Book Reviews: March 07 issue

In association with The Nile
And other stories, by Michael Morrissey

Tigers.jpg Hobbit.jpg Ignorance.jpg
TIGERS IN RED WEATHER by Ruth Padel, $29.99
I began this column seven years ago and in that time I have reviewed 370 books. In the main, they have been books I either enjoyed or admired though occasionally some were read out of cultural duty. From memory, the only two I have done “hatchet” jobs on are The Beach by Alex Garland and The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown Alas my negative reviews probably did nothing to deter sales and to date I have not received any aggrieved letters from the authors, presumably (especially in Brown’s case) guffawing all the way to the bank.
It is my happy task to report that this month’s lead book Tigers in Red Weather is one of the most outstanding books yet consumed during this on-going delicious seven year literary feast. As an example of naturalist writing, it often attains the heights of fine poetry and indeed the title is a quote from that brilliant poet Wallace Stevens, who along with Ezra Pound and T.S Eliot, must be considered one of the greatest American poets of the last century.
A sample of Padel’s sumptuous yet precise prose:
“Brown water drops fall like cappuccino from his belly on split-end grass. A racket-tailed drongo calls, the mimic of the Indian jungle, a black glossy bird with tail-feathers like two black lollipops. A sentinel langur monkey barks from a sal tree over the pool. Both have seen the movement of a tiger, a predator, jumping. The tigress’s whiskers twitch in irritation. Alarm calls cross the species barrier: they are the jungle’s lingui franca. Everyone wants to know when a predator is near. Grey langurs, the silky silvery monkeys of the India forest, large as Labradors, are the eyes of the jungle, packing the trees with black judgmental faces.”
Padel, a great-great grandaughter of Darwin, takes us on a world tiger tour. Among the 14 countries or islands that still have wild tigers, she has visited three of the most dangerous and remote – Eastern Siberia, Bhutan and Sumatra – though she has been to nearly all of them. The Siberian, Bhutan and Sumatra chapters are especially fascinating both because of the remoteness of location, extraordinary fauna and flora and in the particular case of Sumatra, the fabulously rich mythology about the tiger, absolutely central to that large island’s culture.
The preservation of the tiger in the wild is not merely a matter of liking a large and beautiful animal – it is a symbol of the entire conservation mode of thought. Because the tiger is the top predator, a healthy tiger means a healthy jungle. The Mahabharata, that epic Hindu poem, made exactly the same point in 400 BC: “The tiger perishes without the forest and the forest perishes without its tigers.”
Tiger preservation is not “merely” a matter of conservation ideology, it is a small war. In India, which remains the country with the largest number of wild tigers (current estimate 3000), fifty guards are killed every year by poachers, another 100 mutilated. Because of poor funds, the guards often have old-style .303 style rifles whereas the poachers have modern weapons. It’s an uneven contest dangerously loaded against the felines and two of India’s prominent tiger defenders have opposing views of the tiger’s future. The somewhat black-tigery Valmik Thapar, author of 14 books on tigers, is a pessimist (though he will fight for its right to live in the jungle while there is breath in his body), while biologist Ullas Karanth is optimistic. Only the future will show which view is the more accurate.
Unfortunately, the villain in the world scene is China. Most of the world’s illegally poached tigers wind up in the markets of the world’s most populous nation. I used to cherish the idea that the proven to work Viagra would defeat the mistaken traditional Chinese medicine notion that the tiger penis was useful as an aphrodisiac but alas the tiger is also valued for its bones not to mention its magnificent skin. The current situation has become desperate and tiger skins are openly sold for approximately $13,000 dollars.
Padel admits that the tiger itself will not become extinct because there are many thousands in zoos or in private ownership (4000 in Texas alone!) who will presumably continue to breed and be placed in other zoos and reserves though not of course back into the wild.
The tiger has twice before been saved from extinction – in the 1930s in Siberia and in India in 1973. It is therefore possible to do so again though the odds currently look horribly bad. Governments have to treat it as a top priority and at the local level the welfare of peoples who lived in, around and, indeed, with tigers must always be fully taken into account. If this happens – and it is still possible – the tiger’s roar will still be frightening those langur monkeys and every living thing within a five kilometre radius in the years to come.
Needless to say there are no wild tigers in New Zealand though a friend told me a specimen was once released in the South Island for hunting purposes and later died of the cold (factoid?). Meanwhile two fine Sumatran specimens can be see at the Auckland Zoo – Oz (male) and Molek (female). Mating and breeding is intended but it takes time for the two giant felines to get acquainted. Once you have seen these animals, even through the filter of protective glass, I defy you not to wish for their survival at large. Let us all hope that Tigers in Red Weather brings about a benign change in the climate for tigrine survival.
THE DISCOVERY OF THE HOBBIT by Mike Morwood and Penny Van Oosterzer, Random House Australia, $40
Late 2004 saw the announcement of a scientific and paleoanthropological bombshell – real-life hobbits! The “hobbits” were the remains of very small hominids – about a metre tall – found in the Liang Bua cave on Flores Island in Indonesia, by a joint Australian-Indonesian team led by New Zealander Mike Morwood and Indonesian Raden Pandji Soejono. As outlined by Morwood, the tiny humans hunted giant rats, pygmy elephants and Komodo dragons until 13,000 years ago. In other words, human beings far smaller than previously imagined – no larger than leprechauns – co-existed with normal-sized humans on this remote island. Needless to say, the world has been agog ever since.
If your first reaction is to think this is either a forgotten chapter from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World or the most brilliant scientific hoax in human history, I’m not surprised. (More about scepticism presently.) Science has had to admit the existence of meteorites (once not believed in) and more recently giant rogue waves, so why not tiny humans? Once upon a time gorillas and Komodo dragons weren’t believed in either.
The climactic discovery of the first hobbit occurs about a third way into the book – prior to that point, the authors give a sober outline of various background aspects – methods of excavation and dating, plate tectonics, the Wallace line, the twin theories of human origin and so forth. This effectively sets the scene for the (literally) earth-shattering discovery of the first hominid bones. The announcement provoked a media explosion of nuclear proportions – 200 enquiries a day for the first week, 98,000 websites and articles in 7000 newspapers plus a lead feature in National Geographic, world circulation ten million copies.
So far so good. Now the plot thickens. While Morwood was in Australia, his Indonesian colleague handed over the hominid remains to Professor Leuku Jacob, “the undisputed king of paleoanthropology in Indonesia.” The bones were eventually returned but according to Morwood, moulds had been taken in a way that caused serious damage to the remains. Further, Jacob spearheaded a counterclaim that the hominids, rather than being a new species of homo sapiens, were in fact pygmies suffering from microcephalis – a pathological explanation of the unusually small skulls. Morwood and his colleagues staunchly maintain that the teeth and the pelvis shape and other healthy characteristics plus long term existence on Flores suggest that the hominids were not microcephalic but another kind of human. The unusually small cranial capacity – only 380 cc – is also way below what was thought to be the size for human intelligence to be feasible. Morwood says the skull formation indicates “enlarged frontal and temporal lobes” – precisely those areas concerned with cognition and planning”. Plus the presence of stone artefacts – how could retarded folk have made them?
Unlike the notorious Piltdown man hoax of 1912, and the controversial Tasaday tribe “discovered” in 1971, no one is accusing Morwood of fakery – simply mistaken interpretation of fossil evidence. What would appear to weigh against the sceptic case of Jacob and his supporters is that at least 13 sets of bones have been found all indicating a uniformly small stature plus evidence of hunting skills. In general, the world has accepted Morwood’s claims. If future excavations yield still more tiny hominids, Morwood’s case will only be strengthened. In the meantime, I would love to speculate that evidence of a race of giants might come to light – though this seems rather less likely. Watch this space.
THE BOOK OF GENERAL IGNORANCE by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson, Faber and Faber, $35
What Edison invention do English speakers use every day? This is one of hundreds of comparable ‘trick’ questions contained in this snappy little tome. Some of the obvious answers might be the electric light or the phonograph. According to the irritatingly well-informed authors, the correct answer is “Hullo” which they assert was originally used to express surprise but Edison decided a nice loud Hullo! was the best way to kick start an immediately audible phone conversation.
In other words, this book works hard and, in the main, succeeds in revealing unexpected answers, unusual facts, while simultaneously puncturing widespread but erroneous beliefs. My guess is that in some cases the correct answer (that is, if it is correct) will not always be accepted.
I found it hard to swallow that the largest thing the largest living animal on the planet (ie a blue whale) can swallow is a grapefruit. It was sad to read that St Bernard’s dogs did not carry brandy barrels around their necks though I do remember brandy being kept in the home as a means of reviving the weak and the swoony. (Perhaps it was the bite of the taste in which case whiskey would have done just as well. Note: James Bond’s favourite drink was not the vodka martini but whiskey – mentioned 101 times!) Apparently, the brandy barrel was added “for interest” by an artist in an 1831 painting. So there!
Some items that either surprised, flabbergasted or I found hard to believe – alcohol does not kill brain cells though it does make new cells grow less quickly; Hitler was not a vegetarian though his doctors recommended it as a cure for flatulence (in fact, he ate Bavarian sausage, game pie and stuffed pigeon); feminists did not burn their bras but did throw them in the trash can (the burning detail was added by a journalist); practitioners of Voodoo do not stick pins in dolls.
Among such a litany of myth-busting, it was a relief to read that plaster of Paris really does come from Paris, that cats can fall great heights without injury and that the monicker “poms” is an abbreviation for pomegranates.
Too bad about those people who believe you can see the Great Wall of China from the moon – you can barely make out continents. However, from space – 100 kilometres up – you can make out all sort of objects – motorways, railways, cities, buildings etc.
The only fact I would dispute is the assertion that “from the fourth century BC almost no one anywhere, has believed the earth was flat.” A goodly number of Christian thinkers stated that the earth was flat – these include Lactantius, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chryostom, Severian, Diodorus of Tarsus and the improbably named Cosmas Indicopleustes. However, it is true that Columbus and his men did NOT think the earth was flat as is often stated – this notion sprung from Washington Irving’s popular semi-fictional book about Columbus, published in 1828.
According to one website I visited, Zhang Heng (inventor of the seismograph) was the first to introduce the notion of a round earth into Chinese thought but not until the 2nd century AD – 600 hundred years after the author’s date for the widespread acceptance of the roundness of the earth. As late as the early 17the century, the popular belief in China was that the earth was flat.
I have saved two knockout drop-jaw facts till last – the biggest man-made thing on earth is not the Great Wall of China but the Fresh Kills rubbish dump on Staten Island New York and a chicken survived without its head for two years – the axe missed the jugular and it was fed with an eye-dropper. Please don’t try this at home.
AVA GARDNER by Lee Server, Bloomsbury, $59.99
Being hailed as the world’s most beautiful woman is enough to swell anyone’s head but according to this exhaustive biography it left Ava’s down to earth personality more or less intact. In the words of one of MGM’s early stars John Gilbert, “Very matter-of-fact about everything, nothing drippy or saccharine about her at all, a real no-nonsense kind of girl”.
When the young Carolina star-to-be arrived at MGM’s headquarters, it was the largest dream factory on earth – 117 acres of offices, cottages, laboratories, barnlike soundstages big enough to house zeppelins, plus an artificial lake, a stretch of railroad track, a street of New York tenements, a castle and a patch of African jungle. It had 4000 employees, though just 100 of those were contracted actors, among them the diminutive though perfectly formed Mickey Rooney who, like so many, was instantly smitten with the young Ava. Rooney wound up proposing marriage to Ava 25 times before she said yes. Rooney and Gardner showed spirited determination in defying film mogul Louis B Mayer’s decree that they should not get hitched. The marriage went well for a while until Ava, possibly with justification (though Rooney swore otherwise), felt he was being unfaithful.
Ava Gardner had a warm but stormy personality as Howard Hughes, oil tycoon and aviator, discovered. The eccentric billionaire had tried to bribe his way into her affections with expensive gifts but she resisted. An intrusive control-freak, Hughes had her followed and even bugged her room. When he discovered she had a lover (not him) he became inflamed with jealousy and attacked her. Giving as good and more than she received, Ava hit Hughes with a large bronze bell. She was given a steak for her black eye, while the world’s richest man was driven off in an ambulance.
Ava’s tempestuous life was of course just beginning. A volatile person, alcohol proved a bad mix that helped accelerate natural storms to hurricane or even tornado status. Ava herself could be candid about her faults: “Yes, I am very beautiful but morally I stink”. Such an admission of course never frightened off any new suitors of which there was always a ready supply. After Rooney, she married intellectual musician Artie Shaw and her third marriage to crooner Frank Sinatra assisted in boosting both careers to iconic status.
In an acutely perceptive passage, Server describes the two personalities as very much alike in temperament, tastes, sympathies, neuroses”. Both had taciturn fathers and outgoing mothers, and both hated racial prejudice. According to Server – no reason to doubt his analysis – “both were independent-minded, hotheaded, selfish, possessive, suspicious – traits intensified by the alcohol of which they were equally fond; they were both generous, open, affectionate, sensitive, funny.” And, of course, both very voraciously promiscuous – a trait that does not lend itself to happiness. Though their marriage predictably ended after bitter quarreling, their bond lasted until Gardner’s death at the relatively early age of 67.
Beside Hughes, Sinatra and Rooney, many other rich and/or famous individuals passed through Ava’s meteoric career, among them Clark Gable, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart, Fidel Castro, Robert Graves, Adlai Stevenson, George C. Scott, Man Ray, John Houston, New Zealand plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe and champion bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguin (and yes, Ava did try her hand at bullfighting).
Server’s sardonic-cynical-American style is not always to my taste but he gives an exhaustive treatment of Gardner’s roller-coaster life plus a very full analysis of some of her important films such as the memorable The Killers which launched Burt Lancaster’s glittering career. The question sometimes asked of such glamorous stars is – but can they really act? In Gardner ‘s case, having watched several of her classic films, I can say the answer has to be a resounding yes. Despite her many faults, Gardner seems to have been one of those uniquely charming individuals who wind up being forgiven by everyone – even those she hurt the most.
THE FAINTER by Damien Wilkins, Victoria University Press, $30
I have enjoyed and been impressed by Damien Wilkins’s earlier novels The Miserables and Little Masters but regrettably The Fainter, his fifth novel, is a lesser work. Billed as a comedy of manners, it has the drawing room concentration of the genre but little of its dance. By tradition, the comedy of manners is associated with a style of English theatre from the 17th century (eg William Wycherley, William Congreve), which was given a new lease of life by Oscar Wilde. In more recent times, the notion has been linked to Joe Orton, Noel Coward, Marcel Proust and many others. It has been said to find its comic effect in the contrast between codes of expected mannerly behaviour and the ironically concealed motives of self interest shown by the characters. The comic effects of The Fainter are marginal and its sense of theatre weak.
The novel’s character is Luke, a youthful diplomat evidently on the rise – he is a junior legal adviser on Environmental law to the New Zealand wing of the Permanent Mission at the United Nations. One night he witnesses a murder in the streets of New York but it’s never altogether clear what he sees and that makes his onlooker role curiously passive. Seemingly, this event is central to the book but its dramatic follow through is oddly muted. Like Luke himself, it seems to have fallen asleep on the job i.e. fainted Generally, Luke is more passive than a central character can afford to be.
As the novel’s focus shifts to Luke’s stay with his sister’s farming family in South Canterbury a more straightforward conflict ensues – that between the bookish fellow with soft hands surrounded by more mannish types who farm, pilot glider craft and so forth. The dialogue tends more to the banal and lifelike rather than the witty but there is one glorious burst when it is suggested that Kerry O’Keefe, Luke’s retired boss turned amateur military historian, has gone over to the “dark side.” “Bestiality?” ‘The National Party.” Ouch! Generally there is more interest in the mild frisson of his on-going bruising at the hand of Alec, who ironically is rescued by Luke from choking, than Luke’s lack-lustre interest in Sheila, Alec’s wife.
There are intriguing bits of political consciousness and know-how scattered slyly through the text and some focus on the way the late David Lange’s oratory and political style impacted on an impressionable Luke. Alas, Luke is no Lange in the making neither in political clout or wit. Here and there are traces of the old Wilkins’ magic but on the whole it is a curiously dull and unfocused performance. The atmosphere of the text is disconcertingly cosy and complacent. Perhaps the author needs to be parachuted into a more dangerous zone for a few weeks.