The Naturalist by Alissa York

Read: 11 February, 2017

After the death of the titular naturalist, his wife, her companion, and his half-Brazilian son from a previous marriage decide to complete the planned expedition to Brazil. As they travel, all three must work through their grief – their grief at the naturalist’s death, as well as the long ignored griefs of their past.

Reading the set up, it’s hard to imagine a book more perfectly tailored to me. We have a Canadian author writing about a 19th century Quaker exploring the Amazon. It’s like York specifically set out to write a novel just for me!

And, for the most part, it delivers. I loved the sprinkling of Portuguese dialogue (and was surprised by just how much I could understand, thanks to my background of French and two years of Spanish classes in high school!), and the descriptions of the jungle were really interesting.

Where it fell a little short was in the characters themselves. Rachel is set up to be torn between her very conservative religious background and the freedom offered her by her bold mistress, but the conflict seems largely resolved by the time the story starts. We get a bit of it in flash backs, but that’s about it.

Paul should be a very interesting character. He is mixed-race, and severed from his mother’s culture through her death in childbirth. In addition to this, he is the son of a passionate naturalist but not being particularly into biology himself (a conflict that becomes even more interesting when we discover that his father’s passions had put him in opposition to his own parents as well). It all should be very compelling. And there are glimpses, but he ends up spending so much of his time passively reading his father’s journal while we get too little of how he is processing what he learns.

Iris is mostly kept at arm’s length, but I’m okay with this. It would have been nice to see her journey more intimately, but we only ever see her through the eyes of others. Still, given her importance to Rachel’s character arc, this does somewhat work – especially since evidences of Iris’s own arc are present in how she is described. She’s left up to the reader to translate, just as she is translated by Paul and Rachel. She could easily have been the main character of this book, but I’m okay with the way she is distanced and, to an extent, objectified by the others. It works.

This isn’t a book with a big climax or epiphany. It’s a journey, characters grow in the course of it, and then it ends. My only complaint is that, while the journey part was interesting, it overwhelmed the character parts. We saw too little of our main characters, too little of how they react to experiences and discoveries, and we don’t get to see much of their growth. While some of that is because York chooses to imply their feelings through descriptions of their physical actions, a lot of it is because it just doesn’t happen. Too much of their development happened off-screen, before the plot began, and we only learn about it after the fact. That, combined with an over-reliance on flashbacks near the beginning of the book, holds it back from shining.

Buy The Naturalist from Amazon and support this blog!

Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime by Ellen Prager

Read: 24 August, 2016

Despite its racy, Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime is actually a fairly tame overview of marine life. Each chapter features a group of species sharing some common trait, giving a few facts for each before the chapter closes with a “why they matter” section (which usually covers edibility and medicinal uses).

As intended, it was the title of the book that really caught my attention. Unfortunately, I only got a few paragraphs in before I knew that I was in trouble. While the title promises humour, the narrative style is really lacking. The book is written in bullet list style, except without the benefit of bullets. Because I was never given any time to process each fact before being ushered along to the next one, I found it extremely difficult to absorb anything that I was reading. It made reading about the dietary habits of the hagfish feel like work, and failed to convey a solid impression of Prager’s subjects.

The “why they matter” sections were very meh. The lists of ‘things you can make with a hagfish’s skin’ quickly grew tiresome and uninteresting. The stated goal of the book was to make me care, but lists of how a particular fish’s various parts are used in Chinese medicine to cure impotence does not, actually, make me care. Rather than throwing reasons at me, Prager’s time would have been better spent using her narrative descriptions to evoke my feelings. It’s a classic issue of “show don’t tell.”

The book’s strength is that it is full of facts. If I had a burning desire to know about seahorses but didn’t know where to start (and, for some reason, had access to Prager’s book but not to Wikipedia), the encyclopedic nature of the book would be perfect. Unfortunately, I don’t see that being a very common scenario.

I did really like Prager’s “what you can do” section at the very end of the book. In it, she lists a number of ideas, organized by participation level. There are ideas for people who want to run for congress, and then there are ideas for people who just want to know what to buy when they go to the supermarket. If she expanded that section a little, maybe added a few narrative touches, it would have worked very well as an article.

I don’t want to come down too hard on Prager, because she clearly knows her stuff and the book is nothing if not well-researched. Besides that, it’s obvious that she’s passionate about the subject, and I can never fault passion. It’s just that you can’t make people share that passion by trying to trigger their selfish consumptive desires – and certainly not in the same book where you are trying to convince people to participate in preserving and protecting our oceans! Rather than trying to convince her readers to care about our oceans through rational arguments, I wish that Prager had just unleashed the passion she so clearly has, and let me feel it for a little while.

Buy Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime from Amazon and support this blog!

A Fly for the Prosecution by M. Lee Goff

Read: 28 August, 2015

Goff’s Fly for the Prosecution is about forensic entomology. It’s a pretty thorough book, while still being suitable for a lay audience, covering the full range of the discipline: the history of forensic entomology, determining short post-mortem periods, determining long post-mortem periods, the effects of drugs, the effects of different environments, plus some specifics to the forensic process itself, including how to cope and giving testimony in court. There’s even an index at the back, so the book can be used as a reference.

I imagine the intended audience being people who are into entomology in general, and thinking of going into the field of forensic entomology. I also think the book will appeal to many of the fans of murder/detective stories, though it does get a bit technical and some might find it dull.

My only complaint about the book – and it’s a very small one – is that the author comes off as a little full of himself. This is particularly the case toward the end, where he contrasts the poor practices of other forensic entomologists against his own, good, practices. I feel like he could have found a different way of covering that material, either by depersonalizing it entirely or, at least, by letting some of his colleagues serve as the good examples every so often.

But other than that, his writing style was quite good and, given the material, fairly entertaining. He’s no Mary Roach, certainly, but he did manage to make descriptions of various fly species seem interesting.

The material, being forensic, is by nature quite gross. But I’m generally okay with corpse stuff. I get that icky feeling, but it’s well within what interest can compensate for. The only chapter I really struggled with was the one where he talked about doing forensic entomology on the living (all children or senior abuse victims). That really tried the hardiness of my stomach, even as I appreciate the value of the work.

Buy A Fly for the Prosecution: How Insect Evidence Helps Solve Crimes from Amazon and support this blog!

Stiff by Mary Roach

Read: 24 August, 2015

I’ve had this author (and this book, in particular) on my radar for a long time, but never gotten around to reading it. This time, though, I was visiting with a friend who happened to own it, so I seized the opportunity.

And I’m glad I did! This book is hilarious, with a fantastic dark humour (fairly necessary, given the grossness of the subject matter). The subject matter, by the way, is corpses. Specifically, the many uses for them. This mostly includes research (medical, safety, military), but there are some other applications.

I found Roach to be very thorough in her investigations. Whenever I started to form a question, sure enough, she was answering it. I particularly enjoyed her bit of investigative journalism in the chapter about using the dead for food.

I did have a few unsettling moments, mostly through serendipity. For example, I was in the middle of reading about the rumour that a restaurant in China owned by the brother of a man who worked in a funeral parlour, had been serving dumplings made with human meat, when I was asked if I wanted to go out for Chinese food (we did).

All in all, a very enjoyable read. An interesting subject told interestingly.

Buy Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers from Amazon and support this blog!

Legendary Northwoods Animals: A Field Guide by Galen Winter, illustrated by John Boettcher

Read: 21 August, 2015

I recently found myself in a friend’s home in Wisconsin with nothing to read. This was part of the plan; I never bring more to read when I visit this friend than is strictly necessary for getting there, because she has the most wonderful book collection. Books, in fact, just like this one.

The premise is explained in the title, it is a field guide to the legendary animals of the northwoods. Except there’s no hodag, or other “established” legendary animals. Rather, Winter has just made up a bunch of legendary animals, then treated them as real, for a larf.

And a larf it is! I especially appreciated the number of slow-build jokes, where a detail mentioned early in the entry might not pay off until the very end of that entry, when it suddenly becomes clear that the name of the creature, read backwards, is the joke (for example).

While very funny throughout, I did find that it started to drag a bit by the end, and I don’t think that this book was meant to be read from cover to cover. Rather, this a book you might put on your coffee table or in your bathroom to be read an entry or two at a time.

The illustrations, done by John Boettcher, were quite beautiful. I enjoyed the wood-cut style, and they did a great job at capturing the absurd animals.

Buy Legendary Northwoods Animals: A Field Guide from Amazon and support this blog!

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Read: 4 April, 2013

Upon moving into a new home, Bryson discovered that he was living near an entrance to the Appalachian Trail. With far less consideration and forethought than would have been ideal, he decides to hike it’s length with Stephen Katz – a man he hadn’t seen in years and whom he couldn’t really stand.

I come from a hiking family, but have personally always been somewhat sedentary. So Bryson’s account of being an outsider, then briefly something of an insider, then once more an outsider resonated for me. In particular, where Bryson describes looking on as the more experienced hikers easily tackle obstacles that seem to him to be insurmountable (or at least extremely difficult).

Bryson uses his journey to talk about the history of both the trail and the environment surrounding it, including the rather depressing story of what we’ve done (and continue to do) to the plants and animals that once populated the areas the trail crosses.

The story is hilarious – laugh-out-loud funny, which my son found disconcerting as he was trying to nap. Bryson uses a lovely dry humour that keeps the story interesting and lively.

Bryson is rather a jerk and is very judgemental of the people he meets, but he does it in a way that gives the people a sort of secret depth, and an opportunity to introduce some side issues such as Katz’s battle with alcoholism.

It was a lovely little read that left me inspired to do a bit more walking of my own. I definitely recommend it to any ‘weekend hikers,’ or people with a history of biting off rather more than they can chew.

Buy A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail from Amazon and support this blog!

The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins

Read: 10 October, 2009

The Greatest Show on Earth is a fantastic introduction to the theory of evolution. Although marketed towards adults, I think it’s really more appropriate for a tween/early teen level, to provide a solid foundation in evolution.

The book is written in Dawkins’ approachable language, and he explains difficult concepts in a very simple and easy to understand way. Illustrations are well chosen and well used to emphasise his points.

The only real downside is that the preface dwells a bit too long on the Creationism issue. While terribly satisfying for the True Believer, it would be a turn off for someone neutral or leaning towards Creationism and interested in learning more. It’s a shame, although perhaps no more damaging that having the name Richard Dawkins printed on the cover.

Buy The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution from Amazon to support this blog!

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Read: 8 June, 2009

When Fiver senses that a great danger is coming to the warren, only his brother and a few others believe him. Unable to convince the other rabbits, this small band leaves on a journey in search of safety that takes them through farmyards, across roads and rivers, and into warrens with very different cultures.

This is an absolutely fantastic book. The adventure story alone is well worth the read, but the amateur mythicist in me was especially impressed with the construction of an entire rabbit culture and religious system, language included. Especially impressive is how familiar and, yet, distinctly alien the rabbit culture is. This rarely felt like a book about people that happens to be set in a rabbit setting. Rather, this was a book about rabbits, only slightly anthropomorphism. The characters and their culture retain a great deal of what can only be called ‘rabbitiness.’

Most books get at least one aspect right. Some get a few things right. When this happens, the book may be called masterful, or great. But Watership Down is one of the very few books that tempt me to use the word ‘perfection.’ This is a masterpiece and I think that anyone who hasn’t read it yet is somewhat impoverished. There’s something about it that just touches the Jungian collective subconscious. This is the hero with a thousand faces pulled off in a way that feels natural.

Though marketed as a children’s book (although perhaps a little too gruesome/frightening for younger kids), Watership Down is a must read for adults as well.

Buy Watership Down from Amazon to support this blog! And, also, bunnies!

Marley & Me by John Grogan

Read: 17 December, 2008

Entertaining, funny, sweet, and sad – but with no real substance. Marley & Me gives a nice snapshot into just over a decade of a couple’s life, from the time they get a new puppy, through the experience of having children, a new job, and moving to an entirely different part of the country, until the dog’s eventual death. It’s a sweet story and the writing language is quite good (more on that in a second), but there’s no real meat to the story.

The closest Grogan gets to adding a layer to his story is the idea that he could learn from Marley about how to live his own life. However, while this is mentioned a few times throughout the story (yes, he does come to the same epiphany at least twice), it never seems to have any impact on his life. He learns, but he never applies. And as far as epiphanies go, it’s not even a really good one. It’s fairly standard Hollywood comedy fare (“look, that guy is so crazy, man is he ever crazy! Hey, you know what? He really enjoys his life! Maybe I should be a little crazy too! But not really… not like him, anyway.”).

My other complaint is that the book is rather repetitive at times. It’s almost as though Grogan thought of two really great ways to say what he wanted to say – so rather than choose the best, he just stuck both in.

And finally, I didn’t really approve of the way the Grogan family treated Marley. I think we’ve all gotten a pet before fully realizing what that pet entails. However, I feel that they dealt with it poorly. The worst example of this would be putting the aged and dying (not to mention terrified of kennels) dog into a kennel while the family goes to Disneyland. It strikes me as unbelievably selfish. If they really considered Marley to be part of the family, they would have either waited until Marley was gone or found some way to accomodate his needs during their absence (especially considering Marley’s history with kennels).

The part that really gets to me is that the narrator doesn’t seem to have any sense whatsoever that going to Disneyland at such a time might have been selfish or harmful to his dog. The title refers to Marley as the “world’s worst dog,” and that gets to the heart of the problem: never does Grogan acknowledge that he may have made poor choices in the care of his dog. If Marley rips his nails out and breaks his teeth because he’s in a panic about being locked in a garage during a lightening storm, it’s because Marley’s a bad dog. It’s sad, and I think it’s indicative of a culture that treats animals as possessions and objects while simultaneously paying lip service to the idea that they are “part of the family.”

Other than that, the book is an entertaining read. It’s like watching TV – it’s a nice way to pass an afternoon, but it leaves me feeling still hungry at the end.

Buy Marley & Me from Amazon to support this blog!

Wild Animals in Captivity by Rob Laidlaw

Read: 17 September, 2008

I read this recently as part of my job and I must say that it was really quite interesting. It’s a quick read with lots of good pictures (some cute, some heartbreaking) and I feel that I did learn quite a bit reading it.

Wild Animals is written with a young (tween to early teen) audience in mind. Unlike most reference book authors for that age bracket, Laidlaw never comes off as condescending and certainly never minimizes the role children have to play in animal welfare. Quite the opposite, he challenges young readers to examine zoos for themselves and determine whether they are animal-friendly or not. If not, he provides a list of steps even the youngest animal welfare advocate can take to fix the situation, which includes such “grown-up” things as writing to their local newspapers.

I think my favourite part of the book comes near the end where he juxtaposes good conditions with bad ones. Rather than just say that zoos are bad or complain about everything that can go wrong, he actually cites examples where zoos (or parks) have had the right idea and improved conditions.

Because the book avoids talking down to the reader, it is certainly appropriate for adults. I recommend it for anyone, of any age, with a budding interest in animal welfare issues.

Buy Wild Animals in Captivity from Amazon to support this blog!