Showing posts with label Sea. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sea. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"The Secret Life of Lobsters" - Trevor Corson & Mark Kurlansky "The Big Oyster: A Molluscular History of New York"

I've never eaten oysters and only tried lobster once (and don't remember it very well to tell the thruth, so this might seem like a strange pair of books to review. Although different in narrative style - Corson focuses on a few fishermen and scientists to tell his story, while Kurlansky takes on the entire story of New York City and the close relation with its oyster beds - they do share similarities. Both speak of food items that were once so plentiful as to be thought of as poor people fare. The case of oysters is a little different since, as the author points out, it was probably one of the few dishes in history to be simultaneously a luxury and a daily meal (for oystermen, but also people of modest means). And both - the history of the eventual destruction of New York oyster beds and the struggle to understand the reality of lobster grounds (are they being overfished or not?) speak of our abuse of resources and our ignorance of the natural world and its rhythms. "Lobsters" proved a more agreable read: there is a lot about the science of lobsters (and it's great how passionate the scientists and fishermen are about these weird crustaceans. Corson style of non-fiction narrative is definitely a grower. Although I kept confusing the various lobstermen families I still found everyone very interesting and story engaging. Kurlansky's book is more about the ties to New York City history and lacks actual protagonists. At times I felt the story lagged a little. Still, for oyster devotees I imagine it nust be a fascinating read.

Friday, November 11, 2011

"Kraken" Wendy Williams

I had been meaning to read “Kraken: The Curious, Exciting and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid” ever since I first saw it. But it after reading Sy Montgomery’s brilliant article on octupuses for Orion magazine and seeing Wendy Williams book listed as a suggested reading I had to order it right away.

And it is an amazing book. Packed with astounding information on these amazing cephalopods (and also octuposes and cuttlefish) that will make anyone realize just how incredible they are. While their physiology is so alien-like (three hearts, blue blood, capable on changing color) scientists have also found incredible similarities with human beings namely in the structure of their eyes and neurons. It was truly startling to learn of the many medical breakthroughs that have been based on research carried out on squid. Future treatments for diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s will most likely owe something to these animals.

And yet they remain enigmas – do they think or communicate in ways we might fathom? Or did their brain structure and invertebrate body (not to mention their marine environment) cause them to evolve a relationship with the world and each other that our brains, so tightly wound inside our skulls will never be able to glimpse? It seems indisputable that there is “something” there, even if we try to stay away from loaded terms such as intelligence and conscience.

“Kraken” will fascinate anyone interested in natural history, science, animals and the sea. Wendy Williams has written a book that has not only a perfect rhythm but also a perfect length – and doesn’t shy away from the fact that there is still so much we don’t know about squid (and also doesn’t hide the immense amount of squid dissection needed for scientific research- which is the “slightly disturbing” part, I guess).

Any reader, even acquainted only with cephalopods in the form of lunch, will come away with a newfound respect for these creatures and maybe more importantly, a desire to know more.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"The Story of Sushi" - Trevor Corson

The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice

Tell you what: I don’t know when I’ll be eating sushi again. No, I didn’t learn anything disgusting about it while reading Trevor Corson’s “The Story of Sushi” – except maybe the correct way to prepare an octopus, which seemed unnecessarily cruel. It’s more like I learned everything I wanted to know about sushi (and then some) and now feel no need for it. This book must be what they call “definitive” because I certainly have trouble imagining why I would read about sushi ever again. In a roundabout way, this is actually a compliment.

“The Story of Sushi” not only delves extensively on the historical birth and evolution of what we came to know as sushi, it also follows a sushi chef class in a Californian school/sushi bar. Additionally, it also tells the tale of how this Japanese dish conquered America and the rest of the Western World.

In the last five years sushi bars have made the step from ubiquitous to ridiculous – there is nary a place where sushi is unavailable and mind you I’m not in New York or anything and I’m in walking distance of at least four sushi restaurants. It is so readily available it is almost impossible to believe that not that many years ago it was kind of weird to eat raw fish.

By focusing on a young girl attending the sushi academy, Corson, cleverly chooses a character most of us can empathize with: someone with no ties to Asian culture, someone who didn't grow up in this tradition (or in any cooking tradition, for that matter), she could be any one of us, someone who likes sushi because it tastes fresh and clean yet feels exotic, but has no idea of the difficult preparation process of those cute nigiri or rolls. Alongside Kate we witness how frustrating it is to master so many techniques and information in so little time (traditional sushi apprenticeship went on for years, before students could do more than prepare the rice).

Because Corson is interested in marine biology, there is also a lot of information on the different fish that were traditionally used in sushi and how their popularity has changed over time. It will probably not be surprising to find out that fish (such as salmon) and rolls favored in America are not that popular in Japan.

More surprising to the reader will be the fact that sushi bar culture in Japan, has always been, and to some degree still is, a guy thing. Single women were not welcomed in these establishments and female sushi chefs unheard of. Men come in, sit at the bar, drink sake and eat some nigiri. How ironic is it that sushi bars are now one of the preferred spots for city girls to grab a bite?

If there is something about sushi that has your curiosity piqued then the answer will be here. Corson even provides the reader with a sushi etiquette-guide-to-not-looking-like-a-total-redneck-at-the-sushi-bar (my words, not the author’s). While it is very interesting I think sushi bars will definitely be different in America and Europe than what they are in Japan (for one, women are welcome) and that their continuing popularity will definitely be tied with how comfortable people feel there. While Japan is a nation where ritual plays an important part even in seemingly innocuous tasks, westerners privilege feeling at ease even while striving to be original.

It will be interesting to see what happens to sushi in the next twenty, thirty years. Already, most sushi chefs aren’t Japanese, and most restaurant owners know little about its history except that sushi is it, right now. Will it go the way of Chinese food or follow some original path (maybe everyone will start doing rolls at home)? In either case “The Story of Sushi” is the definitive book on this not-so-exotic-anymore treat for the foreseeable future.

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.