Thursday, December 29, 2011

Best Of 2011

Photo Courtesy of Animal Planet
This time of year everyone is coming up with their "Best Of" Lists, so not to be outdone, here at Books and Beasts we're offering our choices too.  If you follow the blog, you know that I've reviewed a lot of books and a few movies -- I'm pretty selective in what I include, so everything that I covered is there because I thought it was worth checking out -- even the books I had problems with.  However, even among the best, a few stand out.  So here are my choices for the best animal related offerings of the past year.

1.      Best Fiction -- Again, I've reviewed a lot of great novels and short story collections and all of them are worth your time.  However, there is one novel that stands out this past year among all the rest.  Possum Summer, by Jen K. Bloom is a wonderful children's book that will speak to child in the heart of every reader.  It's the kind of book I loved when I was a kid, and still do.  You can read my review of it here, but you might as well save yourself the time and just rush out and get it.  Not to be missed.

2.      Best Nonfiction -- Same caveat, all the books I've reviewed are important, useful and entertaining (in different combinations, depending on what they were).  But if I have to pick one that most affected me this year, it would be Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean.  Wonderful portrait of the dog so famous that when he died they broke into radio broadcasts around the country to announce it.  You can read my review here, but please, get this book, and pass it on to all your dog loving friends.

3.      Best Movie --  This one's easy.  (I haven't seen War Horse yet, but as soon as I do it'll show up here on the blog).  The best animal movie of the year -- and one of the best I've seen in a very long time -- is Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  Yes, it's true, I love it in part because I'm a geek, and there are scenes of Apes running wild through the city and attacking helicopters.  But this is much more intelligent, thoughtful and accurate movie than I ever expected.  The writers obviously did extensive research on chimps raised in captivity, and Caesar -- played by Andy Serkis in a performance that would be nominated for an Oscar if there was any justice in the world -- is the most realistic chimpanzee character ever captured on film.  (Sorry, Cheetah.)  Emotionally, technically, and intellectually the best movie of the year.

The Worst -- I don't usually include a section on "worst" in my blog -- I prefer to use time and space pointing out what's best, and what's important.  But one blog post I wrote this year Tears for Elephants has drawn more hits than anything else I've written.  It's about the sad fate of elephants in Hollywood, including the ones who starred in Water for Elephants.  I gave that book an enthusiastic review, because I think it's great -- but I boycotted the movie, sadly, because I think it could have been great too.  There have been a number of movies this year -- including Hangover 2, Zookeeper, and the new We Bought a Zoo, that made the unfortunate choice of using exotic, wild animals -- a practice that contributes to the abuse, over hunting, and endangerment of these creatures.  You can see my thoughts about it in earlier reviews, but it only makes my Best Movie choice even more notable.  The totally CGI apes in "Rise" are wonderful creations.

4.      Best TV Show -- I haven't reviewed this one yet in the blog, but it's too good not to include.  There are lots of great nature and animal shows on TV, but this one is the best if you're an animal lover -- especially if you're a dog lover -- absolutely if you're a Pit Bull lover. It also happens to be hands down the best reality show going: Pit Bulls and Parolees on Animal Planet. (This is the new favorite show of my canine housemate Lulubelle Dawg, who was also a big fan of Meercat Manner back in the day.) In this day and age, just the idea was audacious.  Let's take two of the most stigmatized groups we can think of, and then let's make an honest, sympathetic, non-sensationalized show about them.  If you've never seen it, the show follows Tia, the woman who runs Villalobos ranch, a rescue facility for pit bulls.  She is helped by her daughters -- who have had difficult lives in their own ways -- and by the parolees she takes on as volunteers.  I don't know of another show on television that deals with second chances, heartbreak, triumph and joy more often.  Oh yeah, and there are Pit Bulls!  What more could you want? 

Well, those are my choices for 2011.  I'd love to hear your thoughts or picks, whether you agree with me or not.  And I look forward to continuing to bring you reviews and information about the wide world of "Books and Beasts".

Readers of Birds and Beasts might also enjoy our sister blog Birdland West, which covers birds and wildlife, mostly in the Seattle Area.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Hummingbird at the Center

I've been doing NaNoWriMo this month (if you don't know what that is, check it out -- it's like the literary equivalent of a marathon, held all over the world every November) and it's been taking up a lot of my time.  But it has also forced me to confront the problems inherent in novel writing -- and in writing my novel in particular -- that you only see when you are into the work itself.  

Anyone who has looked through the reviews on this site probably has some idea of what those problems are.  Non-human characters, point-of-view, how far we can extend fiction (and more importantly, our empathic imagination) out from the human center of consciousness and still tell something recognizable as a story, something that human readers will be interested in.

In October I tried a little experiment over at our sister blog, Birdland West -- I published a short piece of fiction, more of a sketch than a story, that attempted to do some of the things that attempt to do some of things that I'm interested in.  In a very small way.  Let me share just a piece to show you what I mean:

"The hummingbird hung motionless, except for its furious wings, above the feeder.  The red plastic -- a human would have called it red -- glowed like a beacon in the bird's vision, reflecting parts of the spectrum no mammal could see.  Light glinted off the bird's feathers which broke it apart like millions of tiny prisms, throwing flashes of green and red.  (Again, green and red as humans would see them -- with their primate color vision, recently recovered in evolutionary time, and so limited as compared to the bird's).  The hummingbird poised above the feeder.

"Almost no one noticed.  The writer -- who lived in the house attached to the yard where the feeder hung -- was uncommonly aware of the sounds of the bird's presence -- the high pitched, fast sound, like a telegraph key -- but the weather was growing cold and the doors and windows of his house were shut.  Besides, he was preoccupied with work (or with the distractions that kept him from working).  And he was thinking about a young woman he had recently become interested in and what seemed like the impossibility that she could be interested in (old, fat, unsuccessful) him.  He didn't hear the hummingbird's approach or sense it hovering over the feeder in the bush at the front of the yard."

Now, not focusing on quality for a second, but just on what it attempts, the idea of this piece was just to capture a moment in a neighborhood, with the hummingbird as the focal point.  It clearly has an omniscient viewpoint, it's totally outside the consciousness of all the characters, but it has access to all of them.  It also tries, at least I intended to try, to put the "non-human" world on equal footing with the "human" -- or even better to erase some of the artificial boundary we draw between the two.  The humming bird and (if you read the whole piece) the dogs and birds and squirrel are not treated, I hope, as background for the humans, who as usual are preoccupied with their own lives and barely see.  That's the problem with being in the third person limited -- the "inside" pov -- it traps us in human perspective, in human concerns -- and unless we write about characters who are uncommonly aware of the natural world, of the greater context, much of it is lost.  And even if our characters are hyper-aware (try talking to me sometime in a yard full of birds) we're still getting the human pov -- the hummingbird as seen by a person, not as a thing into itself, a center of action and awareness no less important than the human.  That's the same as colonial writers -- say Joseph Conrad -- who despite their great talent and insight into human begins, could never quite get out the white European perspective, and who therefore couldn't represent Africans or other colonized people as subjects in their own right.  Even when they are viewed sympathetically, they are viewed as objects of someone else's consciousness.  The truly revolutionary power of novels like Uncle Tom's Cabin (despite the fact that it has been a flashpoint in arguments about representation almost since it was published) was not it's overt polemic against slavery, but that for the first time African American slaves were presented as real, feeling characters with interior lives -- as subjects of their own experience.  It was that radical shift that made it impossible for many white American to ignore, and changed forever the way they thought about slavery.  

I'm not saying that my little hummingbird has the world-shifting power of Stowe's characters.  I haven't accomplished that yet.  But this is one of my deepest goals as a writer.  To de-center fiction, perhaps just slightly, from the fixed human pov.  To shift the focus even for moments away from our human concerns. To set them in broader contexts -- ecological, evolutionary, cosmological.

As the poet Mary Oliver says, "Meanwhile, the world goes on."


Readers of Birds and Beasts might also enjoy our sister blog Birdland West, which covers birds and wildlife, mostly in the Seattle Area.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Remembering a Legend

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend

We're all familiar with celebrity tragedy stories these days.  Brandon Lee dies during the filming of "The Crow" -- Heath Ledger on "The Dark Knight" -- and the stories become not just front page news and fodder for tabloids, but eventually the stuff of legend.  We might think this is a new phenomenon, fueled by our modern media.  But it is really as old as Hollywood itself (and maybe even older -- look at public furor created by Conan Doyle trying to kill Sherlock Holmes).

In 1932 another Hollywood legend died.  He was as big in his day as any movie star has ever been; the news of his passing broke into radio programs across the country.  The United Press bulletin read:

"Rin Tin Tin, greatest of animal motion-picture actors, pursued a ghostly villain in a canine happy-hunting ground today."

As Susan Orlean recounts in her wonderful new book Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend:

The story was soon floated on the great raft of legend.  It was rumored that Rin Tin Tin had died at night; that he had died on the set of Pride of the Legion during a rehearsal; that he had died while leaping into the arms of Jean Harlow ... that he had collapsed on Lee's front lawn and Harlow had raced over to comfort him, where she "cradled the great furry head in her lap, and there he died."

She goes on to recount how, following his death an hour-long tribute was broadcast on radios stations around the country  " Last night a whole radio network and thousands of radio fans paid homage to a great dog ... a gentleman, a scholar, a hero, a cinema star -- in fact, a dog which was virtually everything we could wish to be."

That's the way legends are remembered.

In his day Rin Tin Tin, who was found as a puppy by an American soldier, Lee Duncan, in the ruins of a burned out kennel, starred in twenty-three "blockbuster" silent films, was credited with saving Warner Brothers from bankruptcy, and won the heart of a nation.  His career suffered a set-back with the advent of talkies but he went on to star in serials as well.  He was without a doubt one of the greatest stars of his era.  Over the decades to come his descendents would star on radio and TV -- twenty years later his grandson rescued both his owner, Duncan, and the family name from the edge or ruin when he starred in the The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin (a show I remember from re-runs as a child) which climbed the ratings faster than any other show in the history of television. 

Rin Tin Tin:  The Life and the Legend is one of those wonderful books of popular history that captures not just an individual but an entire era of American life -- in this case, several years, from the great age of silent films to the golden age of television.  And Rin Tin Tin, in one of his incarnations, was a star in all of them. 

Lee Duncan was a man with a troubled family history, who spent part of his life in an orphanage, and struggled with human relationships all his life.  But he believed in Rin Tin Tin with an unfailing faith, and the world came to believe too.  As the years went on, others would take up the legacy, inspired by devotion to the symbol of courage and friendship and unfaltering love.  Orlean captures that feeling powerfully in her book -- those of us with memories of Rin Tin Tin from our childhood will find them flooding back, and those who don't remember will discover him all over again. 

More than anything, this book made me long for Rin Tin Tin's return.  Our world could use a hero like Rinny again -- if only to remind us of all the things we might wish to be. (I can see Rinny as a Search and Rescue dog working at today's disaster sites, as a police dog finding bad guys on a TV cop show, or even as a canine astronaut exploring space -- the possibilities are endless.)

Perhaps nothing sums up what Rinny meant to generations of movie, radio and TV fans better than a poem that Lee Duncan wrote after the star's death -- something all dog lovers will understand:

A real selfless love like yours old pal
Is something I shall never know again
And I must always be a better man
Because you loved me greatly, Rin Tin Tin.

The world is better for the enduring legacy of Rinny, and for Susan Orlean's wonderful book that keeps it alive.

Readers interested in books about dogs might also like to check out my earlier reviews: "Born to Bark", "A Brace of Dog Memoirs" "Goodbye Alpha Dog", "Two Dogs in Search of a Master", "A Nose for Justice", "Whatever Happened to America's Dog?" and "Scent of the Missing".

You can also enjoy my recent article "Crazy Flickers" over at 10,000 Birds.  They have a great site, well worth checking out even if I wasn't included.  And "Change of Seasons" at the Seattle Mariners Baseball Blog SoDo Mojo.  

Readers of Birds and Beasts might also enjoy our sister blog Birdland West, which covers birds and wildlife, mostly in the Seattle Area.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Born to Bark

Born to Bark by Stanley Coren

"For Christmas the woman who would become my wife bought me a dog -- a little terrier. The next year her Christmas present to me was a shotgun.  Most of the people in my family believe that those two gifts were not unrelated."

Stanley Coren is the author of a lot of books about dogs, including How Dogs Think, How to Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do and The Intelligence of Dogs.  He is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, and often appears on tv shows (Oprah, Dateline, Good Morning America to name a few).  He is known as an expert on dogs and their behaviors.  But what the public didn't really know, until now, is that Coren had a very special teacher.

The teacher's name was Flint.  And Flint was a Cairn Terrier.  Born to Bark is the story of Coren's friendship with Flint, and of all that he learned. 

"If you could read the genetic code of a terrier it would say, "bark-eat-bark-dig-bark-chase-bark-grab-bark-hunt-bark-kill it (if it is little furry and moves quickly)-bark-growl-bark-tug-bark-shred-bark-ignore sounds from two-footed creatures-bark-bark ...."

Coren takes us back to his earliest memories -- the dogs of his childhood and what he learned from them -- to show us how he was prepared for Flint.  But as those of us who are true dog lovers know, though you may have many dogs in your life, and though you love them all, there is usually one dog (if you are very fortunate, two) who stand apart -- soul mates is a silly phrase, but I don't know any other way to describe it.  And for Stanley Coren Flint was the dog.

But Born to Bark is also more than just a memoir.  It is also chock full of Stanley Coren's observations about dogs -- their behavior, their history, and their special value to humans.

"In a way, I had blundered inadvertently into what today is known as pet-assisted therapy.  In North America the number of pet assisted therapy programs was under twenty in 1980, but by the year 2000 more than one thousand such programs were in operation.  We probably owe the origin of using dogs as part of psychotherapy to Sigmund Freud (funny how often that name comes up when a psychologist is writing or talking), who often had one of his dogs with him during therapy sessions.  He first noticed that the presence of the dog seemed to be beneficial for patients ... He thought that this might be due to the fact that patients often worry about whether what they are saying might seem unacceptable ... However, nothing the patients ever say will shock the therapist's furry companion ...."

This is the common theme running through all the dog memoirs I've been reading lately.  The power of the human/canine bond to heal (and the healing can run both ways).  There is something about this story that never gets old.  I have my own version of it. Whether it is the simple love that animals provide, the discipline involved in training, or the requirements of focusing on another creature outside of yourself, this involvement often lifts people out of their selves in way that other relationships can't do.  (But its possible we have an unfair sample here -- the memoirs are almost universally about the times when this process works, because it's the successful "rescues" who go on to write books.)

The virtue of Coren's book, and the reason that it makes a good cap to the other dog memoirs I've reviewed, is that Coren is a trained psychologist, a specialist in canine behavior, and a professional communicator, so his self-consciousness about what is going on and how it works allows him to frame the story of his relationship with Flint in a broader context.

I would recommend Coren's earlier books to anyone interested in canine behavior and intelligence.  But I would recommend Born to Bark to anyone.


Readers interested in books about dogs might also like to check out my earlier reviews:  "Goodbye Alpha Dog", "Two Dogs in Search of a Master", "A Nose for Justice", "Whatever Happened to America's Dog?" and "Scent of the Missing".

You can also enjoy my recent article "Crazy Flickers" over at 10,000 Birds.  They have a great site, well worth checking out even if I wasn't included.  

Readers of Birds and Beasts might also enjoy our sister blog Birdland West, which covers birds and wildlife, mostly in the Seattle Area.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Brace of Dog Memoirs

Behind every so-called coincidence lies a series of connections, some small, some large, that if traced back far enough, lead inevitably to the great source of meaning and purpose in this otherwise senseless universe, namely, dogs."
-- Susan Conant   All Shots

I don't like memoirs very much.  As a rule.  I think the rise of the memoir form goes hand in hand with the narrowing and impoverishment of fiction in the twentieth century, and I'm sure I'll have more to say on that in the future.  But, for the moment, I can be as much of a hypocrite as the next guy, and I have to admit that there is one form of memoir that I avidly devour.

The dog memoir.

Not that there's anything special about them, in the literary sense.  They have all the faults of memoirs in general -- self-centeredness, over-sentimentality, and a kind of near-sightedness that distorts reality like a fish-eye lens.

But they have dogs in them.

And that makes all the difference.  At least to me. 

The science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon once promulgated the law that "Ninety percent of everything is crap."  He was probably being generous, but that does mean that even in the least literary of literary genres there must be something worth reading.  So I wanted to mention a couple of memoirs that I've read lately that stand out from the pack.

Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved HimUntil Tuesday by (Fmr. Captain) Luis Carlos Montalvan is -- in addition to being a dog memoir -- the story of an Iraq war veteran struggling to deal with the physical and mental scars of his service. And it is a story told with remarkable restraint, and almost no self-pity or sentimentality.   Montalvan suffered traumatic brain injury as a result of an explosion and suffers from post traumatic stress disorder.  He recounts how difficult it was for him to return to day to day life:

Before Tuesday, I caught glimpses of snipers on rooftops.  Before Tuesday, I spent more than an hour in my apartment working up the courage to walk half a block to the liquor store.  I took twenty medicines a day for everything from physical pain to severe agoraphobia, and even benign social encounters caused crippling migraines ... Before Tuesday I couldn't work.  I drank whole bottles of rum in one sitting to escape, but still lay in bed, unable to shut my eyes.  And every time I did, I saw terrible things ... After one grueling therapy session I went to a coffee shop, opened my laptop, and saw the face of a suicide bomber from Sinjar...

Tuesday, of course, is a dog.  A beautiful Golden Retriever who stares out of the cover of the book with intelligence and a hint of a smile, holding a set of dog tags in his mouth.

Bad Dog: A Love StoryBad Dog, by Martin Kihn, also has a dog on the cover -- but in this case in extreme close-up that makes it hard to identify the breed. (Bernese mountain dog).  Hola is a not just another breed -- she's a very different kind of dog than Tuesday.  She tackles people, chews up furniture, runs after busses and chases drug dealers.  (An activity which can be very dangerous for her owners.)  She has no training, no socialization and definitely no manners.

 Her owner is also a different breed.  Marty (Martin Kihn) is a high functioning alcoholic who has been a TV writer and a management consultant, but is rapidly on his way down, about to lose his job and his marriage.  Oh yeah, and he has to something about that dog too.

"Is it just me," I ask my ninety-pound copilot, framed in the rearview mirror like a hairy Andy Warhol Marilyn, "or is everyone losing their minds?"
I'm sorry to say, she seems to be sorry to say, it's just you
"Did we miss our turn?  I can't see the signs."
And I, she says, can't read....
There are few guarantees in life like the one I will make to you now:  you will get lost.  Very lost.  So far from your destination you'll be looking out the window as darkness descends, watching street signs change into another language....    

And that, really, is what these two books -- so very different on the surface -- have in common.  They are about getting lost.  And they are about relationships.  In both cases, about the unique relationship between a troubled man and a dog.

But two very different dogs.

Tuesday was born to be one of the most highly developed dogs in the world -- an assistance dog for the disabled -- and he began his training when he was three days old, long before his eyes opened...

Very different:

At a certain point, without announcing it even to ourselves, we gave up.  I gave up.  We'd had our idea of what a pet should be, and we'd been baited and switched.  We'd been had by the dogs of the gods or vice versa.  She was housebroken; she seemed happy; she didn't actually bite people, with a single exception ... What I know now is that settling for a dog who is housebroken and doesn't draw blood is like settling for a child who can talk.... And I might as well admit that the exception was my wife.

What Luis Montalvan finds in Tuesday is a companion and a best friend.  With Tuesday at his side he more and more braves the world, meets people, goes back to college, begins a new career.  As someone who has had a service dog I, I was deeply moved by the description of Tuesday.  Their friendship and partnership portrays the human-canine bond at its best.

Martin Kihn's story is funnier, more acerbic -- with many more rough edges. His humor is usually trained directly on himself (and sometimes, lovingly, on Hola) and if he's not always devoid of self-pity, at least he knows it, and makes it funny.   Hola is a wild dog, and a dog that many of us will recognize (hopefully in somewhat gentler terms).  When his wife leaves him, Kihn is forced to take drastic action.  That action is to enroll himself and Hola in training classes for the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen program -- a way for dog's to attain certification in the basics of civilized behavior.  It seems impossible for Hola -- and for Kihn -- in the beginning.  And as any dog trainer will tell you, training the dog is easy; it's training the people that's hard.

Both of these books succeed -- on my terms -- by being books about a person and a dog in an equal relationship.  These aren't books of cute dog stories, or inspiring life lessons learned from furry teachers. These are real stories about life with real dogs.

As different as they seem on the surface, Until Tuesday and Bad Dog make good pack mates.  If you love memoirs (I know you're out there) or you love dogs -- as I do -- these are great books to curl up with.  Make sure to have some treats handy.

Readers interested in books about dogs might also like to check out my earlier reviews:  "Goodbye Alpha Dog", "Two Dogs in Search of a Master", "A Nose for Justice", "Whatever Happened to America's Dog?" and "Scent of the Missing".

You can also enjoy my recent article "Crazy Flickers" over at 10,000 Birds.  They have a great site, well worth checking out even if I wasn't included.  

Readers of Birds and Beasts might also enjoy our sister blog Birdland West, which covers birds and wildlife, mostly in the Seattle Area.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Hail, Caesar!


Rise of the Planet of the ApesI'll spare everyone the suspense and tell you upfront that I loved Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  But that was almost a foregone conclusion.  For months now I've been pestering friends about going to see it -- and meeting almost universal skepticism.  To which I responded with something like, "Apes running through the city, attacking helicopters.  Do you understand?  Apes.  What's not to love?"  As someone who has watched Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong at least twice a year since it came out, I was going to love this movie, even it was just a bunch of CGI scenes spliced together with no plot or substance to support it.

Fortunately for all of us, that's not the case.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes [Blu-ray]The first Planet of the Apes movie came out in 1968, when I was five years old.  The final movie of the original series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes came out in 1973.  In between came Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.  There was a short lived television series in 1974(which starred Roddy McDowell and Mark Lenard, Star Trek's Sarek) and an even shorter lived animated series Return to the Planet of the Apes in 1975.    For geeks of my generation, it is impossible to overestimate how big a part these movies played in our lives.  In a time before Star Wars, when the only Star Trek was the original series in re-runs on television, and when big budget science fiction movies were almost unknown, Planet of the Apes loomed large.

And for me, at least, the two that loomed the largest were the last two (possibly because I was a little older when they came out).  I've never been overly fond of the first movie, with Charlton Heston, or the second, with it's weird underground mutant bomb worshiping cults.  But starting with the third movie, when the Chimpanzees Cornelius and Mira return to earth in the 1970's, I began to get really interested.  "Conquest" tells of the revolt of the enslaved apes -- all of whom are Mira's descendants, we must assume -- and "Battle" picks up about ten years later with Apes in control and Caesar trying desperately to find some way for them to co-exist with humans.

You can't re-watch the movies now without seeing the heavy-handed racial allegory everywhere. The various directors were determined to make their relevant political statements at the time, and the result is that the old moves feel dated in a way that has nothing to do with their basic ideas.  Only "Battle", which is mainly a full out action melodrama, escapes this overt politicizing.

Even as a kid, I knew enough about apes (I read about Jane Goodall, and Diane Fossey, and Washoe and others in National Geographic, for instance) to know that the portrayal of the different ape species was all wrong.  Gorillas were the heavies, the military complex.  In the real world, of course, gorillas are peaceful vegetarians who's aggression is mostly bluff and bluster.  Orangutans, bearing almost no resemblance to their real ancestors, were the administrative class -- Church and State, which didn't seem to be very separated in the first movie's world.  And the Chimpanzees were the counter culture -- scientists, hippies, war protestors -- naturally, in the late nineteen sixties in the United States, they were the heroes.

The reality of course is that chimpanzees are Machiavellian political animals who scheme and deceive and go to war almost as well as humans -- capable of the full range of goodness and badness that we are.  In any multi-ape society they would most likely be on top -- the gorillas would be the hippies.  But of course, the old Planet of the Apes movies weren't really about apes at all.

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes", directed by Rupert Wyatt and written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, is a whole different species.  Being a creature of its time, it has its axes grind as well, but it does so for the most part subtly, letting the characters and the story carry the message.  And it is (oh frabjous day) that rarest of mass media beasties -- The Well Written and Scientifically Plausible Science Fiction Movie.

And in this movie, the apes really do take top billing.  (Despite the heavy hitters in the "human" cast -- James Franco, Frieda Pinto, and John Lithgow) it is Andy Serkis -- behind the motion capture and CGI -- as Caesar (along with the other apes) that carries the film.  A couple of chimps in the movie show the battered old faces you see in sanctuaries and Nature documentaries -- the Orangutan Maurice is cool (he has a background in the circus, and like Caesar, he knows how to sign) and the one gorilla in the film -- perhaps a little too Kong-like despite his normal size -- is very impressive.  Some of the films more moving scenes -- and important points -- are carried in the non-verbal interaction of the apes.  Serkis, who was grossly cheated out of Oscar recognition for his role as Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings", again deserves the highest accolades for this performance.  (In an interview with NPR he explained how much the technology of motion capture has advanced since he played Gollum.) 

Director Wyatt and the rest of the team behind "Rise" deserve the loud praise for their decision not to use any actual apes in the film.  They recognized that the issue of apes in entertainment is a serious ethical problem, and they made the humane choice.  The film doesn't suffer from it at all.  This is a fact that other filmmakers should take note of.  (I wish the makers of Water for Elephants, Zookeeper and "The Hangover" had made similar kinds of choices.)

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is not a perfect film.  I'm not overly fond of the "there are some things science is not meant to delve into" trope.  (Interestingly, it is Frieda Pinto who gets to voice those sentiments in "Rise" -- perhaps so her Indian beauty and exotic accent can lend them portent).  I would like to see a serious movie that tackles the question of Uplift -- to borrow David Brin's term -- in all it's implications, without resorting to disaster/horror movie form.  I'm also not fond of end-of-the-world stories.  I would rather see stories about how we might grapple with and even solve our problems -- about the possibilities of the future -- than about how we will inevitably destroy ourselves.   In this case, though, those are minor quibbles about a very good film.

 It seems that I seldom see movies any more -- no matter how much fun they may be while I'm watching them -- that can stand the weight of serious thought.  "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is a movie both to enjoy in the moment, and to ponder afterwards.  That is a pleasure too rare to take for granted.

(Attentive viewers, who are familiar with the original movies, will see that the filmmakers have subtly set the table for the sequel.  If it rises to the same high standards as this film, I can't wait.)

On the question of animals in entertainment, interested readers might like to check out my previous postings Tears for Elephants and A Sad Digression

Readers of Birds and Beasts might also enjoy our sister blog Birdland West, which covers birds and wildlife, mostly in the Seattle Area.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Chimpanzee in America

Washoe (photo courtesy of Friends of Washoe website)
 A few years ago I had the opportunity to travel over to Ellensburg, WA and visit the Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute.  The remarkable center, founded by Roger Fouts, is the home to a very special family of Chimpanzees.  Their matriarch, Washoe, was the first non-human ever to learn a human language -- American Sign Language.  (Other language experiments had been done with chimps -- but those had all used some form of invented symbolic language, not a real human language like ASL.)  Even more amazing, Washoe and her companions passed on the language to her adopted son, Louis.

Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees
Next of Kin by Roger Fouts
The center is not open to the public on a daily basis, but they have special educational events called Chiposiums where visitors can come in and learn about chimpanzees and see the chimps who live there.  Washoe had been one of my heroes for many years, and I can say, without any exaggeration, that Roger Fout's book Next of Kin changed my life.  So it was an enormous pleasure to finally see her, in the flesh (and fur).  The day I visited it was Louis who was most active, displaying for the guests.  But Washoe was seated high up in the common play area, watching everything that went on like the dignified matriarch she was.  The whole afternoon I had a hard time speaking to anyone without crying.

That experience became even more poignant the following year, when Washoe died.  (Not long before another of my non-human heroes passed on -- Alex the Grey Parrot).  I think it is safe to say that Washoe's death affected me more than that of any "celebrity" I can remember.  If it had been up to me, she would have been given the Nobel Prize, or at least the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  (I can hear the howls of protest from less enlightened primates even as I suggest it.)  The medal is supposed to be given to those who "have made an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."  It is hard to imagine who deserves it more than Washoe who, despite having to live most of her life in one form of captivity or another, stepped across the species divide in a way unprecedented in the history of life on earth.  Not honoring her with our highest award only shows the intellectual poverty of our species.

 The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A True Story of Resilience and Recovery

So I come to a book like The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary by Andrew Westoll with certain predispositions.  I've read a lot about chimps, both in the wild and in captivity, and I know how tragic their stories can often be.  Fauna Sanctuary is in rural Quebec, and it is run by Gloria Grow.  It is home to chimpanzees rescued from the biomedical industry.  Actually "rescued" is a little too kind a word -- most of them were retired by companies that had exploited them for decades and no longer had any use for them.  Fauna Sanctuary was created to be a home for them, and hopefully to help them heal. 

Binky (photo Copyright 2011 by Frank Noelker)
 "Binky stares at me, and I stare back.  I am immediately, hopelessly entranced ... the only chimps I've seen before have been in zoos, where they do everything they can to ignore their human visitors.  But Binky holds my gaze.  What's more, he returns it.  With most primates, looking an individual in the eye is seen as a threat.  Not so with the chimpanzee ... We are simply two great apes considering each other, sizing each other up, perhaps wondering what the other is thinking, much like two perspective roommates...."

This is Westoll's first encounter with one of the chimps at Fauna, as he arrives on his first day of volunteering there.  A trained primatologist turned full-time writer, Westoll is drawn to the chimps for many reasons.   He "is surprised at Binky's beauty, his lack of any visible signs of distress."  Gloria Glow explains:

"Binky is the luckiest one here," she says.  "He had three whole months with his mother before he was taken."  Gloria reaches up and gently strokes his enormous fingers.  Binky keeps he eyes on me.  "He's only recently started pulling out his hair."

And so begins the terrible and beautiful story of the chimps at Fauna Sanctuary.  Of:

·         Binky -- tough on the outside, but sensitive and funny underneath. 

·         Regis, who loves to paint and listen to music, and suffers from anxiety that only his friend Jethro can calm. 

·         Jethro, the peacekeeper.

·         Rachel, abandoned by her owner when she became too old to keep, she enjoyed wearing filly dresses and taking bubble baths -- "now she is very fragile". 

·         Yoko, intense, passionate and loyal.

·         Petra, highly intelligent, watchful, always learning. 

·         Spock, raised as a human child, prefers female companionship, likes to drink out of a hose. 

·         Maya, Spock's foster sister, spends hours peering into treat bags and investigating their contents.

·         Chance, nervous and cautious, "doesn't like peppers on her pizza".

·         Tom, Fauna's most famous resident, "can fit five apples into his mouth at once".

·         Sue Ellen, the elder of the group, creates very intricate nests for herself to sleep in.

·         Pepper, who lived a lab, barely seeing the light of day for twenty-seven years, loves to eat kale and pick tomatoes in the garden.

·    And Toby, who loves to groom his friend Rachel and wear a scrunchy on his wrist like a bracelet.
Along the way, Westoll gives us a good (albeit, tragic) history of chimpanzees in America, and the horrific uses they've been put to.  But it is ultimately these chimps, so beautiful and damaged and individual, that stay with me and haunt me.  

Like Billy Joe.

Billy Joe (photo Copyright 2011 by Fauna Foundation)
 "Of all the chimps that lived at Fauna, Billy Joe had the most difficult time rediscovering what it meant to be a chimp.  Before he was sold to research, Billy was forced to work in the circus, and when he was under the big top he taken on car rides, fishing trips and regular excursions to Diary Queen ... Billy was dependent on humans for all his social and emotional needs.  According to Gloria, Billy thought he was more human than chimp.

In the lab, he was hostile, uncooperative, and aggressive.  One day, while recovering from surgery, Billy chewed both is thumbs off.  At Fauna, his troubles continued.  He rejected the other chimps, much preferring to interact with humans, and eventually the other rejected him ... they severely beat him a number of times.  That is why he chose to isolate himself."

Billy was a very large chimp, and could be frightening to humans when he displayed aggression.  His teeth had all been knocked out when he was young.  But

According to Gloria ... Billy had a heartbreaking way of negotiating with his human caregivers in lieu of violence.  "He would start doing handstands or lips flaps, just like in the circus ... As if he were saying 'If I entertain you, will you not hurt me?'"

Experts diagnosed Billy as suffering from a recurring depression, "the result of a species-identity disorder" resulting from his fostering by humans as a baby.  During Billy's last days, Gloria's responsibilities forced her to leave him.

"I stayed with Billy as long as I could," says Gloria ... "I held him, hugged him, gave him a kiss goodbye.  Then everyone told me I had to leave."

That was the last time she ever saw Billy alive.

If wise beings survive on Planet Earth, we will someday look back on the human treatment of Great Apes -- and especially, I'm afraid, of chimpanzees in North America -- as one of the most terrible crimes in history.  Equal to the Genocide of Native Americans or the African Slave Trade or the Holocaust.  But we will also remember the people who stood against that evil -- Roger Fouts, Jane Goodall, Gloria Grow and others -- the way we remember Oskar Schindler or Harriet Tubman.

If you are not fond of books that you have to read through tears -- tears of sadness, tears of rage, tears of triumph and gratitude -- then The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary is probably not for you.  This is book filled with darkness with and light. With suffering and redemption. With cruelty and compassion and incredible courage.  It is a book filled with many heroes.

And a few of them are human.


Readers of Birds and Beasts might also enjoy our sister blog Birdland West, which covers birds and wildlife, mostly in the Seattle Area.


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What the Barn Swallows Know

Bird Brain Genius
Bird Brain Genius by Ken Korczak
As a bookseller (and as a writer) I have watched the changes sweeping the publishing industry with interest.  The rise of ebooks, and of readers like Kindle and Nook, have not been kind to small sellers, but I still find myself excited by the whole knew frontier opening up for online publishing.  No one seems to know exactly where it's going, and that is always thrilling.  And scary.  As the old Chinese proverb/curse says, we live in interesting times.

The upside of the new formats is the rise of independent publishers, many of them aimed at very specific niches -- erotic paranormal romance or zombie apocalypse fiction -- with their own enthusiastic audiences.  Those who don't spend a lot of time online, or haven't really looked at what's out there, might be surprised.  A new publishing industry is sprouting up, full of diverse voices and perspectives.

The down side is that this new zone, as yet, has very little structure and often lacks the experience, quality control, and filtering that big traditional publishers provide.  In many cases, authors are publishing themselves -- something that has always been an option, but which online sales and marketing, and now ebooks, have made incredibly easy.  The problem is that these books may never have benefited from professional editing and the kind of feedback that authors traditionally receive on the way to print. (Or its electronic equivalent.)

A really good example of both the strengths and the weaknesses of this new paradigm is Bird Brain Genius by Ken Korczak.  The book is available on Amazon Kindle, which is where I stumbled across it.  Korczak provides a little back story -- he says that he witnessed the central events when he was working as a newspaper reporter in 1984, and that it was so unbelievable that neither his editor, nor any of the non-fiction publications he sent it to would publish it.  Finally, he decided to expand it into a short novel.  He makes a point of saying that he no longer cares whether anyone believes it or not, "It's just a great story."

And that, at least, is true.

Bird Bran Genius, set in the farm country of Minnesota, concerns two eccentric, white-trash twins, Cadmus and Buford Dziekonski, who own a failing farm and who happen to be mathematical idiot-savants.  The brothers are not good farmers, and their farm, like most of the farms around, is in trouble.  None-the-less, Cadmus becomes obsessed with a pair of barn swallows -- who he names Sabik and Bellatrix -- who have built their nest across from the brothers' front porch.  Watching the birds -- and "contemplating complex temporal-spatial equations based in chaos theory" -- Cadmus begins to create a bizarre intellectual game. 

... he visualized a three-dimensional grid in the large yard that opened east of the farm house. To that he added four-dimensional space-time continuum factors, which only he could grasp effectively. Cadmus' imaginary grid was rectangular, some 75 yards wide by 50 meters high. It was about 50 meters deep. Within the grid, Cadmus further visualized internal cubical sections, and assigned numerical values to each one of them. He also gave them colors to add more variables. After some practice, his powerful imagination could easily and automatically project this mental grid out into the wide space east of the farm house. Sabik and Bellatrix spent much of their time passing through the imaginary grid as they hunted for insects and returned to their nest where the hungry offspring eagerly swallowed the insect victuals. Cadmus soon became absorbed in his game. He noticed that each time Sabik and Bellatrix passed through his mental grid and intersected the individual values assigned to it, they returned to the nest with a specific score. Sometimes Sabik flew through the grid in a way that earned a very high score. At other times, his score was low, at other times middling. Bellatrix did the same.

And so, Tumulus is born.  A game based on keeping score of the bird's passages through the imaginary grid.  When other people from the town find out about it, they flock to the brothers' farm each evening to listen to Cadmus call the game, complete with its own arcane lexicon and dramatic flourishes. 

"Here comes Sabik ... OH! He enters warbling into Purple Sector 9! MOOLTANNA! A good one! He's down, flicks-back, an astro-turn ... WAIT! YIKES! He flickbacks DOUBLE and comes in for a brood roost vigorous! Terrific score, Sabik!! 389 debens!"

The game becomes such a hit that the townspeople begin betting on it, and soon hundreds and hundreds of dollars are changing hands over every round, even though Cadmus and Buford remain innocent of the gambling.  Cadmus is concerned only with calling the games, keeping his statistics, and with his growing unease at what the statistics suggest.  For the scores of the two birds are steadily increasing.  The birds' performance at Tumulus is improving -- as if the birds understand the game, as if they are deliberately competing.  Buford, for his part, totally rejects that possibility, and becomes obsessed with finding the hidden mathematical artifact that must be skewing Cadmus's data.

Around this story is the bleak picture of traditional farm life dying.  Family farms are being foreclosed, and generations of tradition are disappearing.  There is also a sweet, remarkably innocent and romantic love story between the brothers' niece Minerva and the Farm AG agent, whose job it is to foreclose on the Dziekonski farm.

This is a very compelling story, with something of the flavor of Mark Twain's "What Stumped the Blue Jay".  It is in the sketching of the colorful characters, the description of the town, the playing of the sentimental and wistful romantic subplot -- and most of all in describing the intriguing mystery of the game of Tumulus -- that the book's strengths lay.

But, unfortunately, it has flaws too.  What this feels like, more than anything, is the first draft of a good story by a good writer.  I mentioned earlier the lack of structure and feedback that comes from self-publishing, or publishing outside the traditional mold.  And this book definitely shows that lack.  It has all the kinds of mistakes that every writer makes in early drafts -- punctuation, grammar, shifts in tense, slips in point-of-view, awkward phrasing, and elements of the story that haven't quite jelled.  The kinds of things that a few good readers and a good editor help whip into shape.  It's a testament to the strength of the story, and the author's raw talent, that the book is still engaging despite these problems.

As it stands, Bird Brain Genius is fun, interesting little story whose lack of polish will, unfortunately, stop a lot of readers from getting through it.

With a little editing and little development here and there, it could be a very good book.