We’re now in mid-March and I still haven’t written down my thoughts on the two books I read in January. A lot has been going on recently but, the longer I take to write these down, the worse my recollections become.
06/11/2022 Added Entangled Life and Pup Sloots.
The Philosopher and the Wolf (2008) by Mark Rowlands
In this book, Rowlands shares several of his experiences moving between countries and building a career in philosophy, all while raising a wolf. The anecdotes about Brenin, the wolf, invariably serve as the starting point for some sort of philosophical digression. While several of these digressions are indeed interesting, I was seldom convinced by his arguments (see my blog post on what makes a person evil for an example).
I would’ve preferred much more of a focus on the stories involving Brenin, but those that are there do provide some fascinating insights on animal behaviour and training. While not all of the methods will probably be approved of by everyone, Rowlands does make the point that wolves and dogs are quite different and, from the stories he gives, he managed to have a wolf which was much better behaved than many dogs. It’s also clear that he cared deeply for Brenin, and his other dogs, and, especially towards the end, many of the stories were quite emotional.
If you were planning to read The Philosopher and the Wolf to hear about what is like to have a wolf as a pet, you will probably be disappointed. I’d estimate that that about two thirds of the book are given over to his philosophical musings which, if nothing else, at least serve as food for thought. I can’t say that I agreed with most of them but I did still enjoy the book and think it is worth reading.
A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens
There’s really little to say about this one. It’s an old story and, if you have any contact with Western culture, you have likely seen an adaption, homage or parody of this. I am, of course, familiar with the story but not the original work. In fact, I think this is my first time reading Dickens’ own words. I have no complaints but, given how well-known the story is, there were no real surprises.
What was special was that I was reading a copy which, I believe, had been my maternal grandmother’s. I can’t recall the exact printing date of the book but it was around 80-90 years old. While not as old as the story itself, it’s still quite a bit of history and all of the people who originally bought and read it are now dead. Yet the book is still there, can still be read and provides a tangible link to the past. Plus, a physical book has no battery issues or file type compatibility problems.
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures (2020) by Merlin Sheldrake
Written by an author with one of the most amazing names I’ve seen, Entangled Life is all about fungi. There are discussions on how fungi evolved, how they influence plant life, the truffles we eat and how we can use fungi for our own benefits, including one chapter that covers the technologies in The Moralbiont. Sheldrake is so obsessed with fungi that some of the illustrations in the book are even drawn with ink made from a fungus!
Although my interests and the book’s topic overlap quite well, I wasn’t crazy about all aspects of the book; several chapters are written in their own style and not all of them sat well with me. The chapter on truffles takes on the sort of narrative style which can drive a story along but which tends to irritate me as I find it all too convenient. I made a similar criticism about Darwin’s Ghosts a couple of years back. And there are other sections which are so effusive that it feels like he’s trying to make every other paragraph a pale, blue dot moment.
That said, I would still highly recommend the book to anyone with an interest in microbiology. Stylistic quibbles aside, there is a lot of very good and very interesting information in the pages. Most of it I knew of already but there were also plenty of titbits which I had not yet encountered.
Pup Sloots (2020) by Phoenix Xander Artemis
Jumping from fungi to a gay, BDSM, petplay romance might seem like quite a leap but there is actually a microbiology connection between the two; Pup Sloots takes place during the time of coronavirus. More specifically, back in 2020 when things were crazy, no vaccines were available and hard lock-downs were enacted across the world. Despite what I expected, the majority of the, very short, book actually takes place after the lock-down restrictions are lifted.
The story is told through the first-person perspective of an alpha pup who meets someone the night before lock-down restrictions are enacted and who must then wait until they can continue building their romance in person. The entire relationship is built around BDSM dynamics, in particular puppy play, which is a form of role play where the participants act as human dogs. The book describes it all as well as the main character’s thought processes and motivations.
It’s an interesting book. I really enjoyed the dynamics of the relationship and how everything is described (although I think some of the language which is claimed as being specific to puppy play is really just Lolspeak and common to many internet communities, e.g. using “gib” for “give.”) but it will not be for everyone as it does all build up to explicit sex. That said, my only real hesitation with recommending it would be the length; it is not even 100 pages. However, the psychological aspects of the story are good and it is even educational. If one has any curiosity in that area then one could assuage that curiosity while also helping support a small-scale writer.
Symbol of a Nation (2017) edited by Fred Patten
This is a collection of stories about national animals of the past and present, edited by the late Fred Patten. Different authors have different interpretations of the topic; there are stories that are just about furry (anthropomorphic) versions of that species, some look at conservation of iconic species through genetic manipulation and others focus on the animal as an embodiment of a nation’s spirit. Two of the major themes, touched on by several stories, are conservation and national identity.
There’s a diverse mix of authors and the story quality is not entirely consistent. That said, most of them are pretty good. Mary Lowd, whose work I’ve read previously, has a story in here, but I’d say it’s weaker than I expect from her. My favourite story was Crossroads the Namib, written by Jako Malan, a fellow South African, and set in the Namib desert, which I visited in 2021. In most cases, I appreciated the stories less for their narrative than the questions that they raised.
I am opposed to the nonsense that says white people can’t write about black issues or that men can’t write about women. People can write about whatever they want to, regardless of their identity. That said, several stories here concern national animals and questions of national identity but are written by authors not from those countries, and I couldn’t help but wonder how well they know those countries and whether I was getting views that were common there or whether it was just part of a narrative device.
Vultures in the Hotel Continental (2021) by Miroslav Bobek
I have a complicated relationship with zoos. I love animals and the opportunity to see them up close, but there are many negative aspects to zoos and the way they treat animals as commodities. However, I do recognise that, in certain cases, they can be beneficial or even necessary. From what I’ve heard, Prague Zoo is one of the best zoos in the world with an emphasis on the animals’ quality of life as well as conservation efforts. So, when I had a friend visiting me in Prague who also loves animals, we visited Prague Zoo, where I picked up this book written by the director. The book is a collection of shorter articles written between spring 2018 and summer 2020 for Czech newspapers. There have been several Czech collections but, I believe, this one is the first available in English.
One of the great things about this book is that you really get to see the different conservation efforts. It tells of how Prague Zoo is helping with educational activities in Cameroon or with breeding and reintroduction efforts around the world. To name a few of the breeding programmes, many with stories of reintroductions as well, there are Lear’s macaws from Brazil, Egyptian vultures released in Bulgaria and Przewalski’s horses released in Mongolia. Near the end of the book, there are several stories about supporting Australia conservation efforts with funds raised by Prague Zoo after the 2019/2020 wildfires. But, when almost every story talks about the huge decreases in animal populations, for example the spotted fritillary butterfly in the Czech Republic and European eels, one wonders how we managed to get everything so wrong and how we can possibly fix it. To quote Bobek, when discussing the first hooded vulture chick hatched in Prague Zoo:
Yet at the same time, I cannot but feel the pangs of hopelessness. We are one of only four breeding facilities in Europe where hooded vultures managed to reproduce during the 2020 season – set against at least 1,600 dead birds in only a few months in Guinea-Bissau alone.
The chapters are varied and, if you don’t like one, you’re soon onto the next. Given all the different topics that are covered, Bobek must be a very interesting person. I learned about animals, what zoos do, conservation efforts around the world and Prague’s history. While not all the animals are of particular interest to me, there are beautiful photographs to accompany every chapter. I really enjoyed the book and can definitely recommend it.