The Last Unicorn by William deBuys

The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth's Rarest Creatures1992, Laos – A remote team of scientists stumble across an unusual pair of horns on the wall of a village hut. Excitedly interrogating the residents, they confirm the discovery of a new species of animal, the first large land mammal discovered in fifty years – the saola.

Infrequently seen alive in the wild and only once kept briefly in captivity, saolas are considered to be The Last Unicorn, practically a mythological creature. They are so rare and elusive that they could be extinct and we wouldn’t know it. Pulitzer Prize-finalist and nature writer William deBuys set off with famed biologist William Robichaud into the wild mountain forests in the hopes of becoming the first Westerners to spot a saola – I’ll let you read it to find out if they did! But along the way, the expedition must tangle with belligerent poachers and unhelpful locals as well as untangle snares, traps, and the truth about the difficulties of conservation in a developing nation.

DeBuys gives us fascinating glimpse into a place that most of us will never go and a creature that we will never see. I particularly appreciated the bounty of photos to help the reader gain a clearer insight into his adventure. His eloquent writing also draws an in-depth background picture of saolas – the history of their region, the people cohabiting their habitat, and the culture that both reveres and hunts them. I was less impressed with deBuys’ interjections about his travel woes than his factual knowledge or even his philosophical musings on humans and nature, but it lightened the depressing parts (i.e. extinction) I guess.

Overall, an informative and engaging read for fans of nature and travel.

4 Stars

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Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII by David Starkey

Six Wives by David StarkeyFirst, an apology because I’ve seriously been slacking with the reviews. Sorry folks! But I should have a number of good posts up in the next few weeks.

Now, I picked up David Starkey’s Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII because I had just read Elizabeth Freemantle’s Queen’s Gambit, and it always frustrates me when I read historical fiction about real important figures because I can’t separate the history from the fiction. I was debating between Starkey and Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII, both of which had equally good reviews on Goodreads, but ultimately made my decision based on availability at the library.

And Starkey, noted British historian and Tudor expert, was a good choice though obviously I can’t compare the two (but I did not appreciate his open disdain for Weir’s work in the foreword). He divided his book up into sections, with the larger first half concentrating on Henry’s first wife, Queen Catherine of Aragon, and a slightly smaller chunk thereafter on Anne Boleyn. Unfortunately, that left the remaining book to four queens, who got short-shrifted a bit, but I guess that’s inevitable given the strong political-cultural impact of the cold war between Catherine’s and Anne’s factions. Additionally, all six queens had to share room with countless other, predominantly male courtiers, which I thought detracted from the supposed focus.

I’m not going to lie, these parts of it were quite dry and Starkey’s consistent shifting between usage of titles and given names made the narrative at times confusing. However, I think he was particularly good at delving into the international political intrigue of the period and extremely thorough in his examination of various individual’s motives for their actions. While this made the reader quite sympathetic to the queens, Henry’s longing for a son didn’t excuse his foul treatment of women in my eyes nor did Starkey’s free pass make me like the author any more than the subject.

At a hefty 800 pages, it’s not a light read nor a great one. Nevertheless, for fans of the Tudor period, including fictional works like the series The Tudors, Starkey’s biography provides rich context to fill in any gaps in knowledge.

3 Stars

William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi GermanyWilliam L. Shirer was serving as as one of the only CBS news correspondents in Western Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, located at the perfect place and time to witness firsthand the growth and eventual domination of the Nazis. Reporting from Vienna during the Austrian Anschluss and from Berlin during the early years of World War II, he eventually learned that the Gestapo was gathering evidence of his disobedience over censorship and fled the country, not to return until the Nuremberg trials. Afterwards, back in America and barely a decade after the war’s conclusion, he wrote The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. 

Shirer begins at the beginning, the seeds that were sown following Germany’s defeat in World War I. Then, he traces the birth of Adolf Hitler, the creation of his philosophy as memorialized in Mein Kampf, and the establishment of the Nazi Party. Thus, its more than halfway in before we even get to war, but that development is essential to understand the individuals and events that led to its inevitability. By now, plenty of books have been written about the war itself, but Shirer’s has a unique level of detail and blend of contemporary citations with personal observances.

It wasn’t the easiest read with copious footnotes taking sometimes up to half the page. While I flew through the first 700 pages, the last few hundred took weeks. Partially because it finally touched on the Holocaust, a topic that isn’t covered extensively as much as foreshadowed for much of the book, but one that is deeply disturbing to read about so matter-of-factly. Nor does Shirer linger much on the aftermath of the war, probably because his book followed freshly on the heels of it and hasn’t been updated since published in 1960. In this case, that limit on scope is likely for the best.

I hope to read Shirer’s biography next. It’ll be interesting to get a different perspective on his work and biases as well as read further excerpts from his Berlin Diary, published during the war in 1941. For instance, from Rise and Fall, I already know that he’s at least slightly homophobic. Perhaps a product of his time, but I’d caution sensitive readers to be aware that he repeatedly remarks that homosexuality is a perversion, though obviously not to the extent of supporting Nazi persecution.

Regardless of Shirer’s own views, he did write the definitive work on Nazi Germany. Even to this day, I couldn’t find a more thorough source. For those readers interested in WWII history, this is a must read, but one that should be expected to take awhile.

4 Stars

 

Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum

Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the InternetEvery once in awhile I feel like learning something, not just reading for the pure unadulterated enjoyment or escapism of it. After barely keeping up with my friends’ conversation about net neutrality, I decided the subject had to be the Internet. Surprisingly, there’s very few well-known books on the topic, so I settled on the (Internet-recommended) Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum.

Hilarious title aside, journalist Blum starts off just as clueless as I was. After his Internet connection is disturbed by a pesky neighborhood squirrel, he begins to think about where all those cables head off to – is there an Internet home base or it is just all blank space? Blum discovers the Internet comes and goes from multiple places, from underneath Manhattan where a new fiber optic cable is buried to the coast of Portugal where an undersea cable carries the Internet between Europe and Africa to the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest where Facebook, Microsoft, and Google all hide their massive data centers. Despite our conception of the Internet’s placelessness, it in fact lives everywhere.

A large chunk of the book is dedicated to a history of the Internet, how it evolved into the beast it is today and the people and places who birthed it. Blum meets a bevy of fascinating individuals, including the geeky network engineers who guard its monuments and act as caretakers for its services. Among the most cool to me were the Internet mappers, who trace the cables that carry signals around the world, and the folks who actually lay the cables along the ocean-floor, one instance of which Blum witnesses.

While fascinating and informative, this wasn’t among the most readable nonfiction that I’ve read. As someone who express open ignorance of technology, I admittedly found explanations of certain issues hard to understand (e.g. optical switching, TCP/IP), though Blum tries his best with highly descriptive prose. I admire his philosophical wonder at all he sees, but ultimately the Internet remains shrouded in mystery for me.

3 Stars

In the News: Wolf Hall on Masterpiece

Avid historical fiction/television buffs probably know that a BBC miniseries adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall debuted on Masterpiece. As I mentioned in my post about The Assassination of Margaret ThatcherI’m no fan of Mantel’s. However, this piece in The Washington Post got me contemplating (as the title says) “How ‘Wolf Hall’ will entertain millions – and threaten to distort history in the process.”

The author Gregory Wolfe (and what an ironic name!) suggests that writers of historical fiction have some responsibility to expose real history to their readers, and barring that are culpable for basically propaganda. While Wolfe seems to be among the anti-Thomas Cromwell congregation, he does have a point that Mantel is pushing an anti-Catholic agenda that may heavily conflict with historical facts. If I hadn’t read this article, however much I did or didn’t like the book, I wouldn’t have necessarily thought it to be untruthful just over-dramatized. And maybe it is true, in which case I congratulate her on voicing another marginalized perspective on a controversial figure. No human is entirely bad or good, so Cromwell can both be a self-serving bully and a pragmatic modernizer.

I certainly don’t want to curtail a novelist’s agency or imagination, but this is part of the reason I try to read a variety of fiction and non-fiction on topics I’m interested in, to avoid an author’s inherent bias towards the subject. So while I hope that people enjoy the newest entry in period dramas, I also want them to be aware of potential inaccuracy and take what they’re seeing with a grain of salt. One man’s martyr is another’s villain.

Weekend Update: A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly EverythingFinally! was my exhausted yet euphoric thought as I lay down Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything earlier today. I had loved Bryson’s  A Walk in the Woods about his trek through the Appalachian Trail for its amusing anecdotes and slightly-terrified reverence for nature, but this work was a harder slog that quickly tired me out. So I’ve been reading it in fits and starts over the last two months, interspersed with lighter reads for sanity’s sake.

The good is that Bryson, as always, does a very good job of succinctly and wittily condensing the greatest questions about humanity and the universe, and our understanding of ourselves in our universe, into 560 pages. The bad is that that’s a lot of ground to cover so the material is very dense, dropping names and theories and hard science like the Niagara Falls drops water. Bryson tries the best he can to make everything comprehensible while comprehensive but in the end there’s not much more editing he can do.

A sampling of fascinating facts:

  • Bipedalism can be largely blamed for the increased pain and risk of death during childbirth because the pelvic bone and birth canal had to be reshaped to accommodate walking upright.
  • Dodos were so spectacularly dense that to find them, you only had to make one squawk and the others would flock to the source of the squawking.
  • Einstein worked as a Swiss patent clerk, where he was denied a promotion but at least had the time and leisure to contemplate, leading to the theory of relativity.

I highly recommend it for those who want to deepen and broaden their science knowledge, but this is not a book that can be powered through. It requires thought and re-reading, and to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t able to do that, skimming through parts of the middle. However, this book is one of those that should be required reading at high schools because it offers an in-depth cross-curriculum look at a variety of subjects from geography to cosmology and physics to paleontology.  I was thoroughly geeking out at the random bits of knowledge I learned, and will be insufferable at upcoming parties. But it’s not for the faint of heart!

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS JeannetteHampton Sides’ nonfiction tome In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terribly Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette had made its appearance on a number of best lists of 2014, so I was eager to read it. Silly me made the error of reading it on a cruise ship though, which led to the appearance of a number of icebergs in my dreams.

It’s the late nineteenth century and people the world over are struck by Artic Fever. Theories abound about the North Pole, including the prominent (and incorrect) one by the German cartographer August Petermann, which claimed that the fortress of ice simply framed a warm sea surrounding a verdant island. James Gordon Bennett, the millionaire owner of the New York Herald, seeking a new adventure to sensationalize for his readers, decides to find the truth. He funds a nationally-sanctioned U.S. naval expedition to prove American might and claim the Pole. Departing in 1879 from San Francisco and captained by rescue hero George Washington De Long, the USS Jeanette quickly became trapped in an ice pack. For two years, the 32-man crew lived on the floes until the ship finally sank. Realizing the only hope of survival was to travel 1000 miles south, they set off with their dogs and canoes, walking across a frozen hellscape, either to rescue in Siberia or death.

Is that all a spoiler when it actually happened over a century ago? In any case, the ending is tragic, especially for a few of the people (and dogs) I felt connected to over the course of their 454 page narrative. Because let’s be real, I would’ve given up and died much sooner than them (not that I would’ve taken this trip to begin with), so was suitably impressed by their perseverance and courage in the face of insane adversity and terrible odds of survival – though I was convinced for the first half that they all would survive, and appalled to discover the reality.

This voyage was both a product of its time and of its people, and Sides does a fantastic job of weaving in a character-driven story with the greater historical-cultural background. From the flamboyantly wealthy and eccentric sponsor James Gordon Bennett to the determined dreamer and fearless leader George Washington De Long and his devoted wife Emma, he made the reader feel like these real people were really alive and personally knowable. For a sad and harrowing tale, the contrast between Bennett and De Long provides some levity, as does anecdotes of Bennett’s society-scandalizing hijinks and the men’s daily occupations on the ice. I’m glad Sides focused mainly on Bennett and De Long because the introduction of the rest of the crew proved to be a few too many to remember all individually.

There is a fair amount of science involved, including detailed explanations of the prevailing theories of the time about currents and the Earth’s geography (ex. Kuro Siwo, Wrangel Land, and the Open Polar Sea). Sides makes it readable, even for a non-science person like myself, though I admit my attention flagged at certain parts during the journey’s preparation stages. Though the book is long, and dry on occasion, I still read it fairly quickly. The last third as the crew walks through endless labyrinths of ice is a gripping, awe-inspiring journey and definitely worth the first few hundred pages.

Overall, this book is both well-researched and well-written, and particularly interesting in an age where the melting polar ice cap is making headlines. A highly recommended read for anyone with Artic fever of their own, or who are explorers and adventurers at heart.

4 Stars