yearned another detective in my life? Let’s-start-as-polite-acquaintances-and-see-where-it-leads-us-type-thing?

Has this seemingly endless quest found a happy conclusion in Comissario Guido Brunetti’s first mystery “Death at La Fenice”? I shall respond with a contended YES!

First I must apologize for having been sure Donna Leon was dead (I swear I read it somewhere…) but I’m very happy she’s not. Just read she’s a Camilleri and Sciascia fan, therefore I am feeling quite legitimised in my appreciation.

Lately I haven’t felt like bothering about synopses, so…there’s a murder, a satisfying resolution and a lot of meandering through Venice’s canali. I feel pretty sure Venice is actually like an hysterical theme park most of the time, but Leon makes it sound gritty, sombre, ominous.
Me like it.

And take a look at the great answers the author gave in a 2003 interview:

Q: Why won’t you allow your books to be translated into Italian for publication in Italy?

Leon: I don’t want to be famous. I don’t like being famous and I don’t want to be famous where I live. I just don’t like it. It doesn’t do anyone any good to be famous. I have enough. I don’t care. See this is what people find so confusing. I don’t care. I don’t care if the books get published in America. I don’t care if they get published. I just don’t. I have enough. I’m not interested -- the idea of more has no importance to me. I don’t care.

Q: Have you been asked by the Italians to get them translated?

Leon: Yes, all of the Italian publishers would kill to have them. I don’t want to be famous. I am spotted on the street by German, Austrian, French, Danish, everything... at least 3 or 4 time a day, and it’s always very nice and always very respectful; but I don’t like it. And the people in my neighborhood know that I am the American who lives opposite Nando and above Angelo Costantini and it would just change the tenor of my life. The unfortunate thing is that it has somehow percolated into the Italian Press that I am afraid to have my books published because the Italians may be offended by what I say about Italy. But, I am not afraid, if people don’t like the books, read another book, don’t read it, don’t finish it, give it somebody, throw it away.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Stuck in the Middle

So, I don’t know if anyone’s noticed, but the “I’m reading” header has stayed the same for the past two or three months. The reason is that I’m stuck way before the middle into “The Perfect Red”. The reason, I think, is that Amy Butler Greenfield is no Michel Pastoreau and “Perfect Red” is no “Black: History of a Color. But I hate leaving books in the middle so I’ll try and get on with it.

Another book I'm stuck before the middle is "Bonjour Blanc - a journey through Haiti"by Ian Thomson. Once again, I'm not sure why I set it aside - probably something more interesting came through the mail. Not that it was rocking my world or anything.

Zen Hog

Sy Montgomery - "The Good Good Pig"

Pigs are adorable. They just are. They are as smart as dogs (some smarter) and the way we treat them is nothing short of immoral. However, certain traits such as appetite and girth will impede most of us from keeping one at home.

Fortunately Sy Montgomery had at her disposal a barn, a little bit of land and a heart sad enough after the ordeal of watching her father die of cancer, that she took the littlest runt of several litters home, uncertain of whether he would make it through the night.

Christopher Hogwood (named after the composer) would go on to live fifteen years. Children and adults of the small town would visit him, set aside slops for him, even keep photos of him at home. His mere presence seemed to have a soothing effect on people, and several people came by Montgomery’s barn to talk, sing to him or even have a good cry next to him.

Is “The Good Good Pig” really about a pig? Well, it’s certainly not just about pigs. It’s about those special – one would almost say “enlightened” animals -, that some are lucky enough to have appear in their lives and recognize for what they are. These creatures rebuild our ties with nature and each other (Christopher even helped the author to finally feel comfortable around children) – they just are and make everyone who comes across their path be ok with just being.

“People ask, “Will you get another pig?” This I don’t know. But one thing I know for sure: a great soul can appear among us at any time, in the form of any creature. I’m keeping my eyes open.”
Sy Montgomery

If we could all do the same, the world would be a kinder place.

Elizabeth Peters - "Crocodile on the Sandbank"

I really, really wanted to like this book. On paper it had everything to please me: late 19th century Cairo, an intrepid spinster, Egyptology and 17 other books on the series to go on to. But Elizabeth Peters failed me. Oh how she disappointed me with a “Pride and Prejudice gone Colonial” plot and a very weak and foreseeable mystery. Now I don’t know what to do because 1) when this book came out in 1975 the Austen-ish story probably didn’t sound as stale and repetitive as it does today (aren’t we about Austen-d-out by now?) 2) part of me still wants to like this series. So I guess time (and Amazon sellers) will tell if I muster the courage to go on to number 2. If I do, though, it’s just because I had such high expectations for Amelia Peaboby I can’t quite believe I was this wrong.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Brushing up on French and Italian

Andrea Camilleri
La vampa d'agosto (10 in the series)
Le alli della sfinge (11)

Montalbano - may I call you papà?

Of Comissario Montalbano, what can I say? This is comfort reading at its very best. It's murder mystery at its best and it stacks up my Italian vocab with loads of Sicilian expressions I hope I will someday have cause to use.
That chicks dig Montalbano is a given. The why is harder to ascertain - is it a boyfriend thing or a father figure thing? It might be that he's so darn smart and broody, and loyal (in a cheating kind of way). By the way, in my mind he looks NOTHING like Luca Zingaretti, the actor that portrays him in the RAI tv series.

Isabelle Eberhardt
Amours Nomades

Sometimes a female icon is just a boring broad in drag

Since she is such an icon (I didn't know of her before I got the book, though) I best tread lightly here. But this was sort of, a big disappointment.
Since Eberhardt, born in 1877 of an illegitimate relation between her Russian mother and Armenian tutor, lived a short and tragic life, converted to Islam and travelled extensively in Algeria and Tunisia, she seemed to me a sort of proto-Schwarzenbach.
Well, on page she's not. "Amours Nomades" is a series of short stories on love-gone-wrong among the natives of North Africa. Most times someone will die of consumption or take their own lives during a heat wave or a magical sunset. It gets repetitive pretty soon. And even though it sounds awful to say this, it was all a bit Harlequin-esque.
There is none of Schwarzenbach's restraint, her steely gaze sadness, her observation skills. Eberhardt's North Africa smacks of theme-park quaintness. There, I said it. I feel awful, but the book was terrible.

Mira Tweti - "Of Parrots and People"

Of Parrots and People - The Sometimes Funny, Always Fascinating, and Often Catastrophic Collision of Two Intelligent Species
Mira Tweti

This is a wonderful book for anyone who is interested in parrots – their future as wild animals and pets.

Mira Tweti is a journalist and her straight-to-the-point style is very readable. “Of Parrots and People” is filled with testimonials from all sorts of people: ornithologists, conservationists, pet owners, people who run bird rescues, even people who (used to) trap parrots for a living, as well fact and figure research on the issues of conservation and the pet business.
There is much here to make the reader cringe and all the more so if you happen to keep birds. Make no mistake about it, Tweti’s final position is radical. As she urges in her conclusion:
“don’t buy wild animals as pets, whether they are caught from the wild or bred in captivity.”


“It is pitiful that our society still condones keeping millions of parrots and other wild birds as pets – wild animals that should be free to fly and instead are languishing in cages, with more being bred every day. It’s an issue of supply and demand and it’s also an issue of right and wrong. Animals suffer in confinement, and we have a moral obligation to spare them from needless suffering.”

But even bird owners must take pause reading these sentences in the last page of the book. Because by page 300 you will have been told countless tales of neglect, abandonment, parrot mills (as in puppy mills and just as inhumane), smuggling, illegal trapping, mega-pet store’s cruel policies regarding birds, and also of a few selfless individuals who have basically stopped having any semblance of a normal life and turned their homes into bird rescues.

The American bird breeding lobby is portrayed as little more than a ruthless crime syndicate. These are people who apparently have no qualms at physically threatening those (and their birds) who speak out against the cruel line breeding operations destined at churning baby birds out like hot cakes, while breeding parents languish in dark, filthy cages for decades, only to be put down when their good years are gone. If you even hint at pet bird overpopulation – these guys will descend upon you like a pack of vultures. Truly scary.

Still more incomprehensible is the fact that, despite the staggering numbers of birds being bred for the pet trade, despite the numbers of bird rescues filled to maximum capacity, parrots are still being hunted down in their native lands and smuggled across borders.

Surprisingly (or not) it was Mira Tweti's love for her pet parrot ( a lorikeet) that got her curious about the lives of these intelligent birds in our midst and the politics and money trail behind them. What she found, travelling around the USA to bird rescues, finding birds in appalling conditions in Mexican pet stores and being sold out of car trunks, and visiting the dwindling numbers of macaws in their Brazilian habitat, made her stay up at night. I have had some nightmares while reading this book and I can't even imagine some of the things she witnessed.

Yet I believe anyone who cares about birds should read "Of Parrots and People". It's an up-to-date, behind the scenes, look at the current situation, that reads like a great piece of investigative journalism.

“Of Parrots and people” is also serious food for thought. It reminds every well-meaning bird keeper that this is a multi-million dollar business – and that the people cashing in will keep assuring everyone that their baby parrots are bred in “loving homes” and that “there are plenty more where these came from”. And while Tweti’s overall argument is slanted towards big birds with big life spans (that will more often than not survive their owners) such as macaws, african grey parrots and amazons, those of us keeping budgerigars or even canaries are not left off the hook. If birds evolved over millions of years to fly, flock and breed at their will, even a pair of tiny zebra finches in a big cage are, for all purposes, living an unnatural life.

That humans have always been fascinated by birds is a well established fact. That we snatch them from their families, clip their wings and stick them in cages because we love them and find them beautiful – even as they disappear in the wild – says more about human kind than about birds.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Flamingos and Rhinos

The Boilerplate Rhino: Nature in the eye of the beholder - David Quammen
Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in modern America – Jennifer Price

I loved “The Song of the Dodo”. It’s one of my all-time favorite books. But the short article form doesn’t really give David Quammen the space to spread his wings. An author that jumps as deftly as he does through time, space and scientific and natural history writing a magazine column is like a macaw shut in a budgie cage: he sticks out all over the place.

“The Boilerplate Rhino” is a collection of articles written for the magazine Outside. In a lot of articles you can hear Quammen rant against deadlines, lack of inspiration and lack of space. The extreme sports/ hiking crowd that read the magazine are not necessarily Nature lovers as the author is painfully aware. Just because you want to climb, raft or cycle doesn’t exactly mean you listen to it – or its stories.

Quammen takes pleasure in finding new viewpoints for the reader – my favorite is: we have “cans of a product called dolphin-safe tuna. But no tuna-safe dolphin.”. I liked his ramble in T-Rex country (“Local bird makes good”) and loved his take on the American lawn (“Rethinking the lawn”, a subject Price also explores). In fact essays where Quammen haunts his home state of Montana, where he allows the reader to catch a glimpse of his home, where my favorite. But I was also moved by the amazing and sad stories he tells in “Palpating the tumor” (where a daughter struggles to share her mother with cancer) and “Half-blinded poets and birds” on the death of Robert Penn Warren.

For fans of the author’s writing this is, of course, a must. But be warned: it doesn’t quite sate the hunger.

“Flight Maps” is a very original book that takes a look at how Americans relate to nature. Sometimes that relationship doesn’t involve actual Nature. It might take the form of a plastic pink flamingo, a British lawn transplanted to arid soils, a shopping spree at a shop that features “nature” in its name, or a tv show like “Northern Exposure”. The more contemporary essays: (“Looking for Nature at the Mall: a field guide to the Nature Company”, “Roadrunners Can’t Read: the greening of television in the 1990s” and, to some extent “A Brief Natural History of the Pink Flamingo) set the book firmly in the nineties (gosh, they seem so quaint), even though the book came out in the last year of that decade.

The first two essays however, grounded in the late XIX and early XX century are both historical and timeless. The first “Missed Connections: the Passenger Pigeon extinction” tells of a well known episode that is by this time, almost a myth narrative on the way Americans relate to nature. The pigeons were in the millions and were extinct in a few decades of organized hunting (the last specimen died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914 . A shame, yes. But whose shame? As Price demonstrates, the upper classes, authors of the “shame” speech, who put the blame for the pigeon’s extinction squarely on the “greedy” hands of hunters (poor hunters), quietly expunged themselves from any responsibility. Meanwhile, East Coast gentlemen had made the sport of trap shooting (for which thousands of birds were captured in the Midwest every year and sent by rail to the east) popular, while ladies enjoyed pyramids of pigeons on their lunches at Delmonico’s (all trace of the birds origin disguised under the name Ballotines de Pigeon).

The hilariously titled “When women were women and birds were hats” concerns a little known (completely unknown to me) episode in which hats with not only birds plumes but also whole mounted birds became so fashionable they threatened to drive several species to extinction. How ironic then that women, in the shape of late XIX century womens’ clubs were the ones responsible for annihilating this trend, through fierce campaigning, letter-writing and public speaking. Ah, but how many had bird hats stuffed away in some dark corner of their closet? That is the question.

Somewhere along the line nature became something separate (and therefore timeless, pure, untouchable, etc), probably because those who engaged on building the society’s narrative on nature were indeed separate (or felt separate) from it. Nature ceased to be something you ate, transformed, built and needed, into something you are political about, without having to consider how much of your daily life is intertwined with it. Nature as “out there” Price explains is a mind set. One that isn’t necessarily good for us or nature.

Does it matter that Thoreau went to his mama’s home almost every other day while living “alone” at Walden Pond? Quammen thinks it doesn’t; I beg to differ. Price would probably want to know what he was doing at mom’s place – staring at her bird hats?

Pets, Exhibits, Symbols

Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots – Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Paris - Louise E. Robbins
New Worlds, New Animals – From Menagerie to Zoological Park in Nineteenth Century - Edited by J. R. Hoage and William A. Deiss

“Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots” and “New Worlds, New Animals” are both published by Johns Hopkins University Press but are very different: the first, by author Louise Robbins is a highly enjoyable book disguised as a boring, thick, academic volume; the second “New Worlds, New Animals” is a thin book written by academics for a 1989 symposium on the history of zoos, and most of them couldn’t help but be academic in tone.

If you find French history, before, during and after the French Revolution fascinating and also enjoy reading up on the history of exotic animals in western societies, “Elephant Slaves” might seem like a gift from heaven. Then you might wonder if this isn’t actually a very dry academic thesis. It’s not. It honestly reads like a good novel only (to my mind) more interesting because it actually opens a door onto the past in order to glimpse a little researched topic.

When we picture French society of the XVIII century, with all its excesses and injustices we probably have to inkling of how pervasive animals, we still today, think of as exotic, were in that society, specifically Paris. Little girls were endlessly devoted to their parakeets, while their mothers might dote on a pet monkey and their fathers on large outside, aviaries filled with parrots and other exotics.

But even if we shrug our shoulders at the excesses of the aristocracy, it is surprising to discover that parrots and parakeets were so popular at the time, and so widely available, that café-owners and all sort of small business owners had and doted on their colorful birds. Even for those unable to afford an exotic pet at the many pet stores of the time, far-away animals were only as far away as the next fair. Here, big cats, lions, wolves, snakes, monkeys, rhinoceros (the rhinoceros that came to Paris at this time, was undoubtedly Clara of “Clara’s Grand Tour”) were paraded for the curious. And as Natural History became a popular past time, the aristocracy and the poor would probably rub shoulders at these outings.

Robbins finds several interesting points of view to analyze the exotics presence in French Society: from their origins which illustrate France’s colonial territories and alliances, to the way in which the king used them to bolster his prestige (and was much imitated by courtesans) and how they were publicly available, not only in fairs, but also in weekly fights. She then takes a look at the Oiseleurs Guild, whose members were the only ones authorized to catch native birds and sell exotics (not only birds, but also monkeys and some felines). Through letters and the fascinating “lost parrot” advertisements in the publication Affiches de Paris the author explores what parrots and monkeys meant to their owners. It may be unexpected to see how similar their feelings were to our modern ones for our pets: they lavished attention on them, suffered immensely when they went missing – there were even manuals published on how to care for bird different species!

Of course, we humans tend to place meaning on just about anything and animals are prime subjects. The way in which we portray (or distort) them to fit any ideology is politic philosophy at its most interesting. In the last chapters Louise Robbins takes a look at how exotic animals were portrayed in press and art and how they served the budding revolution’s imagery.
Ideology and imagery are, of course, complex, evolving beasts and if on the one hand, “slave” animals and the value of “free birds” might have bolstered the Libertè ideals, the royal menagerie ended up being attacked by revolutionaries because those exotics also stood for the depraved luxuries of the rich.

About “New Worls, New Animals” what can I say? Most articles manage to be either too long or too short, despite the fact that actual length is more or less the same. They are either interesting and in that case you could probably read a book on the subject: “Menageries and Zoos to 1900”, “Zoos in the family: Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire Clan and the three Zoos of Paris”, “The Order of Nature: constructing the collections of Victorian Zoos”, “The Value of Old Photographs of Zoological Collection” and the intriguing “Ram Brahma Sanyal and the establishment of the Calcutta Zoological Gardens”, while others are quite boring, to tell the truth. A lot of the article I didn’t enjoy spoke of more modern zoological gardens: in Germany, Australia and America, so maybe that was why. Part of my dislike was also the academic tone of some articles which manage to make even the most interesting subject dry as bone. Frankly, this nearly put me off Zoo history.

Silvio Bedini - The Pope's Elephant

“The Pope’s Elephant: an elephant's journey from deep in India to the heart of Rome” is a book I felt I had to read. After dwelling on the history of the giraffe brought to Napoleon’s court and the rhinoceros that toured Europe in the XVIII century, Silvio Bedini’s book felt almost mandatory. Not only is it about a previous historic episode featuring the travels of an elephant, it involves Portugal.

In 1513 the Portuguese king received an elephant from his appointed viceroy in India. Elephants were not exactly big news. Lisbon had seen the arrival of a few from Africa over the years of naval exploration of its coasts. From 1510 to 1514, some four Asian elephants also arrived to the capital. They were just the present for a man king Manuel wanted desperately to impress and who, though he had almost everything, happened not to have ever seen a live elephant – the newly enthroned pope Leo X.

The Portuguese King needed a papal approval for the sea exploration and colonization he was conducting – a church safe-conduct that declared to rival nations that Portugal had the church’s blessing in finding, occupying and converting new lands and people.

Pope Leo didn’t need much – a Medici by birth he was accustomed to the best of everything and as a pope found no dearth of sovereigns and princes trying to win his sympathy. He was however, a man beset by many physical problems, some painful, and his favorite analgesic seems to have been surrounding himself by everything beautiful and unexpected. The elephant Annone (as Bedini states Hanno, the popular name, is an anglicized version, which he nevertheless uses throughout the book) pleased him immensely. So much, that he had new quarters built for the animal right next to the papal palace so he could visit Annone every day.

Despite this being a subject that interests me, I almost didn’t finish “The Pope’s Elephant” (though I’m glad I kept going). Portuguese names and name-places misspellings are a dime a dozen and after a while it felt lazy. Whether this is more the author’s or editor’s fault I don’t know but in a work of historical research it just looks bad. The first chapters also had a lot of detail on Vatican protocol and practices which, personally, I found unnecessary. Then there are many sources: poems, description of paintings and so on which I felt took attention from the story at hand.

Unlike Glynys Ridley, Bedini doesn’t turn the animal into a protagonist. I guess if the book has one it is pope Leo and even, then not so much. The sort of historical research that reads like a novel has to be written by someone with at least a bit of a novelist’s craft(iness?) Since Bedini is an historian specialized in renaissance scientific instruments, he is definitely not one to anthropomorphize or romanticize. Oh well.

It’s only in the fifth chapter (almost precisely in the middle of the book) that Bedini finally settles into a nice rhythm. Curious, that he should get into a groove in a chapter that firmly digresses from the main story (a few years later, king Manuel decided to send a rhinoceros to the pope, since the elephant had been such a success – however, close to the Italian shore, the boat sank, and although the body is supposed to have washed ashore and then been mounted, to this day the piece has not been found, though there are several bibliographical references to it being displayed). In later chapters Bedini will come back to the rhinoceros enigma several times – making a pair of the elephant and rhinoceros’ different fates in a very interesting way that made me wish that had been his starting point.

I guess there must be an almost incontrollable urge – when you’ve done a lot of research and some of it doesn’t lead you anywhere and some isn’t indispensable to tell your story – to cram it all in the final draft. But a lot of facts do not a good yarn make. It’s a shame really, because there are some great chapters and passages in “The Pope’s Elephant” but I think only the most interested in the period’s history will make it to the end.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Clara, Zamba & Sharon

"Clara's Grand Tour - travels with a rhinoceros in eighteenth century Europe" - Glynys Ridley
"Zamba - the true story of the greatest lion that ever lived" - Ralph Helfer
"The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw - one woman's fight to save the world's most beautiful bird" - Bruce Barcott

“Clara’s Grand Tour” suffers from the plight of the history writer: lack of personal documentation.

It’s all very well to know the baby rhino was bought by a Dutch sail man and brought home to the Dutch Republic and to have some documentation proving her appearance in public in the European Continent, some references in letters or books about her passage and many famous paintings. But at the end of the day Glynys Ridley had to base Clara’s story on very little hard evidence and the reader will surely feel it.

For starters there are many “he must have thought/remembered/planned” sort of constructions that merely highlight the fact that we don’t know what happened. We don’t know for sure Clara was transported by water in some portions of her journey (though Ridley makes a good argument), we don’t know for sure all the places she might have travelled to, or how many made up her entourage, and what kind of difficulties beset her path. If Michael Allin, author of “Zarafa” was able to draw on the extensive correspondence between Ètienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and the Mayor of Marseilles as the giraffe made her way to Paris, Douwemout Van der Meer, the Dutch who bought the rhino was obviously not the journal keeping or letter writing sort and it’s a darn pity. I mean, really, if you’re going to bring home an animal no-one’s ever seen and parade it across the land, isn’t the least you could do to drop a few lines about the whole thing? Maybe it’s the lack of documentation but Van der Meer struck me as a cold fish. I figure if he truly loved Clara he would have written a book about her.

Like Ralph Helfer did, about his beloved lion Zamba. “The true story of the greatest lion that ever lived” might be pegged as a light read (a weekend or long afternoon will definitely kill the beast) if it wasn’t for the fact that you keep getting a headache from all the moments when you hold back the tears.

Helfer was one of those little boys who dreamt of having a lion (they are not the stuff of fiction; I live with one; a grown up one) but he actually made good on his dream. And after his absolute nightmare of a childhood he deserved it. An entrepreneurial young man if there ever was one, he started his animal rental business/ pet store barely out of high-school, and pretty soon got his own ranch where he amassed hundreds of animals used on Hollywood productions.

One day he got a call and a few weeks later a crate: inside was a lion cub that would become the most accomplished show-piece of his ground-breaking “affection training”. Zamba would be able to play with children and lay among lambs but his most incredible trait was the deep friendship (for there is no other name for it) he formed with Helfer in the 18 years he lived. In those years I think they must have been apart few times.

More and more I am awe of people who can have such a bond with wild animals. Our domesticated animals are awesome of course, but, like ourselves they have strayed a little from the deep voice of Nature. A wild animal magnifies that sound within us with every breath.

Of course, if we keep going this way we might just eradicate most wild animals in a few centuries (certainly we seem to be on the way to killing off every large predator around). “The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw” documents what happens when a woman stands up between profit and nature. It isn’t pretty.

Bruce Barcott’s book is a gem and I hope he gets some sort of award (or several). In his real life “Pelican Brief” he tells the story of a corrupt government (in Belize) a greedy Canadian company (Fortis) and the outsider: Sharon Matola an American who arrived in the country in the eighties, and despite having built single handedly its first zoo is still about a hundred years short of being considered anything other than an outsider. Especially when she starts meddling with a proposed dam, to be built on the last nesting site of the endangered scarlet macaw.

Look, I’m not even giving you a summary. Everyone should read this to understand what greedy corporations and governments are doing everywhere: destroying the environment for a quick buck. Oh, and be particularly suspicious when they start shouting “public interest!” because in most cases, such as this one, the general public reaps absolutely no reward. Only a tax hike and more poverty.

Barcott doen’st just stick to the story at hand but digresses into nearby themes which is the way I like it. I know I got a much needed lesson on the workings, history and pros and cons of dams. We should all be more educated about this stuff. So go ahead and read it. I’d be absolutely shocked if you didn’t love it. But be prepared: you will get very, very angry.

Famous Pets & Famous Owners

"Casanova's Parrot - and other tales of the famous and their pets" - Mark Bryant
"Reigning Cats and Dogs - a history of pets at Court since the Renaissance" - Katharine MacDonogh

Okay, let me just start by saying I’m glad I got “Casanova’s Parrot” real cheap because this book is not worth much unless you’re a complete psycho about animal reference books. It’s sort of an encyclopedia (with VERY small entries) about famous people and their pets. It doesn’t have an index, which is absolutely incredible and is not alphabetical. Someone decided it would be better to organize entries by profession (the owner’s not the pets), so you have weird categories like “Belles-Letres”. Oh well. Some pet information is scant to say the least. Some people are listed as having had “a parrot” or “a monkey”. Well, was it a budgie or a cockatoo? A spider monkey or a marmoset?

Other times the information left me with some doubts. And at least in one case (Cardinal Richelieu) “Reigning Cats and Dogs” contradicted the facts on “Casanova’s Parrot”. It seems that the legend that the Cardinal had tens or hundreds of kittens around and that hey were his most beloved pets is likely to be a concocted history, put together by his political adversaries, in a time when cavorting with felines still had the whiff of the demoniacal about it. Still, I did enjoy learning George Orwell had a pet goat named Mabel.

Katharine MacDonogh’s “Reigning Cats and Dogs” is another affair altogether. Extensive in chronology and geography, brimming with notes and bibliography, it got me dizzy with information. That’s a good thing, by the way. Sure, it’s hard to keep all the Henri’s Charles' and Francis’s straight when you’re reading about so many royal houses, but well worth the effort. MacDonogh makes an excellent case in proving how keeping animals mainly for company and emotional solace first arose in the crowned houses of Europe and Asia. From childhood, future monarchs and emperors lived such artificially conscribed lives, with aloof parents engaging in political intrigue (and often more devoted to their own pets than their children) and kept away from children their own age (in an attempt to protect them from disease, child mortality being what it was) that their first hug was probably bestowed on a tiny lap dog.

Lavishly illustrated with both black and white and three (!) sets of color art reproductions “Reigning Cats and Dogs” is a joy for both the brain and eyes. The chapter on “Cruelty and Kindness” can get a little nauseating, but hey that’s history (and regarding certain awful tortures such as bull, dog and cock fighting it’s not yet history, unfortunately). It’s seems as if the powerful have always been at the forefront of extremes whether creating the most pampered pets or killing for sport. For anyone with a love of pets and history I’ve not come across a more satisfying book.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Annemarie Schwarzenbach - "Orient Exils" "La Mort en Perse"

For some reason Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s books are not available in English. Or maybe it’s not that strange. According to Dominique Miermont’s preface to “La Mort en Perse” it was only ten years ago that her work was rediscovered.

Born in Switzerland, 1908 Annemarie’s life has the makings of a Hollywood production: an overbearing mother, a closet lesbian who stifled her daughter’s homosexual feelings and kept her strictly segregated from children her own age; famous friends (Thomas Mann’s globetrotting artsy kids Klaus and Erika); the economic means to travel the world; a profound uneasiness and depression that spurred her on to some the most remote places available to a young woman in late twenties and early thirties, while keeping her mind chained to her (mother) country; a one- time photographer, reporter and archaeologist; beauty, style and talent.

Beneath the eccentric characters, vivid descriptions of both scenery and roaring twenties expat community in the middle-east, Schwarzenbach’s books “La Mort en Perse” and “Orient Exils”, lies an uncomfortable plunge into the heart of deep depression. Often, Annemarie mentions the power of the vast eastern landscape, that dwarfs the individual and with it, the importance of human life. But she also makes more subtle remarks (sometimes using her characters) on the guilt she felt at escaping political events in Germany. While the Mann siblings kept active fighting fascism, she (and other young Germans, Austrians, Italians) fled as far as they could. To Africa, the Orient, America. And even though they could not, then, imagine the breath of Nazi crimes, still the guilt travelled with them, to Nairobi, Teheran or New York. Undoubtedly Annemarie felt like a coward. The fact that she was also struggling and coming to uneasy terms with her lesbianism (when she was 27 Schwarzenbach married an homosexual French friend, and kept having affairs with women)couldn’t have helped her bleak outlook on life. Pretty soon she started experimenting with morphine to which she would be addicted until her untimely death at 34, following a bicycle fall.

The descriptions of her despair are moving and frightening:

"You raise your hand slowly and clench the fist. It’s impossible to clench your fist. Everything is bland and insipid, and the lack of will, that trying disease, worse than malaria, is already nestling on your spine, your knees, on the back of your head. Your hands are perspired, speech requires too much of an effort. You must get up and walk! The heartbeat quickens, and you hug the river, hurrying so you won’t fall prey to the temptation of throwing yourself on the ground and weeping out sheer weakness and despair. No, you won’t cry. It’s a lot more serious than that. You are alone."

“On lève lentement la main et on serre le poing. Impossible de serrer le poing. Tout est fade et insipid, et le manqué d’envie, maladie affreusement éprouvante, pire que la malaria, niche déjà dans votre dos, dans vos genoux, dans votre nuque. Les mains deviennent moites, parler demande trop d’efforts. Il faut se lever et marcher! Les batements du Coeur s’accélèrent, et on longe le fleuve, en hâtant le pas pour ne pas succomber à la tentation de se jeter par terre et de pleurer à force de lassitude et de désespoir. Non, on ne pleurera pas. C’est beaucoup plus grave que cela. On est seul.”

Schwarzenbach is a tragic figure and few can resist her allure. It was already so in her lifetime – many felt compelled to write about her (Carson McCullers whom she met on her southern states jaunt dedicated “Reflections in a Golden Eye” to her) or to save her (writer and adventurer Ella Maillart would take her along in her car expedition to Afghanistan in hopes of clearing her drug addiction). She represents that unusual mixture of extreme frailty and strength that bred the myths of “life-fast die young” American movie stars of the fifties – that she left her own thoughts behind makes her that more precious and mesmerizing.

That the German and French speaking world might be trying to keep her all to themselves, must be excused. Myths are fragile and prone to over-exposure. But just you wait until the BBC gets hold of her.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Amelia Thomas - The Zoo on the road to Nablus

“Zoo animals have frequently found themselves at the center of human conflicts. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the inhabitants of Paris’s Jardin Zoologique were ordered slaughtered and handed over to butcher’s shops. World War II saw Rosa the hippopotamus bombed to death in her pool at Berlin, along with seven Indian elephants. Berlin’s aquarium was hit dead-center. Gasping fish mingled with shards of glass and cascaded in torrents down grand, empty staircases. In Wroclaw, German soldiers shot the lions, bears and elephants. The rest, including a rare Amazon manatee and three chimpanzees trained to take tea, died of cold and starvation. In 1812, the czar’s magnificent animal collection was slain when Napoleon’s troops surrounded Moscow. In modern Sarajevo, the last animal at the zoo, a brown bear, finally starved after surviving for seven months on the bodies of its companions.

Iraq, once home to the world’s first zoological garden at Ur, watched an international public, inured to bombs ripping through mosques and markets, lament a rare Bengal tiger shot dead by a drunken American soldier.”

From The Zoo on the road to Nablus A story of survival from the West Bank

Diplomatic gifts, political paws, prisoners of war, collateral damage. If many deem zoological gardens unnatural creations, they should look at what happens to animals in the midst of human war. That’s unnatural.

“The Zoo on the road to Nablus” is a heart wrenching book that tells the story of a very shabby zoo, on the Palestinian town of Qalqilya, and of its vet/ man with a vision, Dr Sami Khader, intent on turning the garden into something up to date with international standards instead of a dusty collection of cement floored, iron barred and bare cages featuring a few baboons, three lions, a giraffe, a couple of wolves, a crocodile, some ruminants and birds.

The underlying question is “why bother”? When gun-fire scares animals to death (in one case literally), funds are non-existents and requests for help lie buried under paperwork because the town mayor has been incarcerated for months (even though no charges have been formally made). Why care about a lot of scrawny animals that will go hungry next time a curfew is declared for weeks on end?

Maybe because Fufu the ibex, an orphan raised by Dr Khader always seems happy to see him each morning or because Ruti the giraffe likes to search in all his pockets for the small piece of candy he brings each day. Maybe because the good doctor really sees the Qalqilya Zoo transformed into a respected institution in a decade. But then what? What of the rockets, tanks and tear gas?

Amelia Thomas’s book is a melancholic little gem. She recounts the events taking place at the zoo month by month from November 2005 to March 2007. Steering well clear of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict per se, she intersperses her tale with interesting stories on zoo history and animal science and centers her lens on Dr Sami and the construction (or attempted construction) of a new carnivore wing and a natural history museum on the premises.

The only thing I wasn’t 100% sure about was the author’s choice of tone: she recounts many meetings and events with a wealth of descriptive detail that made me quite sure she had witnessed them, yet she never made herself visible or a participant in conversations where surely she would have an opinion and be urged to participate. Only in the postscript did it become clear that Thomas wasn’t present in any of these situations. With that in mind I don’t know if she made the best choice of authorial voice.

“The Zoo on the road to Nablus” is a bittersweet book that I think many people would enjoy. It has almost a zen feel to it: there is so much suffering, but what comes across is a proud voice that says “we too have a right” out of the mouth of an indomitable individual. It definitely puts our daily lives in perspective. Just one complaint – no photographs.

Here is a link here you can see photos from the visiting photographer Astrid mentioned in the book.
And a news article where you can see a picture of the orphan baboon Rambo and his kitty.

Pancake * Hamburger

Hamburger - Andrew F. Smith
Pancake - Ken Albala

Listen very carefully, even though I’ll probably say it again when I review the upcoming “Hot Dog” and “Pie”: you cannot call yourself a foodie if you are not reading the Edible Series.

Look, I’m not saying I’ll get them all – obsessive collecting is not my thing and I can’t imagine myself reading a book titled “Caviar” (probably all the more reason to read it), but you definitely have to get your favorites, because you will have a lot of fun reading them.

These little books are insightful, full of research both scholarly and anecdotal and absolutely brimming with color photos and illustrations. More and more I love a publisher who isn’t stingy with the visuals, and these puppies take the prize. They are also perfect for a weekend read: you read a little Saturday after a late breakfast, a little in the afternoon to help digest lunch and pave way for dinner, and if you really pace yourself you might have a few pages left for a lazy Sunday afternoon.

I love reading about a food but for some reason don’t really like reading recipes (must be that imperative tone), and that’s the only reason “Pancake” is the volume I liked less – a little to many ancient recipes – but I get the author’s point. “Hamburger” I loved, with all that McDonalds drama how could I not? Anyway, for those who do love recipes rest assured each volume has a little appendix.

Reaktion Books’ site doesn’t have the whole collection, so here it is as it appears in the books:
Fish and Chips
Hot Dog