Tag Archives: nature

The Elephant Keeper – Christopher Nicholson

The Elephant Keeper’s main human character is Tom Page, a stable boy turned elephant expert in 18th century England. Tom’s story starts with the arrival of two half-dead baby elephants on a boat returning from India. Tom grows up with the elephants on a village estate and becomes the only person able or willing to understand the mighty beasties.

As the Fates (in the form of increasingly nasty people) try to manipulate and abuse the elephants for various reasons, from ivory farms to 18th century rapemobiles, Tom ties his own fate ever tighter to the lady elephant, Jenny. Jenny is the true star of the novel and Nicholson writes her with quiet, noble humor. Of all the characters in the book, Jenny is the only one you would wish as a friend. She’s portrayed so lovingly it becomes totally believable that Tom would sacrifice human interaction to stay by her side.

Tom himself is a bit of a washout, Jenny really deserves better. Nicholson’s depiction of Tom is of a man not quite gullible enough to be a lovable naif but too dumb to be an appealing hero. Still, Tom does his best to keep Jenny safe, and considering the sad end most menagerie animals faced during the 1700s, and even today, the story would have been far shorter had the elephant been without a keeper.


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Black Hills – Nora Roberts

rar! rar, rar, rar! roar! rar rar roar! growwwl! roar roar!

Oh, I’m sorry, don’t you speak mountain lion? Perhaps you shouldn’t read Black Hills then. It’s only for people who understand the soul of the Puma.

Actually, there’s a lot of sex in it too, so if you like sex and mountain lions, you’re all set.

Nora Roberts is a romance writer, “America’s Favorite Writer” according to The New Yorker (according to the back of the book). It could very well be true, I can believe that America likes sex and mountain lions. America also likes stories of childhood lovers who grow apart, but then find themselves facing a terrifying killer who threatens all that they hold dear.

America is totally riveted as the lovers, older now, but no less passionate, must find a way to learn to trust each other and let love back in to their hearts, while at the same time outwitting a maniacal and brilliant murderer who will stop at nothing to destroy them and live out his twisted fantasies.

Not only does Roberts leave America breathless with anticipation regarding the fate of Cooper Sullivan and Lil Chance, but she also teaches the country a lesson about conservation and our dwindling natural resources. Important resources, like mountain lions. RAR!

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Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer

Natures is not a loving mother. Nature wants to eat you. Eat you or lay eggs in you, or lay eggs in you and then let the eggs hatch and eat you. Nature is powerful and overwhelming, and at the very least, Nature should be thought of like Lenny from Mice and Men; liable to kill you accidentally and not even notice.

People are always wandering off in to Nature and coming to grief, and at first glance, that is the case of Chris McCandless in Into the Wild. Actually, at second glance too, that’s pretty much what happened, but the story surrounding Chris’ misadventure is more interesting than simply “Doofus Dies through own Foolishness” (the preferred title of my own biography; take note, friends. Clearly, one of you will be responsible for writing it).

Chris himself is not terrible fascinating (except to the author, who seems fairly smitten). He’s got unfair and impossible ideas about how other people should live their lives, and like many people who claim a strong moral path, he leaves a trail of broken hearts and worry behind him. What is fascinating is how the story brings up ideas of personal freedom, “healthy” social interaction and the human relationship to wilderness (Is it there to be conquered? To teach us humility? Does it exist just so bears stay out of  our swimming pools?)

Chris McCandless doesn’t have a unique story and Krakauer discusses the history of men being eaten by Nature.  Everett Ruess, who regularly ventured off in to untamed wild to escape the corruption and overwhelming civilization of city life also disappeared and was never seen again. What’s startling about this particular narrative is that Ruess was trying to escape the overly structured life of society of the West in the 1930’s! What would he have thought of today with our traffic cameras and state-fair-no-lard regulations?

Krakauer wrote Into the Wild as a follow-up to a magazine article published after McCandless’ death. He shares some of the  letters he received from magazine readers expressing surprising hatred towards Chris and others like him. Why do we as a people get so enraged by other people’s tragic mistakes? Is it jealousy of those who follow a dream? Fear of them that seem to have no need for the society which both binds and supports the majority of us? Perhaps it’s resentment of someone who willingly endangers their life, when we have all  had to say goodbye to someone beloved who left this world unwilling.

I apologize for a review made mostly of questions, but in the end, Into the Wild leaves more unanswered than solved. What drives us to try to live as cavemen, or to climb mountains made of pointy ice? Perhaps more importantly,  do bears write books detailing the tragic stories of cubs who simply couldn’t resist the call of human trash cans and picnic baskets?

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Filed under biography, non fiction

Memory – Elizabeth Loftus

According to Loftus’ research, people remember past events, and especially their own actions as more positive/generous/clever/attractive/successful than they actually were. Since I remember every humiliating thing I’ve ever done back to 4-year old tears due to a failed chocolate pudding painting, the idea that reality was actually WORSE than I remember is downright horrifying.

If you need me, I’ll be finishing this review from my closet, beneath a giant pile of shame.

Memory is a surprisingly easy read, and does bring up the interesting idea that better memory is partially a matter of simply being more observant in the first place.  We remember, says Loftus, the minimum information needed. As an example, she shares an experiment where subjects are asked first to draw a penny from memory, and then to pick an accurate drawing of a penny from a chart. People remember that a penny has some words, and President Lincoln, but which way does Lincoln face? What do the words say? Where are they on the coin? Almost no one knows, and it’s because it simply doesn’t matter. We only need to remember enough about a penny to distinguish it from other coins.

In other chapters Loftus discusses eye-witnesses, false memories, advertising’s effect on memory and cases of memory-savants. A useful chapter touches on ways of remembering more, or more accurately.

Loftus’ writing style is breezy and chatty, occasionally to the point of seeming flippant, and like all the psychiatric studies I’ve read, she seems to take a mild delight in fucking with people, but maybe I’m remembering it wrong.

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Adventures among the Ants – Mark Moffett

Hey, remember when you told me that you’d buy me an ice cream if I’d just freaking shut up about ants for a second? Well, I’ll buy my own dang ice cream. Here’s another ant related review.

You know how Buster Keaton somehow highlights the creature that is man through physical comedy? Well, if Keaton was a scientist, and instead of having houses fall around him, he was always being bitten by ants, he’d be Mark Moffett.

Moffett is a former student of the brilliant E.O Wilson and he clearly shares Wilson’s passion and keen eye for nature study. Unlike Wilson however, who seems always to be quietly whispering his observations to you (so tender), Moffett is a confident, funny man grown up in the hilarious-nature-host era of television. He’s bold and goofy and clumsy. He’s constantly disrupting weddings, falling from trees and of course, being bitten, stung and sprayed with toxic chemicals by all manner of amazing insects.

Adventures among the Ants is a great travelogue, biography, philosophical study and informative nature tome. You will want to immediately grab your macro lens and head out in search of exploding soldier ants and swimming pitcher plant guards.  You might also reconsider your ideas of individuality and devotion to fellow man. If you don’t like jungles you’ll get the mad heebie jeebies. Sissy.

Did you know…

that the bigger an ant colony is the more specialized its members can be?

that large colonies move quicker than small colonies, something also seen in humans?

that ants choose new homes by voting?

that the biggest ant war in the world is currently occurring in San Diego?

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Filed under non fiction, Review