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

Janet Gleeson - The Arcanum

Old-fashioned and dowdy are probably the words most associated with porcelain these days. But once it was nothing less than white gold, an art form so precious and admired, so exotic to Europeans that when the first pieces started making their appearance in Europe, Chinese porcelain collecting soon became the hobby of kings everywhere.

For a king to be able to produce his own porcelain, to crack the Arcanum used by Chinese artisans, was a dream on a par with possessing the alchemic formula to transform base models into gold, so close in value were the two materials in XVII century Europe.

“The Arcanum: the extraordinary true story of the invention of European porcelain” narrates the tale of the man who was first able to produce porcelain, Johann Frederick Bottger, as well those of a couple other historical characters that would help shape the famous Meissen manufacture, after Bottger passed away.

Still in his early twenties Bottger was already on the run, because of some unfulfilled promises: more specifically he had claimed he could change copper and silver into gold. Even though he had managed a good sleight of hand before, when observed carefully he was unable to repeat the trick and had to flee in order to escape the wrath of Augustus II, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland.

But Bottger wasn’t (just) a con artist: trained in the ways of alchemy he straddled the line between magic and science, a line that was barely visible in the XVIII century, anyway. When the king finally captured him and decided to spare his life, Bottger swore he would give him the secret of porcelain – and kept his promise.

After experimenting with different combinations of regional clays and other substances, after perfecting the then existing kilns, Bottger made Augustus a very wealthy and envied man, indeed. The factory was set up in the town of Meissen and its secrets set under lock and key with good reason. There were always a couple of spies around trying to snatch the Arcanum for other monarchs.

Bottger’s chronic depression, (he was after all, a royal prisoner until his last years and kept up his impossible search for the alchemic secret of gold – the price of his freedom) made him turn to alcohol and over the years commit more than a few indiscretions to fellow factory workers who were quick to run away with the secrets and establish manufactures in nearby kingdoms.

Incredibly, only decades after his death would Meissen become a viable economic venture – Augustus may have enjoyed the perks of his own personal porcelain vending-machine but he would seldom pay for what he purchased - or salaries for that matter.
I knew of the name Meissen only through its figurines featured in a short chapter in Bruce Chatwin’s Utz – I read it somewhere in the foggy night of adolescence and for some reason, even though I don’t recall the actual narrative, historical figurine collecting became a fascinating hobby to my mind.

In “The Arcanum” I learnt that figurines were actually one of the last stages of innovation in Meissen: dinnerware was the bread and butter of porcelain for many decades. Figurines were actually the brainchild of Johann Joachim Kaendler, who looked at the sugar and marzipan statuettes that adorned the banquet tables of the filthy wealthy (like spoiled two-year-olds they had to be continually entertained, even between courses) and thought of turning them into a perennial object. Soon, Meissen was cranking out shepherdesses, arlequins and pierrots like there was no tomorrow. And exorbitant though the prices might be (a Meissen factory worker, for instance, could never dream of buying a porcelain piece in his lifetime) there seemed to be no shortage of collectors.

Janet Gleeson’s book is an easy read although, I must be honest and say it gets a little tedious at times. In think it’s the single subject thing: I felt the same with "Tulipomania" – these are interesting subjects but if you adhere too close to the script it starts lagging. I prefer it when single subject books take the transversal view and pull every curious or interesting story into it, even if it’s not strictly related to the narrative at hand. You might end up with a mammoth of a book like "The Song of the Dodo”, “The Medici Giraffe” or “Krakatoa”, but those are the kind of books that really make a difference in your reading life.

So I guess the conclusion is that you can take or leave “The Arcanum” (unless you are a huge porcelain fan – a slight interest doesn’t qualify) and it won’t make much of a difference, although I will say this: a decorative arts book without a single illustration is a publishing offence and should be prosecuted somehow.