BOOKS: Mar 05

A new Wright Brothers biography tackles Pearse, as Michael Morrissey discovers in this crop of the latest literature offerings
By Gerard Hutching, Penguin, $39.95
Some days I think surely we have had enough books about New Zealand flora and fauna and then two counter thoughts come to mind :
a) we can never have enough books about our plants, trees and wonderful birds and insects,
b) if it’s a good book, yes, we can do with it.
The Natural World prompts both of these positive thoughts. And of course new species get discovered and so we need new books to document these discoveries.
This book has two parts – the first part (In the Beginning) is only 26 pages long and the second part (Our Natural Heritage) has 343 pages which at first glance looks a trifle unbalanced but then the second half contains “New Zealand’s Natural World A-Z” which is the central part of the book. This central alphabetised section mixes up fauna and flora which might disquiet some though it makes for easy reference and encourages that free wheeling habit of association and contiguity by alphabet alone which is the hallmark of browsing dictionaries and encyclopaedias.
I’ll start negative and finish positive. There is an entry on snails but none on slugs. (And we have some magnificent slugs.) Naturally, our unique creepy-crawly, the 550 million old peripatus, is well displayed. Alas and alack, no giant centipedes – well, they have become rare. No entry on insects. There is an entry on endangered plants but none on endangered birds though there is a list of rare (ie, endangered) birds on p 380 – but it has only five (why not ten?) Parakeets are listed but not lorikeets. The entries on beetles, mountains and rivers (no mention of braided rivers) are far too short as is, arguably, the entries on dinosaurs. The entry on blue whales states they weigh up to 150 tonnes but it is well known that a specimen weighing 190 tonnes was caught in Antarctic seas in 1947.
Let’s look at the positives. Wetas are well documented – I learnt there are at least four species of giant weta alone. And it was honest of Hutching to note that the giant wetapunga sometimes patriotically claimed to be the heaviest insect in the world is outweighed by the African Goliath beetle. Impressively researched is the note on the huia – often erroneously stated to be the only species where the sexes have different-sized bills (so do the African green woodhoopoe, Hawaiian honeycreeper and the trembler from the lesser Antilles (admit it – you had no idea!). Other choice new titbits of knowledge – the largest extinct gecko (“Two feet long and as thick as a man’s wrist”) used to live in New Zealand; male puriri moths live for only one day; New Zealand has only 10 species of ants while Australia has 5000; New Zealand has 3153 glaciers (I thought it had about 20); Maori called English “cicada language”
because of its harsh sound; Mitre Peak is the highest sea cliff in the world; New Zealand’s wild ferret population is the largest in the world; whales eat an estimated 100 million tonnes of squid a year; and why sleeping fantails don’t fall off branches (you’ll have to buy the book to find out why not).
Photography is excellent – particularly striking shots are those of a wetapunga half covering someone’s face, a trio of spy-hopping orcas, a male kakapo doing a mating dance, the third largest ammonite fossil in the world (as large as a wheelbarrow), and a tuatara snacking on a gecko. Perhaps I have been a mite tough on this book – despite some omissions and overly short treatment of some potentially larger topics, it’s excellent overall.

books_the devil's disciles.jpgTHE DEVIL’S DISCIPLES: The Lives and Times of Hitler’s Inner Circle
By Anthony Read, Pimlico, $34
Adolf Hitler may well be the twentieth century’s most written about person. Logically, that is because, for better or for worse, he is regarded as the individual who most influenced history during that apocalyptic epoch. Less well known are his gang of offsiders – Goring, Goebbels, Himmler, Ribbentrop, Speer, Borman, Heydrich, Hess, Rohm etc. This outstanding, well-researched and well-written multi-biography gives detailed psychological, political and historical portraits of these top Nazi officials both in relation to Hitler and to each other.
Prior to reading Devil’s Disciples, these figures were only known to me as two dimensional cartoon-like characters. Now, regrettably, I know them better. Out of the shadows into the light, they appear morally as dark as ever. It must be said they were all highly competent individuals with the exception of the bumbling Ribbentrop (though even Ribbentrop had his times of triumph) – and, of course, totally ruthless. Goring, in particular, was a man I had conceived as a rather foolish fat guy, morphine-riddled, who got things wrong. Fat he certainly was – in later life (though handsome, lean and dashing in his youth) – foolish he was not. (And apparently not morphine-addicted either.) He wasn’t a coward either but a fearless top air ace, renown for his boldness. Militarily, he was more prudent than Hitler for he opposed the invasion of Russia. A collector – or looter – of top class European art, he lived like a medieval monarch complete with forests, fire-lit castles, baronial halls stuffed with hunting trophies – a vulgar but formidable Teutonic lord. He was popular even in Germany’s darkest hour and when captured had his jailors rocking with laughter. Judge Norman Birkett described him as “suave, shrewd, adroit, capable, resourceful”, though by any moral standards, a monster. Yet (almost) I found myself having a sneaking liking for him. It must be remembered that Hitler, Goebbels and Goring all had great charm as well as charisma.
Himmler, by contrast was a more colourless individual whose Machiavellian ruthlessness eventually ousted Goring as Number Two beside Hitler, though when he betrayed Hitler at the end, he himself, like them all, lost everything. All of Hitler’s cohort – particularly Goebbels and Goring – were engaged in an eternal dance of power around the central focus of Hitler. As has been often commented – and here explored in telling detail – Hitler often encouraged the competition.
No Hollywood mogul ever wielded as much power as the club – footed Goebbels. Unlike family man Goring, he had an insatiable sexual appetite and made full use of the casting couch – as dictator of all art forms he controlled casting for films. Like Hitler, he was a failed artist (ie playwright) who, surprisingly, nourished the delusion that Hitler would emerge as a socialist. Ironically, a Hitlerian ban on any art that wasn’t beautiful and true to nature – which led to an exhibition of degenerate abstract art – proved so popular Goebbels had to shut it down.
Excellent as the histories by Richard Overy and Antony Beevor are, none of their books tops this massive, compelling labyrinth, expertly documented and unravelled by Anthony Read – a drama, which however one may dislike it, is the greatest of the twentieth century, a doomed Gotterdammerung-like tragedy that haunts us still. Though the Nuremberg trials may have seemed like the conclusion of these dark performances, the curtain calls of history continue.

books_the wright brothers.jpgTHE WRIGHT BROTHERS
By Ian Mackersey, Timewarner, $29.95
What are the greatest inventions of all time? I’m going to stick my neck out and say the wheel, harnessed and transmittable electricity and the aeroplane. The aeroplane in its transmuted form, the rocket, will one day take us to the stars…
What this book makes powerfully clear is that the first flight on December 17, 1903 was no accident, no fluke, no product of amateur backyard inventors, but a technologically sound construction – the product of many hours of meticulous, planning, research and always-dangerous trials.
True, the Wright brothers had a bicycle shop (often used by less successful rivals as a put down of their efforts), but don’t kid yourself – these boys were astute and patient engineers/technologists. Of the two, tall ascetic Wilbur was the knowledge-retentive, mathematical one, while girl-shy Orville turned out to be the better pilot. They were both non – drinkers, non-smokers, sons of a venerable but ideologically stormy bishop; upright, morally beyond reproach yet courteous and, when not working with their fabled concentration, friendly. In short, they deserved their success. When international recognition and success came – five years after their first flight – it was overwhelming. In France, a crowd went wild, the French pilots, including Louis Bleriot, had never seen such impeccable flight control, such steeply banked turns.
It had started years before with the lads making experimental flights with engineless gliders. Wilbur grasped firmly the notion that it was control and lift that were the key problems not the engine. Mackersey paces his book expertly so that the long build-up of experimentation and partial success climaxes initially about half way through with the brothers’ first successful flight. This is one of the great technological dramas of history and a defining moment of the twentieth century – the American century.
Three key figures – among many – are well outlined in this enthralling account – Samuel Langley who had $50,000 from the American army to develop a glider that was never to achieve true flight; Octave Chanute, an important pioneer of flight who greatly encouraged the Wright brothers before eventually falling out with them; and Augustus Herring, a confidence man of the worst type who kept trying to cotton on to the tails of Wright brothers – thankfully, he did not succeed though not from want of trying.
Though their initial successes were satisfactorily witnessed, the brothers cagily withdrew from the public eye and got into a Mexican standoff with several governments – the brothers wanted money (lots of it) before they would demonstrate. The governments, understandably, wanted performance first, before any money was handed over. The brothers were overly defensive and poor negotiators – yet they triumphed in the end. For some years, (after Wilbur’s death in 1912), the Smithsonian Institution tried to claim that Langley’s craft had attained flight before the Wright brothers but eventually they backed down. It is gratifying to know that Orville at least survived to see their place in history indisputably confirmed. Footnote: Mackersey, cruelly, though I believe accurately, briefly mentions Richard Pearse as becoming airborne but not an achiever of true controlled flight – a failure that Pearse himself admitted in a letter in 1928.

books_susan sontag.jpgREGARDING THE PAIN OF OTHERS
By Susan Sontag, Penguin Books, $27
This will probably be Sontag’s last book as this eminent woman of letters recently died of cancer – though, on occasion, posthumous works are quarried from a well known author’s unpublished papers. A New York-based writer, Sontag always seemed more like an essayist who wrote novels than a novelist who composed essays. Despite The Volcano Lover winning the National Book Award, it is her essays which will be remembered and re-read more than her fiction.
Sontag’s early collections of essays – Against Interpretation and Styles of Radical Will – were dazzling. She was an intellectual of formidable powers who wrote essays which the “average” educated person could understand. Not for her the wilful obscurities of the poststructuralists, though she was a keen admirer of Roland Barthes and edited a reader of his work. Her speciality – in the tradition of the great essayists – was the epigrammatic sentence compressing several notions into a single witty byte.
Sontag’s work also revealed an early obsession with cinematography and photography. In the world of the Sontagian essay, Hollywood did not exist – her preferred choices were European auteurs like Ingmar Bergman and Jean – Luc Godard. In this final book length essay, she combines her fixation on photography with her ongoing moral concern with man’s inhumanity to man – plus as noted by Virginia Woolf and Sontag herself – women and children.
War photography is the central theme. Roger Fenton, official photographer at the Crimea, was the world’s first war photographer – the camera having been invented only a few years prior. Fenton’s brief was “not to photograph the dead, the maimed, or the ill”. The result, as Sontag sardonically observes, was “war as a dignified all – male outing”– complete to carefully rearranged cannon balls showing the aftermath of the doomed charge of the Light Brigade. This sterilised view of war couldn’t hold up for long. Sontag alludes to the conscientious objector Ernst Friedrich who in 1924 published close-ups of soldiers with huge facial wounds and, naturally, to Robert Capa, most famous of all war photographers, killed in action like so many of that singularly dangerous occupation.
Ever the true intellectual – ready to retract earlier ideas if time reveals a different perspective – Sontag pulls the carpet from under ideas she espoused in On Photography, written nearly 30 years ago. There are millions, she says, who are not inured to what they see on television – “who do not have the luxury of patronising reality.” In a rebuke directed at intellectuals (including herself), she insists that images of atrocity continue to remind us, do not allow us to forget, what awful things human beings are capable of. The conclusion of this moving essay rises to a fever pitch of humane pleading that is not found in her earlier work. Perhaps it was her own suffering as a cancer patient that informed these passages. If so, it is a pain Sontag has declined to centre on herself but pass onto us, all humanity, at large. Thus Sontag’s final work concludes on a note of high moral uplift expressed as always in her elegant and eloquent prose. Bravo, Susan!

books_rats.jpgRATS: A Year with New York’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants
By Robert Sullivan, Granta Books, $35
Rats are usually a non-starter as a dinner conversation topic. Femmes and chaps alike don’t care for the disease-carrying rubbish scavengers as gossip. The Black Plague gave them some of the worst press any animal has had to live with. To call someone a rat is about the worst insult you can dish out. And we’ve all heard those suburban horror stories about rats chewing on babies’ faces. The scene in 1984 where Winston Smith has to face his worse fear – rats – is arguably the most horrible in all literature.
If this is your take on rats, you will probably give this book a wide berth; on the other hand, gnaw your way into it and you might find there’s more to the much disliked rodent then you imagined. For a start they are tough little buggers. Their teeth, dedicated rat-watcher Sullivan writes zestfully, are “stronger than aluminium, copper, lead, and iron. They are comparable to steel … they can exert a biting pressure of up to seven thousand pounds a square inch”. This compares to 1500 pounds for a wolf and a mere 750 pounds for a German shepherd. No wonder they can chew through concrete.
All your fears about rats are more or less true – rats do bite babies; there have been instances of them attacking fully grown adults; they carry bacteria, viruses, protozoa, fungi, mites, fleas lice and ticks; they spread trichinosis, tularaemia, leptospirosis. (I don’t know what the last two are but they sound bad). And for a bonus – typhus, rabies and salmonella.Reader, there have been no surprises so far but here come three :
1. the author finds rats disgusting (surely he loves them just a bit?)
2. he spent a lot of time prowling around in dirty, dangerous dark alleyways watching them
3. he really doesn’t know why he set out on the rat-watching project.
It appeared Sullivan gathered enthusiasm as he went. Or was that when he had enough information to quit alleys and skulk home to write his very well-written book? Rats of course do die themselves and one of New York’s less savoury nineteenth pastimes was getting tough dogs to kill as many rats as they could in as short a time as possible – the record was 100 rats in five minutes 28 seconds.
The tough Irish impresario drew the line (and please don’t try this at home) at men biting rats’ head off. Amazingly, I learnt from Sullivan’s compendious little book that kiwis are global leaders in rat extermination. In 2002, 120 tonnes of rat poison taken to Campbell Island did in 200,000 rats – a world record!
Sullivan gleefully lists some of the dottier causes of plague before it was discovered (only as recently as 1894) that rat fleas were the culprit – restless night birds, huddling frogs, wormy fruit, large spiders, circling ravens, mad dogs and vapours rising from the earth. To which I say – rats. Rats are renown for their versatile eating habits and you want to encourage them leave cooked rather than raw food. They love scrambled eggs, macaroni and cheese and cooked corn kernels but tend to dislike raw beans, peaches and raw celery.
Sullivan is adamant that the notion that there is one rat per person in a city is erroneous – that would mean in New York there were about 8 million. A rat expert has estimated the Big Apple’s quota as 250,000 – which sounds a bit on the low side. Why? Rats have sex 20 times a day.