Friday, June 26, 2009

The Animal Dialogues, by Craig Childs

The Animal Dialogues is one of the best collections of nature writing I've read in years, which puts Craig Childs in the company of giants: Barry Lopez, Annie Dillard, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Terry Tempest Williams. I found myself wondering how Childs could possibly write such beautiful sentences. It's the strength of his subject matter - The Animal Dialogues is a study in raw personal experience, richly interwoven with natural history and adventure, and infused with an expansive understanding of the animal kingdom. Childs finds magic in all creatures great and small, from grizzly bears on the Alaskan tundra and mountain goats in a lightning storm to rare toads in desert canyons and owls in forest snowstorms. The sum of these experiences is a powerful reminder that humans are but a small part of this planet, and the more we pay attention to the world around us, the more we gain in wonder and grace.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino

In Invisible Cities, Marco Polo and Kublai Khan tell stories of the cities they've seen, imagined, dreamt, and remembered. The result is a diaphanous fantasy alternating between mirage and memory, like bridges slipping through river fog, or minarets wavering in desert heat. In the end, after a traveler's tour of cities possible and impossible, the two storytellers find themselves on common ground.

Invisible Cities is a great introduction to Calvino - short, but wide in scope; intelligent, yet accessible; dazzling, yet profound. I love this book, but I can't really explain why. It defies easy categorization or synopsis. Invisible Cities exists for no other reason than Calvino wrote it. It exists, like sunlight, without question. And like sunlight, it illuminates something inexpressible and mysterious. It provokes the same feelings I have when I return home after traveling outside the country - subtle shifts in perception and value that texture my home city with new light, adding deeper layers of understanding and meaning to my quotidian life.
I want to live in the cities Calvino describes, and it turns out that I already do - I just don't always see the remarkable, or hold the perspective necessary to observe beauty in the commonplace. Ask me to describe the city I live in, and I will describe my own life. Invisible Cities is kind of like that.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time, by Richard Conniff

Who knew that baboon social behavior resembles Jane Austen novels? Or that the ants in kid’s ant farms are among the most venomous of all arthropods? From big cats to horseshoe crabs and snapping turtles to termites, Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time is an adventurous and uncommon tour of the animal kingdom.

Richard Conniff writes with vibrancy and verve. His prose crackles with the leaves on an African savannah and shimmers with the sun on a Louisiana bayou. He’s self-deprecating and inquisitive, with a knack for drawing insight from unusual facts about animals and the people who study them: a scientist French-kissed by a hummingbird, a leopard tracker who writes field notes on his legs, and a researcher stung so many times by the insects he studies that he developed a scale to research the pain itself. Conniff’s experiences make for lively reading-leaping into a river full of piranha may get the title, but interviewing ranchers protecting livestock by shooting endangered cheetahs is equally as dangerous and just as provoking. Though animals form the heart of Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time, Conniff demonstrates that the practice of science is just as fascinating as the animals themselves.

This review originally appeared in the June, 2009 issue of The Sacramento Book Review.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Enchanted Hunters, by Maria Tatar

On first glance, Enchanted Hunters appears to be a blunt instrument of adult rationality operating on the magic and mystery of Oz. This academic history of children’s literature is a cultural and literary study where Dr. Seuss mixes with Hegel and J. M. Barrie with Walter Benjamin. But like children’s books themselves, Enchanted Hunters succeeds by appealing to curiosity and imagination, and by asking questions.

What do children experience while reading? How do stories work in shaping and developing children’s emotional and intellectual development? Tatar goes to the source to investigate, using examples from “Alice in Wonderland” to Harry Potter to elucidate the power of reading in childhood. Enchanted Hunters reveals that children’s literature is as complex, affecting and important, if not more so, than other genres of literature.
Tatar’s research is meticulous and her analysis insightful, and if her conclusions lead to more questions, it’s only fitting for a book that reignites our sense of wonder and the excitement of reading. Storytelling burns bright in Enchanted Hunters, a book for grown-ups that carries the torch lit by the beauty, horror, adventure, and possibility found in the books we read as children, and that we read to our children today.
This review originally appeared in the June, 2009 issue of The Sacramento Book Review.