Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Stephen Budiansky "The Character of Cats"

I started this book not expecting to learn anything new. After all, as far as the natural history of cats is concerned I’ve read my fair share: “The Tribe of Tiger” by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, “The Cat Who Came in From the Cold” by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson as well as various other non-fictions, memoirs etc. But I couldn’t very well resist the cover or the fact that it was cheap, even if I wasn’t expecting anything earth shattering.

However, Stephen Budiansky’s take on cats proved above and beyond anything I have previously read on felines: it provided a lot of new information as well as putting to rest some often repeated cultural myths about cats. I’d have to say this is the ultimate cat book.

For instance, Budiansky puts aside any notion of looking at cats as little “big cats” which is often the way they are portrayed: “The big cats branched off from the evolutionary line that led to the domestic cat some 9 million years ago; by way of comparison, that was several million years before the chimpanzee and human lineages diverged.” For instance some big cats, such as lions, are social animals while the ancestors of our domestic cats are solitary animals, to name just important difference.

As far as domestication, the author also provides some fascinating insights. Can we even call the cat domesticated? An “exploited captive” is the expression Budiansky considers more correct to describe them (as well as camels, asian elephants and a few other species). Domestication, he argues, is a process that may well have been initiated by the animals themselves, sensing some clear benefits in associating with humans, rather than the planned, organized endeavor we often imagine; the cat however, might fit this latter idealization:

“In a very nice paradox, it is those species such as the cat, which have changed the least, that are actually most likely to have been deliberately captured and bred by man from the start.”
Certainly the cat’s physiology seems immune to the kind of noticeable changes that separate most domestic animals from their wild counterparts."

As far as cultural history goes Budiansky does a great job of reminding the reader that our relationships with animals are complex things: he deftly deconstructs Ancient Egypt as the supreme cat heaven, as well as the Middle Ages as the ultimate cat hell.

There are chapters on cat colonization based on color (a subject Sue Hubbell refers in her “Shrinking the Cat”, as well as some extensive information on cat body language and intelligence. This section was a bit uncomfortable as it relates a load of tests performed in laboratories (no discernible cruelty, mind you, but you get to wonder how do they measure electric stimuli on the brain and that sort of thing). Bottom line is: cats are intelligent, but mostly in ways that our singularly human view of the world is not well equipped to identify.

The author then tackles behavior issues that are probably closer to home for most cat owners such as spraying and aggression.

I particular liked the last section on indoor vs outdoor cats: once again I felt Budiansky provided a novel point of view:

“And even if outdoor cats do not cause extinctions or other irreversible impacts on biodiversity, they certainly cause much pain and suffering to the billions of individual animals they kill. That fact alone poses something of an ethical challenge to the humane justification for maintaining and feeding large colonies of feral cats.”

Now, I know of a few people who would probably be angry at this statement (and for the record I contribute to organizations with Trap-Neuter-Release programs), but I don’t think it can be denied that it is certainly a valid point…And there is this nugget to chew on:

“Yet ultimately, the goals of both the keep-all-cats-indoors zealots and the feed-and-protect-feral-cats zealots are probably unattainable. Many feral cats probably elude trapping, and indeed the net effect of trap-alter-release programs in the long run may be simply to create a powerful selective force in favor of an even wilier and nastier population of feral cats, since those are the ones who will be left to reproduce.”


Now excuse me while I go shop for his books on dogs and horses.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Hannah Holmes "Suburban Safari"

“A fungus scholar once told me that rain causes fungus spore-pouches to burst and release kazillions of spores into the air, and that the smell of baby fungi is mistaken for the smell of clean air.”

This was my favorite fact of Hannah Holmes “Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn” although it is filled with interesting stuff. How interesting is a suburban backyard? Well, not only is it chock-full of living stuff if anyone would care to notice, it also provides a series of initial points of reflection on the environment, which Holmes, a science writer and journalist, eagerly gets a hold of.

There are crows who enthusiastically line up for snacks, a cheeky chipmunk, mice, insects, squirrels and a woodchuck, which is a pretty cute animal. They all take advantage of what trees and shrubs there are around, and it turns out that, as along as you don’t drown it in pesticides, all these critters will not hate you for keeping a lawn.

In fact, that lawns are not necessarily evil, might be the most chocking revelation of “Suburban Safari”. Apparently, they are not nearly as damaging to soil health as agriculture…who would know?

However, I have to come clean. I detest lawns. Knowing that they that don’t have to be sterile, artificial, green moonscapes and that with a few adjustments they can actually provide a healthy ecosystem doesn’t change the fact they are boring, water-guzzling useless things.

However, even hard-core environmentalists Holmes comes across, have one. Why? The kids love to play ball. See? It’s useless, barely alive carpet for sports that might be natural in its motherland of Great-Britain, but can only be mimicked in most parts of the world through sheer, white-knuckle determination. And a lot of pesticides.

One of my favorite David Quammen essays is “Rethinking the Lawn: Turf Warfare in the American Suburbs” where the author decides to axe the lawn and stick to native species. But, sticking to native species, as Holmes finds out, is getting increasingly difficult in the New World. Colonization has an environmental counterpart which, although slower, is nonetheless ruthless. Bees, earthworms, birds, not to mention thousands of plants were all imported to the new colonies and it turns out they have been making a killing. English sparrows and starlings occupy the niche of native birds, as do European honeybees, and many other species. Keeping a garden planted solely with native plants and trees requires something of a guerilla mentality, as the author finds out.

There is a lot of information, most of it very interesting (although frankly, I could have done without the chapter that reconstructs the author’s geographical area through geological epochs), and a lot of pertinent, “guest stars”, mostly investigative scientists that kindly come by the author’s yard to elucidate us all on soil, insect and bird and mammal population.

My favorite bits were, as usual, the ones were she is on her on enjoying the company of cheeky, the chipmunk, luring the crows with food scraps or investigating spider webs and mouse footprints. I was only sorry that this book is about such a different area. I would love to read something like this about the plants and animals of Portuguese backyards.

Robert Rodi "Dogged Pursuit"

One of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Robert Rodi’s “Dogged Pursuit: My Year of Competing Dusty, the World’s Least Likely Agility Dog” is a must for any dog lover, or anyone looking for a hilarious read.

It gives a fascinating insider’s view of the sport of canine agility, but the real gem is Rodi’s self-deprecating, urbanite tone. Somewhere between feeling a little superior and more sophisticated than the average dog-handler and suffering from a social inadequacy that leaves him both craving his peers friendship while being generally incapable of blending in with the guys, Rodi is the perfect guide for the close-knit, somewhat intense world of competitive agility.

“Dogged Pursuit” is also about taking a great big bite of humble pie. You see, the author had already been around the agility block with a Shetland Sheepdog who took little training to fly through the hoops (and other obstacles). But Dusty, a Sheltie rescue, comes with a lot of baggage and a host of anxieties – turning him into a champion, it turns out, is not the breezy walk Rodi was anticipating. There is a lot frustration, a lot of doubt (does Dusty even enjoy agility? – segway into a touching consultation with an animal psychic), which leads the author into discovering the joys of competition that extend beyond taking a ribbon home.

A lot of great characters, a touching story of bonding with a difficult pet, a rhythm that makes for compelling reading and some seriously laugh-out-loud episodes. I can’t imagine anyone not getting a kick out of this book.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Rebecca M. Hale "How To Wash a Cat"

Fortunately “How to Wash a Cat” is not that complicated. However, this first title in a new “antique-store” themed series of so-called “cozy” mysteries relies on a bit of time-travelling.

Turns out that other than the Golden Gate Bridge and trolleys, San Francisco shares something else with Lisbon: earth has surely and steadily conquered the waters. So a part of the contemporary city used to be under water in gold-rush time San Fran.

The unnamed protagonist is a bespectacled accountant (and proud owner of two cats, who, by the description and cover illustration must be two beautiful, long-haired Turkish Vans) who finds herself the surprised heir of an antique shop and building (“Why do so many cozy mysteries start with a dead uncle or aunt?” – my sister’s clever reply: “You need the inheritance to kick start things. And the career change.” – seems cozy mysteries are as much wish fulfill, statement to modern day girls as Harlequin novels were to a different generation).

There are, of course, some doubts as to whether uncle Oscar met his untimely death by accident. Actually, there seems to be some question if he is truly dead. Also, he has left some cryptic clues behind, which lead the niece across some strange discoveries.

There are tunnels and old maps, which left me a bit lost. There were also some historical figures which I kept mixing up. But on the whole I liked it. Now, I wasn’t crazy about it: there was definitely some character development needed and there seemed to be a lot of ideas that were never fleshed out, as well as rhythm issues, but I think I’ll reserve harsher judgment until the end of volume two. Besides, it’s only the beginning of mystery book season (summer, baby) and I’m feeling benign.

And, as far as the ultra-stifling world of cozy mysteries is concerned, with series popping up every which way starring anything from dog psychics to home renovators, getting the reader interested in number two in the series is a pretty big deal.

Nina Malkin "An Unlikely Cat Lady"

As Megan McMorris noted on the introduction to “Cat Women”, girls tend to be apologetic about cat ownership these days. Decades of “cat lady” syndrome has given kitties a bad name, and if you happen to have more than two, well…be afraid, be very afraid…

But just as knitting is now cool (it is, right?) so can cats make a fearless comeback. If they become the symbol of independent ladies everywhere instead of the icon of sad spinsterhood, it will probably have something to do with books such as an “Unlikely Cat Lady”. Malkin, drops contemporary cultural references like she just doesn’t care, is way funny, a hard-core urbanite and she watches out for hardcore cats: feral cats.

Already the proud owner of two indoor, spoiled kitties, Malkin started noticing the strays around her neighbourhood. From noticing to caring, to doing something about it, it wasn’t but a few small steps. Next thing you know, TNR (trap, neuter, release) became a mantra to this Brooklyn native after a litter of stray kittens entered her backyard and her heart.

Caring for ferals is, of course, heartbreaking stuff. Cats suck at being grateful - and they are not smart about safety either. They vanish, get sick, get themselves into dangerous places, obviously not doubting for a single moment that you will risk life and limbs to save them (did I mention all the money you spend neutering the ingrates?). “An Unlikely Cat Lady” chronicles a year of joy and sadness, and also of the author’s discovery of a growing community devoted to the care of feral cats. It’s exactly the sort of book I read compulsively and enjoy immensely.

Stanley Coren theorized in his “Why We Love The Dogs We Do” that cat people (meaning people that prefer cats and would not live with a dog even if they could) have a very different psychological makeup compared to dog people (which to him are people living with dogs, preferring dogs, but who wouldn’t mind a cat if they could). I’ve always been a little skeptic about that, but I have to say I’m more ambiguous about cats than any other animal. I still haven’t quite figured out whether I like them. As pets I mean.

I feel sad for cats that live decades cooped up in apartments. But I hate that cats, even well fed, kill birds if they get a chance.

Ferals are a loaded issue as far as animal rights go. Some people would have them all euthanized. Even if fed and neutered they might still cause an impact in wild-life. Worse, most well-meaning old ladies tend to feed them (or pigeons) and not think much about any future issues.

But cats, I think, have stumbled into the most perfect evolutionary gimmick: kittens. Oh, I love puppies…and bunnies and birds, and hamsters, and chinchillas…but there is nothing in this world as adorable as a kitten. I know it. You know it. Cats know it. Their future is secure.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Sue Hubbell "A Country Year" & Olivia Gentile "Life-List"

“A Country Year” is a small book, but I took my time reading it. It’s a memoir, but also something of a manifesto, about being a woman, going back to the land, paying attention to things most of us deem too small to pay attention to.

Like bees. In her place in the Ozarks Hubbell carved a meager wage out of honeybees – fascinating and sensitive creatures that they are, they sure make a human sweat in order to harvest their honey. Luckily, it’s not a 9 to 5 job. It leaves whole months open to contemplation and meditation: listening to classical music on public radio, reading poetry, taking your time to really observe a small bug or bird.

Through Hubbell’s eyes insects become truly fascinating – and it certainly helps that she comes from a family of entomologists who can answer most of her interrogations. She makes bugs and their habits seem so exotic yet eerily intelligent, that the chapters on her dogs and cat almost make them sound a little dull (ah! Who could have thought it!), compared with the minutely orchestrated hierarchy of honeybee society, or the fascinating abilities of moths.

“A Country Year” is not (only) about insects, of course. At its core, it’s about building a new life and a whole new set of abilities at a time in life when people (and most certainly women) are supposed to be settled down. It’s about being open and sensitive enough to pay attention to the rhythms that surround you: in the Ozarks not only nature, but also people have their own special rhythm. Hubbell respects it, allowing a conversation to run its slow course, or a request to be, eventually, answered.

It struck me as one of those coincidences that the book I read next was “Life-List” by Olivia Gentile. Chronicling the escalating obsession of bird-watcher Phoebe Snetsinger with sighting 8.000 of the world’s recognized bird species; it is somewhat of an almost diametrical opposite of Hubbell’s meditative, soothing book.

Yet there are parallels (the most curious of which, the fact that Snetsinger also owned, for a time, a farm in the Ozarks, of which she quickly grew bored): “Life-List” is also about a middle-aged woman carving a new life for herself, even though the path Phoebe Snetsinger followed could not have been more different.

Diagnosed with cancer in her late forties and given one year to live, Snetsinger decided to live that year to the fullest, engaging in the activity which gave her most pleasure – international bird-watching. When at the end of that year she wasn’t dead (and would soon be in remission) bird-watching travels seem to have taken the form of a talisman, or an antidote, in her mind: it was as if she believed that, while she was on the road adding species to her list, death couldn’t touch her. And for many years, facts seemed to bear her out. Fallen by the wayside were relationships with some of her four children and especially with her estranged husband.

“Life-List” is the sort of biography that begs an opinion: was Snetsinger a selfish woman, obsessed with counting birds to the point shutting her children out? Or was she a woman who, deprived of the intellectual career her mind craved and instead home-bound with four children for most of her adult life, took her death sentence and built a stimulating and exciting life out of it?

An obsessive she certainly was, and probably the worst companion in the world for Hubbell’s down-home country ramblings, which is where I feel drawn to wander myself – however, who could deny that the years following Snetsinger’s cancer diagnose were her happiest? If it’s about building a life, hammer in hand, smashing through other’s preconceived notions of what is “proper” and “normal”, both women deserve recognition.

As far as books go “A Country Year” will certainly be re-read again, while “Life-List” left me with many doubts about the true nature of its subject.