Tag Archives: Bloomsbury Press

38 Species x 9 Lives

Wild cats

Wild Cats of the World by Luke Hunter, Illustrated by Priscilla Barrett (Bloomsbury, $40.00, 240 pages)

Wild Cats of the World is a coffee table sized book that at first glance looks like it would be the perfect gift for any feline lover. The book examines 38 species of small and big cats, augmented with beautiful photos and sketches. It also imparts interesting information, like the fact that female cats are actually more efficient hunters than males – since they don’t stalk things they can’t kill, and that wildcats can live a full 19 years in captivity. It’s also repeatedly stated that wildcats can and do interbreed with domestic cats.

Wildcat 2

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Unfortunately, this book has several weaknesses. Hunter is far too concerned with what each type of cat kills and eats; there are too many photos of cats with their prey – which deems it unsuitable to be kept around children; and the book over-emphasizes the issue of extinction of species. What could have been a joyful celebration of the world’s most successful mammal – one that exists in both large and small forms – becomes a depressing, dragged-out, textbook-like read.

There’s not enough attention paid to the 43 breeds of domestic cats, which are far from extinct with 500 million of them serving as beloved pets, and an additional 500 million living as feral creatures. (500 million feral versions of Felis catus/Felis silvestris definitely equals a very successful type of wild cat!) And the high-priced book is poorly edited (“[a] survey must… continue for a long enough to sample…”).

Overall, a miss instead of a hit.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on October 13, 2015.

Note: There’s another book titled Wild Cats of the World, authored by Mel Sunquist and Fiona Sunquist (Chicago University Press).

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Neanderthal Man

Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans by Brian Fagan (Bloomsbury Press, $28.00, 295 pages)

In the promotional materials, this promised to be a unique look at the first human beings, Cro-Magnons.   It also was said to contain a look at the interactions between Cro-Magnons and their less evolved contemporaries and rivals, the Neanderthals.   Sadly, this survey book fails to deliver on these promises.

The author, Brian Fagan, examines various views of early and pre-human history and then asks, “But what do we know?”   The answer is – not much.   He goes on to apply this answer to the question of when Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals first discovered fire.   And as to how and when Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals interacted, Fagan offers only weak (quite weak) guesses.

On one key point the author has now been shown to be completely wrong.   On the issue of whether Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals interbred he states, “Most experts think they did not.”   But the latest research (“Evidence Suggests Early Humans Mated with Neanderthals”) indicates that they did in fact breed with each other, and a small but not insignificant percentage of human beings today – most of whom live in Europe/Eastern Europe – are their direct descendants.

A bigger flaw with this work is that Fagan never humanizes, in a very literal sense, these ancestral creatures.   It is left to Donald Johanson and his exemplary “Lucy” series to make us feel the sense of connectedness lacking in Cro-Magnon.   A major opportunity missed.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

Take Away:  If you’re interested in the beginnings of humankind, two essential books are Lucy: How Our Oldest Human Ancestor Was Discovered – And Who She Was by Donald Johanson and Maitland Edey (Touchstone Books/Simon and Schuster), and Lucy’s Child: The Discovery of a Human Ancestor by Donald Johanson and James Shreeve (Avon Books).   Dr. Johanson more recently joined with Kate Wong to write Lucy’s Legacy: The Quest for Human Origins, which was released in June of this year by Three Rivers Press. 

Joseph Arellano

 

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A Small Furry Prayer

A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by Steven Kotler (Bloomsbury; $25.00; 320 pages)

Animal lovers of each and every type will love A Small Furry Prayer.   I’m a cat person and yet this story got me to thinking about the joys of living with a dog.   Note that I deliberately did not use the phrase “owning a dog,” as Kotler makes clear that every canine retains a measure of independence.

“My home was now an environment where some level of danger and unpredictability – two of the defining characteristics of wildness – were part of the basic package.”

This tale of a dog rescuing fortyish couple starts in Los Angeles before moving to the comparative wilds of New Mexico.   They begin by serving as emergency foster parents to one dog, then two before winding up living in a dilapidated farm-house in Chimayo, New Mexico – with 20 dogs!   (They later lose count of the total when it exceeds 20.)  

Steven Kotler and his wife Joy (known to the locals as el angel de los perros) wind up being less foster parents than the providers of a wooly home for abandoned dogs.   Because six or so of the dogs are Chihuahuas their abode comes to be known as Rancho de Chihuahua.

The Kotlers don’t have a lot of money in 2008 but nevertheless they must purchase $500 worth of good quality dog food each week (sickly dogs require good nutrition) and spend their savings on expensive life-saving operations for their wards.   Kotler is sceptical that he’s going to get much payback from this situation other than having kept his commitment to following Joy’s number one rule in life:  “Love me, love my dogs.”

Eventually, of course, Kotler gets his reciprocation in the form of love and acceptance from the rescued dogs, some of whom had been feral and mistrusting of humans.   And there’s the instance in which one of the dogs saves the author’s life when a mountain climbing expedition goes bad.   The dogs, in a sense, demonstrate that love and affection is always paid back in full.

As a former newspaper and magazine writer, Kotler is used to doing extensive research and in this book he includes many fascinating summaries of research performed with animals.   Much of the research verifies the benefits – mental and physical – that dogs and other animals bring to our existence.   Kotler also makes a convincing case for the notion that the modern dog is just as smart as (but perhaps shrewder than) his wolf ancestors.

At the end of Prayer, the reader will likely come to accept the positive message that our lives on this planet are meant to be shared with furry creatures; creatures that are never owned but which reward us with their unique and special presence.   Part of the truth about what it really means to be human can be expressed in the phrase, “Love me, love my animals.”

Well recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.   A Small Furry Prayer will be released by Bloomsbury USA on Tuesday, September 28, 2010.

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A Sneak Peek

Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans by Brian Fagan (Bloomsbury Press, $28.00)

Four dots move along a riverbank in a black and gray Ice Age landscape of 40,000 years ago, the only sign of life on a cold, late autumn day.   Dense morning mist swirls gently over the slow-moving water, stirring fitfully in an icy breeze.   Pine trees crowd on the riverbank, close to a large clearing where aurochs and bison paw through the snow for fodder.   The fur-clad family move slowly — a hunter with a handful of spears, his wife carrying a leather bag of dried meat, a son and daughter.   The five-year-old boy dashes to and fro brandishing a small spear.   His older sister stays by her mother, also carrying a skin bag.   A sudden gust lifts the clinging gloom on the far side of the stream.  

Suddenly, the boy shouts and points, then runs in terror to his mother.   The children burst into tears and cling to her.   A weathered, hirsute face with heavy brows stares out quietly from the undergrowth on the other bank.   Expressionless, yet watchful, its owner stands motionless, seemingly oblivious to the cold.   The father looks across, waves his spear and shrugs.   The face vanished as silently as it had appeared.

As light snow falls, the family resume their journey, the father as always watchful, eyes never still.   During the climb to the rock shelter, he tells his children about their elusive, quiet neighbors, rarely seen and almost never encountered face to face.   There had been more of them in his father’s and grandfather’s day, when he had seen them for the first time.   Now sightings are unusual, especially in the cold months.   They are people different from us, he explains.   They do not speak like we do; we cannot understand them, but they never do us any harm.   We just ignore them…

Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals:  this most classic of historical confrontations, sometimes couched in terms of brutish savagery versus human sophistication, has fascinated archaeologists for generations.   On the side stand primordial humans, endowed with great strength and courage, possessed of the simplest of clothing and weaponry, seemingly incapable of fluent speech, with only limited intellectual powers.   On the other are the Cro-Magnons, the first anatomically modern Europeans, with articulate speech, innovation, and all the impressive cognitive abilities of Homo sapiens.   They harvest game large and small effortlessly with highly efficient weapons and enjoy a complex, sophisticated relationship with their environment, their prey, and the forces of the supernatural world.   We know that the confrontation ended with the extinction of the Neanderthals, perhaps about 30,000 years ago.   But how it unfolded remains one of the most challenging and fascinating of all Ice Age mysteries.

This is an excerpt from the book Cro-Magnon, released by Bloomsbury Press on March 2, 2010.   Very recent research on ancient DNA samples suggests that some Neanderthals may have interbred with modern humans (Cro- Magnons); a fascinating concept meaning that modern human beings are composed of both the winners and losers of this evolutionary battle of rival creatures.   We expect to post a review of Cro-Magnon on this site in the future. 

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For the Cause

The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement by Miriam Pawel

The Union of Their Dreams by Miriam Pawel is a unique if troubling look at the rise and fall of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union under the direct leadership of the late Cesar Chavez.   It is troubling because it is a tale told from the perspective of “disaffected former staff”, to use Chavez’s own words.   In addition to detailing the history of the UFW, the book focuses on the purges of early members/followers from the UFW, prior to Chavez’s death in 1993.

Perhaps this is the first attempt to demythologize a man correctly described in the book as “a world-famous icon.”   If so, the reader should keep in mind that this is but one version of the events that occurred.   A farm worker states in the book, “…we (need to) also listen to another interpretation of events.”   We hear little from two key UFW figures in the book, Delores Huerta of Stockton – a woman who appeared on stage with Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles on the night he was assassinated – and Gilbert Padilla; although Padilla is finally forced to leave the UFW.

Pawel has clearly advanced the record on the UFW’s achievements and failings.   But it will likely be decades before a balanced and comprehensive view of Chavez’s life, legend and leadership is told.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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