Book Natter

Searching For Pekpek: Cassowaries And Conservation In The New Guinea Rainforest

Andrew L. Mack, Cassowary Conservation & Publishing, 2014

 

Pekpek

You won’t find a lot of cassowaries in this book, just a lot of their droppings. What you will find is a beautifully written, well-told story of a biologist who goes to the Papua New Guinea (PNG) rainforest to live among the native Pawai’ia and do basic research. In the process he learns a great deal about how cassowaries distribute seed throughout the forest, and a great deal more about the challenges and heartbreaks of international conservation.

 

Of course it all starts with pekpek, the Pawai’ia name for cassowary dung. Mack brings a literary flair even to the description of shit:

 

I have come to see the forest as the end result of many scats and regurgitations by many species of frugivore over hundreds of years. Every tree has a story to tell, of storms, landslides, attack by wood-borers, and competition with neighbors over decades and decades; and all those stories begin with a splat.

But it’s not all about scat. Mack looks up and out as well as down. The book is rich in sensory detail, bringing alive the sights, sounds, and smells of an area few of us will ever visit.

The aroma of rainforest rises hundreds of feet up, and although much of it comes from decomposing vegetation, it is the rich smell of life. If colors have an odor, this is what green smells like.

Though the book begins with Mack establishing a research station for studying seed dispersal (among other things), it soon opens up, like a gap in the canopy, to encompass political and social issues of biological research and particularly of conservation efforts. Along the way we learn a great deal about the culture of rural PNG, the many and varied infections and other illnesses that lurk in the rainforest, the dangers of rivers in flood and treacherous trails, as well as the joys of sitting under a metal roof drinking tea, listening to rain, and watching the forest go about its life around you. We meet a cast of delightful and eccentric characters, both heroes and villains. The book is very often funny, occasionally quite suspenseful, and consistently entertaining. Its delights include an hilarious description of a constipated cassowary and an exciting story of tracking radio-tagged seeds. Mack is very good at building suspense.

But the heart of the book is less about the challenges of living and working in the rainforest than about the challenges and complexities of international conservation. Mack ruthlessly and incisively identifies the flaws and faults of what he calls “Big Conservation.” But Mack does not merely gripe. He offers an alternative, and this story is how, through many years of in-country experience, he gradually learned what was needed for truly successful conservation and began putting it into practice. As the story unfolds, Mack’s emphasis shifts from independent research to developing native expertise, putting into the hands of the nationals the knowledge and skills they need to care for their own land. For most readers this will be a proposition both radical and, once they reach the end of the book, self-evident.

Searching For Pekpek is a must-read for anyone involved in international conservation efforts (donors as well as administrators and scientists), but also for anyone who loves good science and nature writing.

The book is well-edited and the ebook is nicely formatted with a beautiful cover and many excellent photographs and illustrations. It has been a long time since I read at book that was at once so entertaining and instructive. I will never look at those donation requests the same way again.

The Perpetual Astonishment Of Jonathon Fairfax

Christopher Shevlin, 2013

Jonathon Fairfax cover art

 

 

To give you an idea of how much I love this book, I’ll tell you this: I was reading it when Ocean At The End Of The Lane, Neil Gaiman’s latest, arrived. I couldn’t make myself start Ocean until I had finished Jonathon Fairfax.

When I heard that Douglas Adams had died, not knowing Adams or his family personally, I grieved for Dirk Gently. I am still bummed that there will never be another Dirk Gently novel and that I will never know how Salmon of Doubt turns out. I have found some solace, however, in meeting Jonathon Fairfax. Fairfax is not remotely like Dirk Gently himself, lacking both Dirk Gently’s enormous self-confidence and well, his essential Dirk Gently-ness. But Shevlin’s writing style, his wonderful way with eccentric characters, and his knack for combining kindness, silliness, and more than a few touching surprises all fill a spot left by Adams. But don’t get the idea that this is a derivative book. Shevlin is definitely doing his own thing here. And he’s doing it very well.

Loveable Jonathon Fairfax has recently moved to London from a less exciting part of England and is living in a cheap bedsit, hoping to make friends. He does make friends. He also stumbles onto a murder, a massive government conspiracy, and other bizarre goings-on. While the plot is fine, Shevlin’s brilliance lies in creating characters you hate to leave when the book is over (even with Ocean At The End Of The Lane waiting on the end table) and in the quirky way he sees and describes them and their world.

[Describing the murder victim’s house] “All around were other domestic refugees in this camp for displaced décor.”

and

“There was a pause. Both still stood in the same positions, ready to deal with a conversation, should one break out.”

Shevlin’s descriptions of London traffic and parking woes are almost a sub genre within the book. The slow-motion chase scene alone is worth the reasonable price of the ebook. The way Shevlin evokes Jonathon’s social awkwardness is delightful. I was, at least at first, a little disappointed in the role Jonathon plays in the denouement. But upon reflection, it was perfectly in character, part of Jonathon’s essential Jonathon Fairfax-ness. If you like funny books with engaging characters, please give this book a try. I for one am going to be on the watch for Shevlin’s next.

 

Capital

John Lanchester

Norton, 2012

Capital

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Lanchester’s most recent novel, Capital, opens with a historical portrait of Pepys Road, a fictional residential street in London, and then commences to tell the story of a loosely connected group of characters (connected by not much more than that they all live, have lived, or work on Pepys Road) during the economic disaster that was 2008. From an investment banker and his wife to Pakistani grocers to a graffiti artist and his dying grandmother, no character is untouched by the economic upheavals going on around them. Yet just as the opening description of Pepys Road fades into the background as the narrative closes in on the lives being lived there, both the economic context and the socio-economic relations of the characters prove less significant than the personal struggles of the characters themselves. At the outset of the book we learn that the residents of Pepys Road are receiving disturbing postcards featuring photographs of their houses and the message “We Want What You Have.” Yet even this mystery carries less Marxist baggage than I expected. This novel managed to deconstruct all the assumptions occasioned by a novel called Capital and set in 2008, and replace them with renewed insight into complex humans, living complex lives in a world that, as the history of Pepys Road suggested, is ever-changing, but for all that upheaval, somehow comfortingly constant as well.

There was never a moment when I didn’t enjoy this book. But there were moments, early on, when I thought it might be a little trite. The rich and those aspiring to be rich were self-involved and annoying; the not-so-rich were more sympathetic. Of course I loved them all. Lanchester so obviously loves his characters the reader can’t but love them, too. Yet still I had the feeling that they were all playing their roles, that we weren’t breaking any new ground here. But about a third of the way through the book, it became quite clear that something much more complex and interesting was being explored. The guy who was a total zero a few pages back proved himself capable of kindness and self-doubt. The hardworking immigrant trying to earn money to help his parents retire in comfort became a little less heartwarming. Even the least likeable primary character in the book (and the only one who was not redeemed in some way by the end), took on hues of humanity, became subtly more than the caricature I had thought her to be.

Capital was recommended to me in part because I love houses. In this book, I was told, the houses are almost characters themselves. I did not find that to be true. The houses aren’t characters here, but money is. In fact, the book could be said to be named after the main character. The story carefully and tenderly explores each character’s relationship with money. You might expect from a book like this (I certainly did), that typical English issue with class, and while this is certainly a novel of manners, it transcends that genre in odd and deeply satisfying ways.

Lanchester’s contempt for a society obsessed with money is apparent on almost every page, yet this contempt does not extend to his characters, who are treated tenderly and are the means by which Capital shows us that while the material conditions of our lives may constrain us, the spiritual conditions with which we endure those lives is what ultimately frees us.

Elysian Fields

Mark LaFlaur

Mid-City Books, 2013

Elysian Fields cover shot

In the opening scene of this wonderful debut novel, a southern gothic that is at times comedic, at times heartbreaking, the protagonist, Simpson Weems, considers murdering his brother. We do not learn what Simpson ultimately decides until the end of the book. After the opening scene, the story becomes an extended flashback. Simpson spends the rest of the book dealing with the past, his own past and that of his family—pasts that are, as William Faulkner wrote and Simpson reminds us, never dead, not even past.

LaFlaur certainly pays his respects to Faulkner, and echoes of Flannery O’Connor can be heard on almost every page, but it is The Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole, that Elysian Fields most evokes. If at times Simpson Weems and his brother Bartholomew seem like two halves of the same person, it is Ignatius J. Reilly the combined pair most resemble, though I am assuming the tongue-in-cheek allusion to Bart Simpson was not accidental. In places Elysian Fields is as heavy as summer air in New Orleans, but it most definitely has a sense of humor.

Simpson Weems thinks of himself as a poet, though he has not written anything since college, fifteen years before. He has spent those fifteen years working in a copy shop and helping his aging mother and his hyper-religious, mentally defective (though highly intelligent) brother, Bartholomew. All the while he has been plotting his escape to San Francisco, where he intends to follow the tradition of the great Beat poets. Simpson is convinced that freeing himself from his clinging family and starting anew in San Francisco is the only way he will ever be able to write again—even if he has to resort to murder to get away. Yet it is clearly not only his family that interferes with Simpson’s artistic ambitions. Simpson is almost a parody of the blocked writer. He has become:

a ruthlessly efficient self-cancellation machine that rejected as unworthy each little idea and would not accept a rough draft.

Simpson Weems is not only a blocked writer, he is a blocked human being. He is no more capable of addressing his personal problems than of writing a poem. Impotence of one kind or another is a recurring theme. Repressed or otherwise inhibited sexuality afflicts almost every character. Even the fire alarm in Simpson’s apartment is unable to respond with sufficient vigor:

An electronic voice warned, “Fire! Fire!” but the batteries were low, so the warning sounded like a mortally wounded Confederate artillery captain ordering “fiyah . . .”

Only the city itself seems able to sustain any passion. New Orleans is as much a character as are the people in the story. The narrative is drenched with the weather, the smells, the very heaviness of the air in New Orleans. A sense of impending doom hovers over this pre-Katrina setting:

The land, unreplenished, was sinking, the seawater coming closer, and, although few could bear to think about it, some could foresee the day when New Orleans would be surrounded like the city of Venice—gondoliers on Canal Street—and finally would be inundated like Atlantis. Eventually the man-made structures would collapse and sink beneath the salt water, and once again the Gulf of Mexico’s waves would wash up against the bluffs at Baton Rouge, as Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi said they used to do. In time to come, legends would tell of the enchanting river city that subsided, submerged—sunk beneath the weight of sin and corruption, some would say—and centuries from now they would wonder whether such a place had ever really existed.

And it is the city as much as Simpson’s family commitments that hold him:

Just saying the streets’ names felt like casting a spell. Was he seriously going to move away?

As Simpson’s story is told in flashbacks of the Weems family history, the point of view moves capriciously from character to character, as if searching for truth, or if no truth is to be had, a position from which an acceptable approximation can be fashioned. By the end, however, we are firmly in Simpson’s world where he finally manages to take definitive action in life, though not quite the action he had planned, and with slightly different results than he expected.

This is an impressive debut that will leave readers looking forward to Laflaur’s next offering.

The Uninvited

Liz Jensen

Bloomsbury, 2012

 Uninvited

This is the third Liz Jensen book I’ve read, and it is my favorite so far. I thought it would be hard to beat The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, but I think I love The Uninvited even more. In this one Jensen again visits the themes of environmental apocalypse and psychotic children. Trust me, this works better than it sounds.

Children all over the world are wigging out and killing beloved adults: their parents, grandparents, teachers—usually in bizarre and gruesome ways. Meanwhile, the narrator, Hesketh Lock, who is a corporate anthropologist, is trying to get to the bottom of a series of acts of equally bizarre corporate sabotage.

Lock has Asperger’s syndrome, which turns out the be a perfect way to tell this story—Lock is, as you might expect, a perfectly reliable narrator. Jensen manages to keep him true to his quirky personality and yet have him show surprising insight into the remarkable things that are happening around him. You might not expect it, but the reader comes to really care about Lock. Jensen does a superb job of letting you get to really know a character who is on so many levels unknowable.

The bizarre events both in the corporate world and in homes reflect the bizarre events going on in the world. Lock is the only one capable of seeing the patterns and making sense of what is going on. What is actually happening turns out to be more profound than horrifying, and the ending, while not exactly happy, is more uplifting than that of The Rapture.

The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature

David George Haskell

Viking, 2012

Sacred art in Hindu and Buddhist traditions often takes the form of mandalas. Mandala is a Sanskirt word that can be translated as circle. In Indian religions, beautiful Mandalas are used, among other things, as aids in meditation. Because they represent the wholeness and unity of all life, and of the universe itself, they can help one to ponder very large ideas by contemplating a very small space, or as the poet William Blake said, “to see a world in a grain of sand.”

In the new book The Forest Unseen, biologist David George Haskell used the idea of a mandala to think about nature. He marks out his own mandala, a circle just over a meter across, to see if he can answer the question, “Can the whole forest be seen through a small contemplative window of leaves, rocks, and water?” Haskell’s mandala is in a patch of old-growth forest in Southern Tennessee. He visits it regularly, almost daily, for a year, taking readers along to share his observations and meditations. As it turns out, he sees far more than the whole forest through this small window.

If this sounds like a recipe for boring (245 pages all about one small circle of ground in a Tennessee forest?), be assured that, as with monks meditating on their mandalas or the poet seeing the universe in a grain of sand, that meter of ground in Tennessee is just the source. Haskell remains on that square meter only literally. From that small patch of old-growth forest in Southern Tennessee, Haskell takes you, figuratively and imaginatively, to many more places you’ve never been before.

While reading The Forest Unseen you will learn a lot, quite effortlessly, but the interesting facts – how birds keep warm in winter, how dehydration threatens ticks, how fireflies flash — are of less importance than the sheer joy of visiting the mandala along with Haskell and seeing what unfolds there from day to day and season to season.

The Forest Unseen contains its share of harsh realities (extinctions, vanishing habitats), but unlike many books designed to make readers care about nature, it doesn’t rely on cautionary tales or guilt to do the job. It takes you sweetly by the hand and leads you into the forest to make introductions.

The book is slow, gentle, kind. Reading it made me want to stake out my own small circle of the universe, just to watch and listen and think — and see what happens.

You can read The Forest Unseen all the way through in order, and you may want to. But it is also a great book for visiting from time to time, just the way Haskell visited his mandala.

 

Ella Enchanted

Gail Carson Levine

Harper Collins, 1997

Retellings of fairly tales are common enough, but this modern take on the Cinderella story is far better than most. Here Ella (short for Eleanor, not Cinderella) is saddled with more than a wicked stepfamily. At Ella’s birth a misguided fairy gave her the “gift” of obedience. She has in fact been cursed with an inability to disobey a direct command. Throughout her childhood, Ella finds entertaining and ingenious ways to cope with the curse. But later, on the verge of adulthood, she discovers that if she cannot find a way to remove the curse, it will mean not only her own undoing, but the undoing of the people and the land she loves.

The story features elves and gnomes and ogres and giants – and yes, a pumpkin-turned-carriage and a charming Prince (Charmont, known to friends and family simply as Char). What is most delightful about this version of the Cinderella story is that Ella and Char actually meet, get to know one another, and fall in love over the course of a witty and romantic courtship. Their relationship is based on friendship and respect, not just a few dances at a ball. However, there is an obstacle to their happiness, an obstacle far more sinister than simply turning, at the stroke of midnight, into a charwoman sitting atop a pumpkin. Ella must solve this problem before she can get on with the business of living happily ever after. And, of course, she gets it terribly wrong before she sets it right.

What Ella ultimately achieves is not simply to be loved, but to be known, and nonetheless loved for what she is. In another popular fairy tale, recently adapted, a “princess” has to give up her voice to get what she wants. In this story Ella has to gain her own voice and gain control of her life in order to get what she wants, and save the kingdom in the bargain.

Levine is not at all heavy-handed with this feminist interpretation. In the end, Ella is saved (and saves the day) by love. It is not, however, the superficial love of most fairy tales and their adaptations. Ella’s is not a “princess” story about some empty-headed princess wannabe for whom scoring a husband (whose value is based solely on his wealth and good looks) is the main goal in life. It is instead a story about the redeeming power of love. Real love. The happily ever after is hard-won and genuine.

 

Passionate Vegetarian

Crescent Dragonwagon

Workman, 2002

Screen shot 2013-04-02 at 11.20.42 AM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All too many vegetarian cookbooks focus on how to make vegetarian cooking quick and easy. And it is true that vegetarian cooking, especially when done with fresh, whole ingredients, can be both time and labor intensive. But for people who love to cook, this is not a challenge to be overcome but a pleasure to be indulged.

For those who think of cooking as play and food as one of the prime joys of life, The Passionate Vegetarian by Crescent Dragonwagon is another pleasure worth indulging. This is definitely not a book that will tell you how to put a healthy meal on the table with little effort or thought. It is a book that will remind you that cooking and eating and sharing food are fundamental elements of a civilized life.

It is not that the recipes are particularly difficult (they are not, though many are somewhat time-consuming), but that they are engaging. For example, in the chapter on hors d’oeuvres, Dragonwagon includes not only plenty of the expected (and a few unexpected) dips, spreads and what she calls “slathers,” but also a variety of homemade crackers, toasts, and crunchy breads to serve with them. An entire chapter is devoted to savory cobblers and gratins, and another hefty chapter just to stews.

Passionate Vegetarian is not just for cooking, though. It is equally fun for browsing. Dragonwagon includes interesting bits about the origins of her recipes and fascinating lore about the foods themselves. The book is also littered with personal anecdotes and asides. While the personal stories and family jokes do not always translate well to the page (occasionally leaving one with a sense that a fascinating person dropped by for coffee and, though charming, stayed a bit too long and chattered a little too much), it is at least in part the biographical context that transforms this unique book from a marvelous collection of recipes into a touching reminder of what really matters in life.

While she was completing the writing of the book, Dragonwagon’s beloved husband was killed in a bicycling accident. In the introduction, she briefly tells the story of their life together and of his death. She did not, however, change the tense of the verbs or nature of the stories in the text to reflect his absence. The combined effect of the passionate approach to food and eating and the love for life that survives her enormous loss is a stunning affirmation of life.

Passionate Vegetarian is a book for people who love food, or more precisely, for people whose love of food is a central part of their love for life.

 

M is for Magic

Neil Gaiman

HarperCollins, 2007

This collection of short stories intended for young readers, by the author of The Graveyard Book, is a perfect example of how good literature can transcend age levels. Many of the stories in M is for Magic are also in Fragile Things and Smoke and Mirrors, Gaiman’s collections intended for adult readers.

The stories in this collection include a funny and sweet story about an elderly woman who picks up the Grail at a second-hand shop (yes, you read that right — THE Grail, as in Holy Grail) and the enchanting young man who comes looking for it; a very creepy story about a stray cat; and a disturbing story about a runaway who finds a friend in a cemetery. And speaking of cemeteries, if you’ve read The Graveyard Book, you will recognize one of the stories: “The Witch’s Headstone.”

These stories cover so many styles and so many themes that there are bound to be more than a few to delight you in this superb collection of some of Gaiman’s best.

 

Ambril’s Tale: The Return of the Dailluth (Book 1) by Wendy D. Walter

Angry Bicycle Press, 2012

 

Any mention of the fantasy genre these days brings to mind Harry Potter, particularly if school-age magic workers just discovering their talents are involved. However, it is worth noting that J.K. Rowling didn’t invent child wizards, schools of witchcraft, or many of the familiar tropes of the Harry Potter series. She simply worked in a tradition that goes back a long way. She did it beautifully, of course, but so did many before her, including Ursula K. Le Guin, Susan Cooper, and Diana Wynne Jones.

With Ambril’s Tale, Wendy D. Walter has made her first contribution to this venerable genre. While Potter comparisons are inevitable, it is the work of Diana Wynne Jones that leaps to mind when seeking to place Ambril’s Tale in its proper place in the lineage of children’s literature. Walter’s off-beat humor, unique characters, and engaging story are similar to Jones at her best.

 

Ambril’s Tale begins with 14-year-old Ambril Derwyn, along with her mom and older brother, moving back to Trelawnyd, the town where Ambril was born. The trio left Trelawnyd shortly after the mysterious death of Ambril’s father when Ambril was a toddler. It is not clear why Ambril’s mom has decided to return to the town they fled for reasons no one has bothered to explain to Ambril. What is clear is that Trelawnyd is one strange place.

In an interesting inversion of the Harry Potter world, in Trelawnyd it is the magic-wielders who catch grief. The townsfolk are proud of their founding families (the Derwyns included), but they insist that stories of magic are mere myths. Ambril very soon learns otherwise, as she discovers her own magical talent.

The story is as much mystery as fantasy as Ambril and her new friends work to discover what happened to Ambril’s dad and what secrets the town hides. The story is very funny, but the driving mystery and undercurrent of threat are quite serious. The town bully is so thoroughly nasty he makes Draco Malfoy look positively charming. Best-friend, Sully, is a font of wise-cracks and gallows-humor. After a particularly close call Sully deadpans, “That was fun in a horrible, near-death kind of way.”

Walter practices a magic too few writers are capable of wielding: putting readers right there in the story where they can see and hear and smell everything, yet never burdening the story with endless description. Her descriptions are the work of a true wordsmith:

 

…her white hair escaped her hat and tested the air currents”

and

a collection of dinged old trophies, as if the sport had continued after the trophies had been handed out.”

The ending is frustrating, however. A humorous garden scene goes on far too long, dispersing the tension. Then Walter tosses Ambril into mortal danger, only to tell readers to wait for Book Two for resolution, answering few if any of the many questions the story has posed. I hope the next installment has a more satisfying ending with less unfinished business. Walter does not need to resort to cliffhangers to keep her audience. She’s given readers a story, characters, and a writing style they’ll be eager to come back to.