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.

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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.

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