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.