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What I'm reading... (Friday)

I am taking a page from Katie and Cofax, and am going to start doing "what I'm reading" entries... which I understand should be a Wed. thing, and I'll get on track with that soon. But to start...

Finished relatively recently...

Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916 by Michael Capuzzo, and Twelve Days of Terror: A Definitive Investigation of the 1916 New Jersey Shark Attacks by Richard G. Fernicola.

-- I saw the former on a bookstore shelf, and picked these up at the library. My eye was drawn to the cover of Close to Shore, because I said to myself, "That looks like an old-timey photo of the Engleside Hotel" on Long Beach Island, which is where my Mom now lives and where I partially grew up. Indeed, it was! It's kind of weird that I never really heard about the 1916 shark attacks (4 deaths and 1 major injury over 12 days), given that they got their start on LBI, and they were part of the inspiration for Benchley's book "Jaws" and the subsequent movie. I remember the movie coming out, but was too young at the time to be allowed to see it; perhaps it was more widely discussed then and went over my 7-year-old head.

Close to Shore is more of an attempt at a poetic narrative, while Twelve Days is exactly what its title says. I sort of read them in tandem -- Close to Shore on the bus, and Twelve Days at night. Both were readable, but in the end, I liked Twelve Days better. All I have to tell you about Close to Shore is that it contains chapters from the shark's point of view. (To give it credit, those chapters are not sensationalist; it's just the conceit used to impart scientific speculation about the possible life cycle of a shark that could have brought it into the situation that developed. And yet.) Twelve Days spent a lot of time on the subject of "was it a great white, or another species like a bull shark? was it just one shark, or multiple sharks?" It also looked at what the events meant for public perception of sharks, shark research (when the 1916 attacks were happening, all of the major experts said, "These cannot be shark attacks, as sharks are cowardly, harmless creatures"... so there was a LOT of room for increase of shark knowledge), and responses to shark attacks in subsequent decades. Both were also interested in taking a look at the society and events of the day, too. (Did you know that during that summer, Woodrow Wilson's summer White House was located in Asbury Park, NJ? Neither did I. He had to hold cabinet meetings about how to respond to the shark attacks, in and amongst trying to decide how to take the U.S. into WWI. In related matters, there were serious suggestions that the shark attacks had been orchestrated somehow by the German U-Boats that were visiting the Jersey coast at the time.)

When I was reading them, I thought Close to Shore was a NEW book, and was thus surprised that it got some details "wrong", in comparison with the information presented by Twelve Days. But in fact, they appear to have been written contemporarily, both coming out in 2001-2002, so that explains the discrepancies. Of the two, obviously I'd recommend Twelve Days.

Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy by Melissa Milgrom.

-- for this one, you can thank my recent discovery of Emily Graslie's YouTube series The Brain Scoop. I have on my list a bunch of books she recommended about both natural history museums in general, and taxidermy in relation to same.

This book is by a journalist who went around for two years, meeting, interviewing, and observing some of the top taxidermists in both the U.S. and the U.K., while also looking at some of the history of taxidermy as both an art and a tool of natural history. As such, it's a bit more randomly wandering than systematic, but I thought it gave a nice overview personalized through the author's particular viewpoint. Very readable, occasionally funny.

I thought one of its drawbacks was that it includes no pictures, even though it's about an obviously very visual subject. I found out after reading it that she has some pictures on her website; I wonder why they didn't make it into the book. I still recommend it, because although I have other books on the subject on my to-read list, I doubt they will cover quite the same fascinating territory as this one. Also, this isn't a very long book.

What I'm reading now...

Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Musem, by Richard Fortey.

-- another on Graslie's rec list. As it says, a look at the history and behind the scenes of the British Natural History Museum, by a guy who has been in charge of trilobites there since the 70s. Good so far, but have only just started it. It's lively, but it's not as quick a read as some of the others.

Arizona: A History, Revised Edition, by Thomas E. Sheridan.

-- borrowed from Katie, who has more sticktoitiveness than I do, since I've been working on it off and on for weeks, and taking breaks to read other books. Having spent several weeks in early June driving around the SW, I wanted to read a history of the region, and we spent the majority of our time in Arizona, so. But I confess, I'm finding my attention wandering from it. It might be that it's not a good book for bus-reading, i.e. short bursts. That obviously keeps interrupting my concentration.

Tony Hillerman's series of mystery novels set on the Navajo Reservation.

-- I first read Hillerman's Leaphorn and Chee mysteries back in the mid-90s, and then drifted away from the series. I returned to them during our SW trip (as Katie had a copy of the first one with her, which I borrowed), and have been intermittantly working my way through the series ever since; I wanted to reread them while the experience of having driven around the area was still relatively fresh in my mind. I now have the last three books he wrote (before his death in 2008) in hand, so I'm almost done.

The first book in the series, featuring Joe Leaphorn, an officer in the Navajo Tribal Police, was written in 1970, and it shows, boy, does it show (especially in how it treats its white male and female characters). Hillerman took the advice of his editor and readers, who told him that Leaphorn was far more interesting than the white protagonist, and the series became about Leaphorn and the NTP. Officer Jim Chee, younger and more traditional-Navajo than Leaphorn, was introduced later, and even later books began to feature both of them. Hillerman was known for his loving and poetic descriptions of Southwestern landscapes, and for his attention to cultural detail amongst the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, and other Native American characters featured in the novels. The Navajo Nation's general viewpoint (understanding that the reactions of some do not necessarily stand for the reactions of all) on Hillerman and his novels was to name him a Special Friend of the Dineh in 1987.

It's interesting to come back to these novels after nearly 20 years. I certainly notice in a more pointed way now that basically, when it comes to the major female characters, he's not particularly great. Two of them feel fairly problematic to me (the two former love-interests of Chee), and some of that may be because they become less fully-realized characters, and more stand-ins for particular viewpoints on the question of cultural assimilation, with the two women representing a choice that the author (and ultimately the main character) views negatively. I think in some senses, the less-major female characters seen as one-shots in the various mysteries fare better, and by the much-later novels, Hillerman created some better recurring women. But let's just say, writing women wasn't his strength. His strength was the sense of place, and the examination of Navajo culture versus other cultures, especially through the dynamic between one main character with traditional beliefs/outlook, and one standing a bit more between the traditional culture and the assimilated white culture.

I can see in the later novels that he's losing steam, too; the mysteries aren't as complex, there's less attempt to weave together multiple stories. But I'm also finding it interesting to see that he was committed to some extent to the progression of the characters and the world. I used to read a LOT of mystery series, and some of them get frustrating because the author decides that nothing really major should change in their characters' lives as time goes on. It can produce a sort of sense of stagnation about the series. Hillerman does have his characters' lives progress from book to book, even as the soap-opera of their lives isn't usually the MAIN focus. He also manages to allow the world around them to change, reflecting contemporary developments. You'd think that too would be a given for any mystery series set in the present day of when the book is written, but quite a few manage to get away without mentioning what's going on in the wider real world.

(I assume this is an attempt to give the books a greater shelf-life, keeping them from being dated. It also helps to skip over the problem of the passage of time within the books versus the passage of time in real-life. (For the author who doesn't want to be tied down to the fact that her protagonist created in the 70s would have to be *in* his 70s today.) Hillerman more or less allows his characters to age, although I do think there's some funny math going on.)

Anyway: not without some issues, but has been fun to reread these books and get into the ones I never read. Especially now that I have a better sense of what the landscape is like, and how long it really takes to drive from place to place.



( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Aug. 31st, 2013 02:28 pm (UTC)
I must re-read the Tony Hillerman books in the right order. I read them in a completely random order, based on what ones our local library and bookshops deigned to stock (they weren't all published this side of the pond), and then filled in the gaps with the help of Amazon.

Being in charge of trilobites must be much more exciting these days, with all the weird spiky ones they keep discovering! :-)
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )