Monday, July 28, 2014

The Secret Language of Animals by Janine M Benyus

When I was a little girl, I loved going to the American Museum of Natural History and I was fortunate to live in Manhattan which means I went with a frequency that most other people never enjoy.  I especially loved the dioramas, with stuffed animals frozen in a moment of time.  Where else could I see a lynx stalking through the snow or a jaguar reclining, looking at me, or a gorilla, standing in the undergrowth, beating its chest while its band members look on?  I thought these were magical.  Then one day I realized that these stuffed animals were exactly that—stuffed formerly living animals. 

It’s moments like these, when reality sets in and what I loved as a child no longer seems so delightful that makes me wish I had never grown up.  (Insert song from Peter Pan here.)

Zoos have fallen under this pall as well, with my ideals getting in the way of my appreciation.  Which is why I was a bit put off at first by The Secret Language of Animals:  A Guide to Remarkable Behavior by Janine M Benyus when she begins her book discussing the importance of zoos and how they help humans and animals alike.  For humans, apparently, the opportunity to see animals up close and personal makes us more likely to care for them and their environment.

I get that.

For animals, especially those species that are already endangered because their natural habitats are being destroyed by humans (who didn’t go to zoos enough, I guess), zoos give them a safe place to reproduce and replenish the species over time.

I kinda sorta almost get it.

I guess the point is, if you are the type who thinks that zoos are evil and inherently wrong, this book is not for you.  Benyus, a biologist, defends the purpose of zoos in the first chapter of the book.  Most remarkable is the tone she creates throughout.  She takes what could be boring information and makes it engaging, interesting for readers of all ages.  Yes, even those too young to read this book for themselves would be interested in listening as the book is read to them.  The second chapter explores various animal behavior.  This is where the book really begins taking off, giving a broad view of how different species have adapted to environment, how the climate in one part of the world will invite one type of locomotion and another results in something else altogether.  Everything from how predators adapt to their prey and how the prey continues to adapt to predators resulting in a never ending, albeit gradual evolution of form and function. 

The rest of the book is divided by continent and highlights a few of the more familiar species one can typically find in a zoo.  Of course, not all zoos will have every animal featured but parents can plan a trip to a zoo, knowing what animals they can expect to find, and focusing on the specific chapters for that visit.  So if you find out that the zoo you plan to explore doesn’t have any zebras but does have a lion then you could read the chapter on lions and save the one on zebras for another trip to a different zoo altogether. 

And be ready to learn all about how lions behave.  Everything from how they eat to how they “eliminate” to how they reproduce to how they sleep is included.  Each chapter concludes with a simple chart that summarizes the chapter so you’ll know what to look for.  For instance, many zoos have peacocks and peahens wandering freely about the zoo’s territory and some, specifically green peacocks, are quite territorial and even a little aggressive.  This is good to know.  You wouldn’t want to be attacked by a peacock while at the zoo, would you?

Imagine going to a zoo, knowing that how elephants hold their ears and trunk signal different things.  Having a context for their behavior will elevate the overall appreciation of the zoo experience, truly understanding how these animals will move about their day.  A child who knows what to look for will be all the more enthusiastic when they, for instance, watch a panda marking its territory in different ways.  (Did you know that they even do this standing on their forepaws?  I certainly did not!)

Throughout the book are lovely illustrations by Juan Carlos Barberis.  He has worked at the American Museum of Natural History for 20 years and is obviously well suited to add drawings to this book.  Even without color, the details of the peacock are presented demonstrating perfectly the elaborate display of feathers in texture alone.  (Did you know that a peacock’s feathers are actually all brown and the reason we see so many brilliant and pretty colors is because of oil?  That peacocks are quite fastidious about cleaning themselves for this reason because the oil in the feathers make the male, in particular, more vibrant, but too much oil might attract parasites?  So much cool stuff in this book!)

Maybe I still find zoos a little off-putting but I know that going to one would be infinitely more pleasurable if I were to read about the animals before visiting a zoo.  And don’t you know, I will be reading relevant chapters from this surprisingly interesting and well-written book.  After reading it, even without a trip to the zoo on my immediate horizon, I know it all seems more potentially enjoyable.  I can’t wait to share this book with my granddaughter.  But you know, I may not be ready to share this intriguing book with anyone just yet.  I’m selfish like that.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

Because I had read What I Loved with the intention of reading the author’s most recent novel, I was surprised to realize I had already read a book by the author once before but a while ago.  And not a novel but a memoir.  Siri Hustvedt had written The Shaking Woman about her experience when she begins to tremble and shake uncontrollably.  Her memoir could have easily been typical of too many memoirs and focused on her own experience and perceptions of how others responded to what was happening.  Instead, she took her knowledge, which is considerable, and puts her experience within a context of how the brain and body function within a neurological disorder.  She approaches her circumstances from an intellectual direction that can be off-putting for some, I suppose.  But since this is how my mother and I tackle life’s challenges, I loved her memoir.   In fact, my one main criticism was that, for a novelist, the memoir lacked the sort of creative nonfiction style with which so many memoirs are being written.

Truth is, I identified with her story on a deeply subjective level because, like her, I had sought answers and explanations for myself that were never forthcoming. 

That’s neither here nor there.  After reading Siri Hustvedt’s earlier novel, I was curious, albeit not especially eager to read The Blazing WorldThe premise intrigued me.  Harriet Burden is an under-appreciated artist who creates a confrontational performance piece, of sorts.  She finds three men who will attach their names to her art, presenting it as their own, so that she herself can prove to the world, and the art world in particular, that women are not only under-represented in the art world but are dismissed off-hand as less worthy of serious consideration simply because of gender. 

The story is effectively told in the writings of Burden and others—fragments of journals, transcripts of interviews, written statements, published reviews, etc.  Throughout, Hustvedt does a remarkable job of presenting each character with a distinct voice.  One person speaks in stream-of-consciousness abstractions while another speaks in precise prose and yet another in long sentences.  So unique is each that the reader could, once introduced to a single voice, recognize its reappearance in the novel without seeing the chapter title which says what each contains.  This is no easy feat and the author pulls it off brilliantly.

The New York Times Book Review quote for this book alludes to the previous novel I had read and one of the characters in this book does seem to be almost an off-spring of one of the characters from that novel.  However, here we have a more fully realized and rounded person, a narcissist cum artist who makes sense if only because the reader can understand his raison d’être even if not (hopefully not, anyway) his sociopathic tendencies.  The Blazing World, in that sense, is evidently a more sophisticated work, one that exhibits a confidence and maturity in prose the earlier work could not provide.

About halfway through, however, I was worried that this novel was riding the wave of such novels as Gone Girl.  I fully expected a big “gotcha” twist to occur at the very end of the novel.  There were a few twists and turns but none that are too surprising.  A careful reader can anticipate what is hinted at early on and realized as the novel progresses.  In fact, the ending surprised me in a fully gratifying, and not the least bit derivative, way. 

Throughout the novel there are footnotes that make it easy to forget that this is not a work of non-fiction.  In creating a character who is driven to the point of compulsion, Hustvedt infuses the story with references to everything from philosophy to literature to, naturally enough, art.  The footnotes provide the reader with enough contextual knowledge and reveal more about Harriet Burden than almost anything else for it is in the character’s search for meaning and her persistent desire to understand how perception defines who we are or, even more implicitly, what we can be.  The novel demands of the reader that even when we may not particularly like a character, and I can’t say that I genuinely liked any of the characters, we will and do care for some of them, maybe even most of them.  But especially we care about Burden and what she carries—the belief that her gender, her being a woman and perceived through a misogynistic filter—because her hopes and aspirations, crushed before they are even defined, are bound to push her to do something risky.  The fulfillment of the risk itself is what makes this novel a compelling one to read, whether you agree or disagree with the artist’s choices.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What I'm Watching Wednesday #1

When I was a little girl, new movies came out on Wednesdays, not Fridays. What I’m Watching Wednesdays will be a (hopefully) weekly post.   To keep it simple, I’ll say whether something is Recommended, Not Recommended, or, on the oh so rare occasion, Neutral, meaning I didn’t like it enough to recommend it but I didn’t dislike it enough to say I don’t recommend it. 

If you want to share your viewing reviews, feel free to use the link below to link to your reviews. 


Not Recommended

Monday, July 14, 2014

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

As part of my getting ready to visit London, I’m going to be reading some books that take place in England or are written by British authors so be prepared for a series of book reviews that have a “London Calling” theme.  I intentionally chose this novel because I’d heard good things about it.  That should have been my first warning.  I can’t even remember how many novels have been highly recommended to me that left me disappointed.  At the bottom of this book review is a list of some other books already in my queue to be read.  If you want to chime in with a personal recommendation, please feel free to do so, especially if you’ve read one of the books listed. 

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke is a modern novel told in a Victorian tone, which explains its massive size, because the author does an excellent job of mimicking the verbose style of writers who were paid by the word.  Unfortunately, it too often reads like Clarke thought she herself was being paid by the word.  The story could have been as effectively told with a fourth or more edited out.  The time it takes for her to set situations up for the next even to happen becomes tedious, especially when the reader is able to correctly predict what is going to happen chapters before anything actually occurs.

Not that the novel was a thorough disappointment.  The premise is interesting.  Magic is returning to England in the time when King George III is losing his mind, Napoleon Bonaparte is building his empire, and a group of theoretical magicians are forced to face the implications of what happens when a practical magician forces them to retire.  Clarke has done a lot of research, evident in the plethora of historical figures—from Lord Wellington to Lord Byron—who meander across the pages.  And the endnotes are amusing, sometimes rooted in fact and other times fanciful additions to the story itself, adding another layer of legitimacy to the fantasy world in which the characters live.  Sometimes the endnotes, however, are an insult to the reader’s intelligence, reiterating  events or content that only appeared a few pages before.  Someone I know said it took them three months to read this book; she probably benefited from these tedious and, in my mind unnecessary, endnote reminders.   

As expected with any novel of this size, many characters are introduced, interact with one another, become more or less important as the narration unfolds.  The characters, themselves, are mostly two dimensional, only changing on superficial levels rather than having any real character driven epiphanies. If you like the characters, and you probably won’t, you’ll want to see what happens on the next page.  But the fact is, most of what happens is predictable.  As characters are moved from scene to scene, it quickly becomes evident how each player will turn out in the end, with foreshadowing so blatant it’s more spotlight than shadow.

That this novel is an homage to the Victorian novel is further evidenced by the ingénue role of the women.  Young girls are innocent, sweet, compliant while the older women are only there to counterbalance the preciousness of the younger ones.  There’s nothing wrong with creating a novel that is written to sound like a classic novel.  But it can be done well (e.g. Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet which is another “Victorian” style novel that was written in contemporary times) or it can be done tediously.

It didn’t help that I read this on my kindle.  The e-version of this book is so poorly edited it is painful.  When you add in how ponderous this book is to read, even in the physically lighter e-version, the book is entirely too easy to put down.  Odds are, I’ll forget most of the story before too long and the characters sooner than that.

I understand the BBC is planning a movie or something.  It probably will make a better movie than it did a novel.  How often does one get to say that?  If the movie is actually worse than the book, I’d be shocked.  They’d be hard-pressed to make the story more dull than it is on the page.

Future Reading List:
My Man Jeeves by P G Wodehouse
Abinger Harvest by E M Forster
Two On a Tower by Thomas Hardy
The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf
and maybe some Charles Dickens . . . I was thinking one of the following:

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Lady and the Peacock by Peter Popham

Ages ago, I fell in love with Damien Rice through a radio program that aired on Sunday mornings featuring acoustic music.  I bought his first and second CDs, then his live CD, his third CD, and even Lisa Hannigan’s CD because she was featured in some of his music.  Online, he and Lisa Hannigan offered a special EP of the song “Unplayed Piano” to raise money for the Free Aung San Suu Kyi who had been placed under house arrest in Burma for trying to stand against the military that was in power.  I knew nothing about the woman, little about Burmese history, but this song introduced me to a woman who insisted on applying the ideas of pacifism in facing a political power that only seems to understand violence.

The Lady and the Peacock:  The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi by Peter Popham explores the life of a woman who was born into greatness.  The book begins with her already imprisoned in her home, placed there by the opposing political party in an election that was supposed to be rigged in their favor.  Popham then goes back in time, telling the story of Aung San, Suu Kyi’s father, who was himself assassinated for trying to bring democratic ideals to a nation that was forced into a military dictatorship and only recently emerged from decades of violent control.  When her father is murdered, her mother and siblings move away from Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi eventually ends up in England where she gets an education and meets her future husband and father of her two children. 

The biography reads like a non-linear story as we see Aung San Suu Kyi go from a being superficially interested in her country of origin to being deeply committed to improving the life of every citizen there.  Following in her father’s footsteps does not come easy, nor is it without its dangers.  The government in power won’t give first her sons and then her husband visas to visit her, leaving her isolated and alone in a house where she fills her time with mediation and practicing the tenants of Buddhism.  Although the reader is aware that she is not only released (in 2010) but now n office (since 2012), the journey of how she is put under house arrest and how the Burmese people continued to look to her as a source of inspiration and change. 

There are some peculiar choices made by Popham who, quoting from the journals of Ma Thanegi, has no problem abbreviating passages, indicated by the use of ellipses, but makes a point of including descriptions of the longhi and jackets Aung San Suu Kyi wears during her tours of Burma.  Ma Thanegi obviously cared about Suu Kyi’s appearance and, by implication, so does Popham, who goes to the trouble of suggesting that she was probably the first student to wear Burmese attire to classes at Oxford.   Does this matter?  Even if her friend included these details in her journal, why are they so essential to a journalist writing about a woman who in inspiring not because of how she looks but for who she is?  I found this very off-putting.  Popham does seem to judge those who accuse her of being an unfeeling woman and mother for focusing on the needs of her country over the needs of her family but then he actually suggests that perhaps if Suu Kyi’s mother had been home, and not working, a sibling might not have died by drowning in a pool. 

Because of Suu Kyi’s desire to remain a private person, much of her personal life remains a mystery, only shared through the stories of those around her.  Unfortunately, one of her so-called friends, Ann Pasternak Slater, seems more frenemy than fond and much of what she has to say about the woman the author clearly admires is spiteful and unkind but it hardly has the same weight of a more discerning critic who might find some of the Pulitzer Prize winning woman’s choices less than productive.  Popham does go to the trouble of explaining some of these seemingly futile choices; even so, he does this with an apologist’s bias, eager to undercut any criticism with laud and praise.

To be fair, the prose is somewhat ponderous.  Popham is a journalist, after all, and avoids being too poetic, sometimes falling into the prosaic.  Nonetheless, he lays out Aung San Suu Kyi’s story moving from the not-too-distant past to the further past towards the present and then back again into the past before moving back into the present, all the while giving some details of Burma’s more immediate history.  The book could have easily become mired down in centuries of history.  The author has chosen to focus on those events that most affected the life of this woman—her father’s military service, Burma during World War II, her father’s assassination, her mother’s service as an ambassador in India, etc.  All of these things that lead this inexplicable woman to an inevitable place in her nation’s story.  Some may see this narrow focus as a detriment to the book over all.  I found it to be an interesting, not always engaging, look at one woman’s life, the events that led up to and surround her story, and a fascinating glimpse of a nation that too often goes overlooked because it is not as major a player as so many others.  

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