Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"Leviathan or, The Whale" - Philip Hoare

“Leviathan” is a whale of a book. Ah. Obvious I know, but it is four hundred something pages long. Impossible not to think Philip Hoare was going for some sort of “whose is longest” contest with the mythical whale book “Moby-Dick”. Unfortunately, length does not equal reading pleasure and Leviathan proved to be a somewhat frustrating experience.

Whales might be the closest thing to aliens living right here on Earth. Their sheer size makes them incomprehensible. Their longevity doesn’t much help either. Their mysterious communications skills hint at a complex mind, wholly foreign to our terrestrial understanding. Not only do they move through a fantastic realm of deep waters but they also cover amazing distances, yet they surface, to breathe through lungs and share our mammalian heritage.

“Leviathan” started on a promising note of personal narrative. However it soon lost me in subsequent chapters. Halfway through I was close to giving up on the book, but decided to read the last two chapters where the author goes to the Portuguese islands of the Azores to track its whaling history and provide closure to his fear of deep waters by swimming with whales. I was hooked again. This is what it’s about. This was what the book should have been about all along: the fear and fascination these giants elicit.

I went back and found the second half of the book much more pleasant, now focused in British whaling history, Antarctic exploration, the shift from the economical to the scientific exploration of whales, the first efforts to protect them and the politic and economic factors that combined to hinder it.

So, what was it about the first half of the book that made me dislike it? In two words: Herman Melville. It felt like Hoare was paralysed by the spectrum of “Moby-Dick” and its author, constantly compelled to refer back to it and dwelling altogether too much in Melville’s biography. As the author himself explains, “Moby Dick” might be about a whale but it’s about a lot of other things – chiefly about writing a great masterpiece capable of paying homage to the pessimistic worldview of Nathaniel Hawthorne with whom Melville became supremely infatuated.

Plainly put, to start a contemporary book on whales taking Melville as a guide felt unoriginal. The chapters where the author tours ancient whaling ports of New England felt dead on the water, and taking into mind that later in the book Hoare goes back to the history of whaling at a much earlier date (in Europe) it felt like the chronology was wrong. Why start in the middle?

The other problem I had with “Leviathan” is that there is too much of it. Look, you know that scene in “Wonderboys” where the Katie Holmes’s character has just read Professor Tripp’s mammoth of a book and says “I could be wrong, but it sort of reads in places like you didn't make any choices. At all.” Not that I’m saying Philip Hoare wrote this “under the influence” but I could hear the book crying for an iron-fisted editor. There are so many little pieces of information and little conducting line to guide the reader along – it’s more like fighting against drowning at times. For instance, Percy Stammwitz, a character deserving of his own biography, appears in chapter III, as the author makes an historical detour of a few pages through the building of the huge whale model in London’s Natural History Museum. How I’m I supposed to remember him two hundred pages and some hundreds of different historical episodes, characters and facts later, as the author picks up his story again, now to follow his travels as he collected specimens worldwide for the museum?

There is an large interlude about Henry David Thoreau, in which his interest in whales is chronicled, the point of which is a connection between the beach he once walked and whale fossils discovered in the same place, seemingly an introduction to the palaeontology of whales, but actually not, because the author only spends a few paragraphs on the subject before going on to the next thing: myths of sea serpents. Do you get the picture? Ok, if you look hard enough there are references to whales everywhere (but you don’t need to cram every single one in the book, dude). We get it; but to say “Walden” is “a corollary to Moby-Dick” stinks of trying too hard to prove a point.

It almost feels as though there are several books here, all jumbled up. One about the history of commercial whaling, another about the whale as object of scientific study and later, conservation icon and a final one about the natural history of the animal, strictly speaking (which is definitely the shorter part). Now, all of these might be combined of course, but in Leviathan somehow it didn’t really come together. And to top it all, there is the personal narrative of the author, which starts the book in such an auspicious note but, somewhat like a whale, surfaces seldom and then erupts, unexpectedly into a two page detailed account of the author’s mother’s death. I felt embarrassed to, without warning, be plunged into a deeply intimate moment. I can’t imagine why Hoare felt it belonged in these pages.

To be fair, from chapter IX onwards I did feel a renewed cohesion in the book (but maybe influenced by the fact that I had read the final chapters first). In the end there was a lot of interesting bits of information but the reading of “Leviathan” was more of a trial than anything else. I wouldn’t say she blows (get it? hilarious) but either you’re completely nuts about whaling or you should probably sit this one out.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Prickly Affair: The Charm of the Hedgehog – Hugh Warwick

Why do we think of hedgehogs as “cute”? I mean, they are not soft or cuddly and they rather tend to smell (since I have never met one face to face, I have to take the author’s word for it – and I do). But somehow they just evoke the warmth and comfort of a toasty home while it’s cold outside. Maybe it’s the hibernation thing.

In my case I think I can trace it to a 1980s children’s book about a little elf girl named Victoria Plum and a hedgehog (“Victoria and the Prickly Hedgehog”), and according to author children’s books are key to the “cut-ification” of an animal that for centuries was considered little more than a pest. In fact, the one particular book the author believes changed the public image of hedgehogs in Britain (and the world) is Beatrix Potter’s 1905 “The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle”, whose title character is a hedgehog washerwoman.

“A Prickly Affair” follows Warwick’s personal history with hedgehogs which starts with an academic assignment and grows into a long term serious relationship not only with the prickly critters but also with the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.

We follow the author as he tracks hedgehogs on freezing nights, shares hedgehog lore and history and gets involved with hedgehog protection because, incredibly, there are some people who (wait for it, wait for it…) do not like hedgehogs! And those people who happen to be bird lovers (who really do tend to get a little hysterical and would probably exterminate every cat, ferret, hedgehog etc in the world if they could manage) would rather shoot (yes, shoot!) hedgies than find out if they even have anything to do with the dwindling bird populations.

I also was very curious about reading this book to find out whether the author, who loves the critters, had any as pets and what he thought about keeping them as pets. Now, I was never going to have one, because I will never feed a living thing to a living thing (and hedgies need their bugs) but I keep seeing them in pet sites and was genuinely curious. I knew the pet hedgehogs commonly kept are of the African variety but I didn’t know what that meant (they are smaller and don’t smell as much). I now believe Hugh Warwick is on a mission to keep us all from pet hedgehog ownership and his cunning plan is delineated in the chapter “A Brief Interlude at the International Hedgehog Olympic games”: by exposing the reader to excesses of devoted (to put it euphemistically) hedgie ownership, the author has pretty much insured that his readers will never keep a hedgehog as a pet (can you guess which country is the host of said games?).

This book sort of spoiled my vacation reading list because I read it first and knew I hadn’t brought along anything else I would enjoy as much, so that was a problem. But I forgive it because not only was it the highlight of my summer reading it also has the cutest little hedgehog illustrations.

Three Books on Tortoises

Timothy; or; Notes of an Abject Reptile: a novel – Verlyn Klinkenborg
Lonesome George: The Life and Times of a Conservation Icon – Henry Nichols
Timothy the Tortoise: The Remarkable Story of the Nation’s Oldest Pet

It all started with Klinkenborg’s book: I must have bought it some two years back and started reading it some five times. Each time I gave up in the very first pages. Then one day I started it and read the whole thing. Oh, it’s a difficult book all right. It doesn’t give you an inch. You have to pry it open, re-read passages constantly, use the glossary (which I only noticed was there half-way through) and even gasp! use the dictionary, only to not find what you were looking for.

But, it’s a beautiful book. Ethereal, a philosophical dissertation, a study of Man and its incomprehensible ways by an animal considered by most unthinking, slow, stupid.

Our guide is a tortoise named Timothy, an actual, historical character (his shell is kept in London’s Natural History Museum). Gilbert White, British naturalist of the XVIII Century famous for his “The Natural History of Selborne” in which he chronicles the natural cycles of his home county, adopted the Greek tortoise Timothy after his owner passed away. A man so in tune with every bird migration and sprouting bud, seems to have been less loving and observant of his unusual pet - his is the expression “abject reptile”.

Here, however, Klinkenborg decides to give voice to Timothy and allow him to write his own “Natural History of Selbourne”. More an anthropologist than a natural historian, for he is a foreigner and both weather and custom feel out of place to him. Well, actually, more of an alien creature, for he is condemned to a life a solitude without ever meeting one of his kind. Condemned also, because of his longevity, to witness death often.

For Timothy the frailty of human skin which must be clothed and then housed is a source of wonder, maybe even some scorn: we are beings naturally unfit to live in Nature and must make up for it by our wits: “No creature excels the human in matters of nidification”.

“Notes…” is a very rewarding book, but I think you have to be in the right mood to enjoy it. It is very contemplative in tone with a lot of XVIII century rural vocabulary, and I believe most readers will probably have to make an initial effort to pierce its outer carapace. However, inside lies a very wise, friendly beast whose company will almost certainly improve our condition.

“Lonesome George” is the kind of book I love. Centered in the creature that has been labeled “the rarest animal in the world” it digresses into conservation, cloning, the politics of tourism vs conservation vs local economy and of course, Darwin, for George lives in the Galápagos Islands.

He is the last known Geochelone nigra abingdoni or Pinta Island Tortoise, first discovered in 1971, and the book traces both efforts to find out for sure if George really is lonesome, (he may not be) as well as various strategies to attempt procreation (with turtles of nearby islands of similar genetic make-up) which have not yielded results until now.

How did turtles even get to the Galápagos? And why are there so many different species? Did they arrive at different times or spread later through the islands? How has human hand influenced the distribution and extermination of turtles in the islands? Can individual animals like Lonesome George really make a difference in conservation efforts by influencing public opinion? What are some near-extinct species that have come back from the brink of annihilation and what were the techniques used by scientists to accomplish this? And can havens of biodiversity like the Galápagos really find balance between being scientific stations for (mostly) foreign scientists, tourist destinations for (let’s face it) the wealthy and a place where economic survival is possible for native inhabitants?

These are some of the questions Henry Nicholls explores and really, how can you not be interested in finding out the answers?

I got “Timothy the Tortoise” because it was cheap and well, I was in a tortoise kind of place. While it doesn’t really focus solely on its protagonist, I did find the book an enjoyable read. Timothy (so named after Gilbert White’s Timothy) serves as the guide to the British aristocratic Courtenay family as the author follows the genealogical tree using Timothy’s keeper’s and recounts of important family events and memories of the tortoise.

Because it actually chronicles an epoch when British aristocracy and its way of life became redundant I found it quite interesting, though really, there isn’t much turtle lore here.

On a quirky end note, both Timothy’s were actually found out to be females…

Three Firsts in Cozy Series

Hounding the Pavement (A Dog Walker Mystery) – Judi McCoy
The Missing Ink (A Tattoo Shop Mystery) – Karen E. Olson
One Bad Apple (An Orchard Mystery) – Sheila Connolly

The cozy mystery genre is getting a little crowded. I could probably spend the next three months reading nothing but the first numbers of different series. I suppose the measure of success might be whether you go for the second in the series or not. After all, (most) cozy mysteries do not set out to shake the foundations of your world or otherwise offend you. They tread a difficult line between quirky and comforting, each with its own little recipe that might work for some and not others.

While each and every one of these was an enjoyable read, I’d still have to say I’d rather take on a different series rather than proceed to number two. Maybe I’m getting a little bit jaded but none of these came close to the “Mantra for Murder Mysteries” or even “Knitting Mysteries”.

Sheila Connolly’s book though, does have a slightly more “grown-up” tone about it. Lots of serious information about home renovation and a nice “Gilmore Girls” New England feel about it. Still, for some reason I failed to connect with the protagonist Meg Corey. Actually, I think I know why: her ex-boyfriend (who is the murder victim) is such an obvious Wall Street wannabee, such an absolute greedy, arrogant, awful person I had to have my doubts about Meg. Who would date such a creep, let alone keep seeing him for six months?!

Brett Kavanaugh is a pretty unlikely name, one I kept forgetting throughout “The Missing Ink”. Brett is a New Jersey girl who relocated to Las Vegas where tattooing is a more profitable business. Karen E. Olson gives the reader a lot of information on the art of putting needle to skin, but again I was lost as our one-of-a kind protagonist (who has some Monet on her arm, ‘cause she went to art school and is not just some tattoo bimbo) fell for a Vegas hotel manager complete with tie and British accent…oy. I kept getting the names of the missing girls confused, too which didn’t help. Overall a very enjoyable pool-side read, but again, don’t count me as a fan for the rest of the series.

Ellie Engleman’s Dog Walker Mystery was also a nice read. It gets funny at times since the author, Judi McCoy, is not afraid to get a little, shall we say, explicit, in the sex scenes which gave the book a Harlequin-esque tone at times. The psychic connection with dogs doesn’t read as ridiculous as I first thought (oh right, I forgot to say, Ellie can communicate with pooches), since the author doesn’t overuse the gimmick, but still…it’s the fact that the dogs talk back that gets a little bit strange…I mean here is a recent divorcee who talks to her itty-bitty dog and walks other people’s itty-bitty dogs (Ellie has a no big dogs policy)…plus she can walk four dogs and eat an ice-cream at the same time, and I know for a fact that is impossible to accomplish.

As for the mysteries themselves “Hounding the Pavement” had the most easy to guess solution, followed by “One Bad Apple”. As for the “The Missing Ink” the whole thing was so convoluted I can’t even remember the ending clearly, anymore. Whether that’s good or bad…