Sunday, March 23, 2014

Jeff Corwin's Explorer Series: Sharks

Why I Read It: Met Jeff, and he told me it was coming out. Grew up on a peninsula, too, which helped stoke my interest in everything in the sea as a kid.

Summary: Part life of the sharks of today, part Shark-o-pedia, wriiten for middle schoolers on up.

My Thoughts: I think the one thing I like best about Jeff Corwin's books is their bluntness about natural facts. He has a way of letting the reader know that nature is blunt. If an older sibling feels it needs to kill a younger sibling to survive, it will, heartlessly and wantonly. There are no societal mores at play when it's kill or be killed for survival.

This book is readable by middle schoolers, and as a naturalist at a nature center, I enjoyed thinking about how to use it to teach others about these fascinating creatures, only a few of which I've seen in the wild.

Now onto terrifying facts about sharks.

1. They have what are called ampullae of Lorenzini, sensors that can detect traces of metal, in their heads. When a hammerhead shark waves his head over the ground, he's acting as a metal detector.
2. Sharks probably rest only parts of their brain at a time. That means that white sharks can cruise the oceans without ever really being fully asleep.
3. Some sharks can lose a tooth, and then regenerate it within as little as a day. Oh, great.

But in actuality, your chances of being killed by a shark are 1 in 263,000,000. We've overhyped their dangers since the 1970s, since, you guessed it, Jaws. The real harrowing fact is that we kill them in unfathomable numbers and sadly, we've almost killed them all. They survived the first five great extinctions of life on earth, but as we live through the sixth, we're taking them down. Of the 2,000-3,000 species of sharks known to have been on the planet, we're down to about 400. And there are repercussions. Take out any apex predator and watch as the next level down multiplies.

As an added bonus, this book comes with embedded video, for those with the right platform.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Between Man and Beast: A Tale of Exploration & Evolution by Monte Reel

Why I Read It: Reviewed it for the Amazon Vine program, plus it was the perfect blend of nature and history for me.

Summary: The story of Paul Du Chaillu's adventures in Africa in pursuit of gorillas, and his lengthier, nastier encounters with the people of Great Britain.

My Thoughts: What a world we lived in, in those Victorian times.

I wasn't there, of course, but have sometimes been so immersed in research about the time period that it feels like I was. Even so, there are some things I don't think I could ever get used to, like the ideas on race that were widely held at that time. I just have a different baseline, and can't imagine slipping backwards to the baseline of 1855.

Our protagonist, an explorer of dubious origin - especially as it comes to race - sets off to Africa with the intent of bringing back the first gorillas to the civilized western world. He starts with America, where he is basically viewed as a sideshow peddler, and then visits England, where he becomes the most talked about person in the highest circles of London. But where there's fame, there are critics and jealousy. His apparent successes are torn down, his every scientific notion shredded, justly or unjustly. He returns to Africa to try again, and has an epiphany. He trades his guns for scientific observation tools.

The story is part African adventure, part Victorian London navigation. Du Chaillu has to weave his way through minefields of dissent and doubt, even accusations that he may be one of "them" (black) in a world that knew that people of African origin were more animalistic than uiman. It was a world that believed, with almost all of its heart, that black folk were closer kin to gorillas than white folk were to black folk - and, boy, was that world in for a rude awakening in a few short years.

Du Chaillu influenced many writers, including T.H. Huxley, Arthur Conan Doyle and Merian C. Cooper (King Kong). Strangely, Edgar Rice Burroughs is not mentioned, but I would guess that before embarking on the Tarzan saga, he would have at least known of Paul and his work.

Next step? We can go back to the beginning and read Paul's own work, which has been digitized: Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824 by Harvey Sachs

Why I Read It: I'm a firm believer in setting the background before telling a story. What was the world around Beethoven like when he composed the Ninth?

Summary: The seminal moments of the year in which Beethoven debuted his Ninth Symphony, and a study of that masterpiece.

My Thoughts: What is it that has made Beethoven's Ninth Symphony stand out over time as one of the most revered pieces of music ever written and performed? Why does it affect us the way it does? Why does the repetitive sixteen-note score, played by different instruments at varying volumes and sung bu different voices, cause us to swell our breasts with the grand feeling of just being alive and able to appreciate such artistry?

Perhaps that's just me. But there is something magical about the way the music thrills with the concomitant fluidity of the strings and the abruptness of the drums. Yet, for us, it's old hat, a standard of classical music we can pull up on our iPods at any time. For 1824, it walked the precipice of being so unusual, so different as to be almost heretical. Music until that time had been written for state ceremonies, for religious purposes, for specific events. Beethoven infused his music with raw emotion, and he wrote it for himself. His Ninth signaled the end of the Classical period and the start of the Romantic.

Sachs carries us through the day of its first performance, imagining what it was that went through the master's mind in the moments leading to it. He bases his suppositions on the historic texts we have from Beethoven's life, the "conversation books" he had on hand to communicate with visitors, handlers and friends, a workaround for his deafness. But I think the author secretly reveled in the chance to "play" Beethoven in that crusty, haughty personality we all attribute to him.

He then carries us through the year, and the lives (and deaths) of Romantic era poets and writers, playwrights and more. He intertwines the lives of the great composers as they were so knotted up anyway; this one mentored that one, that one was influenced by this one. He then runs us through his interpretation of the piece, for the most part avoiding the temptation to lay out a manmade storyline.

I truly believe that we are empowered by, inspired by our times, our surroundings. I'm sure Beethoven was, too, but then, he had the perhaps unconscious ability to rise above it all and see the world from a different perspective, one that no one else could see. Actually, I take that back. I really feel he had more of an ability to draw deeply within himself and remove himself from society in the creative moment. He was a risk-taker, willing to break convention and present the world music as he thought it should be, not aligned by the rules of church or state.

If you don't think so, listen to his Ninth Symphony and perhaps then you'll understand.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

A History of the Fish Hook by Hans Jorgen Hurum

Why I Read It: Why not? Any marine theme is in bounds, and this microhistory seemed about as interesting as anything else I had on the shelf at the moment.

Summary: The history of the hook as seen through the story of the Norwegain hook-making firm O. Mustad & Son.

My Thoughts: As with anything in the history of our planet, it turns out there's a lot more than meets the eye when one delves deeply into the story of the fish hook.

The author, an avid fisherman, does an excellent job at cataloguing for us the ancient hooks of the world's archaeological collections, showing us that they have been made from all sorts of materials, including plants. Perhaps the most harrowing fish hook tale comes from Easter Island. The people who lived there with little at their disposal used human bone for their hooks. Conjecture has even arisen that some of the human sacrifices that took place on the island may have been because the current stock of hooks was low and that the community needed it replenished for survivial. (To which, of course, I respond, "Hey, I know a few fishermen today who would go that route...").

While the book eventually trails into the history of the Mustad family and its super-secret hook-making operation - hidden rooms in factories like those with Mustad just complete the circuit; fishermen don't like to tell you where they fish, what bait they use, etc. - it covers as well some interesting generalities about the history of the endeavor. For instance, although he only hints at this idea, it's pretty easy to see that Mustad knows one thing we don't. Fishermen the world over are highly superstitious. Okay, we know that, but what they know is that fishermen in Cuba may order hooks with a specific barb tip and those in Florida may order them with a different tip because they know that it works better to catch the same fish. He describes international fishing tournaments in which fishermen are lined up along the banks of a river all using different hooks to catch the same fish. So what does Mustad do? It caters. At one point (the book was published in 1976) the company manufactured 108,000 varieties of hooks. How do you get rich in this industry? Listen to your clients.

There are other strange theories out there. The author proposes the notion that if the reversal of the trend of the decline in whales is not possible then we should consider a silver lining. More krill for human consumption! Of course, though, forty years later, krill are dying out, too. And then there's the story of the British gentleman who lined his clothing with fish hooks so that pickpockets would either get ripped or caught while attempting to get at him in London.

Off the beaten path, yes, but a fun read nonetheless, highly illustrated and with that twist of being of Norwegian origin, and not American.