Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Genres: Natural Science, Science
Format: Paperback
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
by Frans De Waal
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781783783069
Publication Date: July 26, 2017
Pages: 340
Genre: Science
Publisher: Granta Books

Short answer:  no, of course we’re not.  For a lot of reasons, but mostly because of thousands of years of cultural confirmation bias.

For the long answer, you can’t go wrong reading this book.  De Waal writes a very readable treatise on the subject – where we started regarding our beliefs about animal intelligence, and how we got to where we are today, using a well balanced blend of anecdotes and scientific experiments.  While his area of study is primatology, he also delves into research conducted by colleagues on birds, elephants, dogs, a few fish wales, dolphins, and the octopus.  He systematically addresses each of the arguments that have been made as to what sets humans apart, and how these arguments have been torn down by research over time.

The book didn’t get the full 5 stars because, oddly enough, I felt De Waal was being too politic about at least one question: why are researchers, scientists and laypeople so historically stubborn about insisting that humans are above, and superior to, all other animals?  To me, that answer is obvious, though I can see why scientists equate objectivity with atheism.  The truth of the matter is that the Western world has been culturally inculcated by Judeo-Christian teachings, whether scientists like it or not, on such a fundamental level, that I doubt many are aware of it.  Specifically, Genesis 1:28:

And God blessed them, saying: Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth.

Personally – and this is just me – I’ve always had doubts about the original translation of Gen. 1:28 – specifically the words “subdue” and “rule”; I have to wonder if the original language wasn’t closer to something akin to ‘guard’ or ‘protect’, given that Earth may be our home, but it isn’t our house, so to speak.  And while I’m going a bit off topic here, I’ll also just say that I do believe that God gave us something that separates us from the other animals: free will.  In all my readings and my meagre experiences, we’re the only animals that can choose to be evil for the sake of being evil; we’re the only animals that can choose to hurt ourselves; we’re the only animals that will push our own boundaries just for the sake of pushing them.

Anyway – back on topic – De Waal doesn’t address deeply embedded cultural bias, which struck me as odd.  But that’s really my only niggling objection.  Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the book and found much in it that made me think hard about animal intelligence and what it means to be aware of self, others and our surroundings.  But then again, I’m his audience:  I have always believed animals are smart, aware, and cognisant and that humans have never been as special as we think we are.

Life on the Mississippi

Life on the MississippiLife on the Mississippi
by Mark Twain
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 2006
Pages: 384
Genre: Literature, Memoir, Non-fiction
Publisher: Folio Society

Fashioned from the same experiences that would inspire the masterpiece Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi is Mark Twain’s most brilliant and most personal nonfiction work. It is at once an affectionate evocation of the vital river life in the steamboat era and a melancholy reminiscence of its passing after the Civil War, a priceless collection of humorous anecdotes and folktales, and a unique glimpse into Twain’s life before he began to write.

Written in a prose style that has been hailed as among the greatest in English literature, Life on the Mississippi established Twain as not only the most popular humorist of his time but also America’s most profound chronicler of the human comedy.


I have to admit, here, to a bias; a prejudice.  It’s a bias that I have fought against a spare few times in my life, but by and large, it has ruled my reading life.  The bias is this: It is my perverse nature to avoid books and authors considered to be classics.

I know it’s contrary and based on no rational; I just don’t like being told what to do and what to like.  Occasionally, the grown-up in me will rear her annoying head and insist that I at least try a classic or two – who knows?  I might like it, and I don’t have to finish it if I don’t.

This it is why Life on the Mississippi has been sitting on my TBR shelf; that, and the fact that I found a Folio Society copy for a bargain.  I grabbed it earlier this month, figuring that I could fulfil my yen for non-fiction and mark off a classic author at the same time.

The Introduction to my Folio edition doesn’t fill the reader with optimism.  The story of Life on the Mississippi‘s creation is interesting, but finding out that fully half the book was considered ‘filler’ is not an auspicious start.  The author of the introduction made it sound like Twain just filled out the second half of the book with a hodgepodge collection of other peoples’ articles and anecdotes.  Which he does, but what they don’t tell you is that he folds it all into a cohesive narrative that works fairly well, if a little chaotically.

So with this introduction read, I resigned myself and started.  What I found was a very time-consuming, but absorbing read, made enjoyable by Twain’s voice and trademark humour.  Definitely not riveting, but it draws a picture of life in the late 1800’s that is vivid and brings both a pang of nostalgia for those easier days and a relief not to have been born in that age.

Twain gets full marks for making the life of a steamboat man sound romantic; it’s a testament to his talent that he even makes it interesting to read.  And while I can’t say I loved it, or that I’ll ever really re-visit it, except for perhaps to randomly dip in and out, I can say that I feel I got something out of it, if only a better respect for the mighty Mississippi as it once was, wild and independent.

Running with Sherman

Running with Sherman: The Donkey that Survived Against All Odds and Raced Like a ChampionRunning with Sherman: The Donkey that Survived Against All Odds and Raced Like a Champion
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781781258279
Publication Date: July 2, 2020
Pages: 338
Genre: Memoir, Non-fiction
Publisher: Profile Books

When barefoot running guru Christopher McDougall takes in a neglected donkey, his aim is to get Sherman back to reasonable health. But Sherman is ill-tempered, obstinate and uncooperative - and it's clear his poor treatment has made him deeply fearful of humans. Christopher knows that donkeys need a purpose - they are working, pack animals - and so when he learns of the sport of Burro Racing or running with donkeys, he sets out to give Sherman something worth living for.

With the aid of Christopher's menagerie on his farm in rural Pennsylvania, his wife Mika and their friends and neighbours including the local Amish population, Sherman begins to build trust in Christopher. To give him a purpose, they start to run together. But what Sherman gains in confidence and meaning is something we all need: a connection with nature, the outdoors, with movement. And as Christopher learns, the side benefits of exercise and animal contact are surprising, helping with mental and physical health in unexpected ways.


A good friend of mine – whose idea of a good time is competing in triathlons –  and I met for our weekly coffee/tea a couple of weeks ago, and she said “I have a book I think you’d like.”  I looked at her with heavy scepticism, because she reads running books and cookbooks, and I’d rather starve than cook, and be eaten rather than run.  “No, really; it’s written by a runner, but it’s about a donkey and I SWEAR nothing bad happens to the donkey, and it’s ends happily.”  She knows me well.

So I brought the book home, and when MT saw it, he said, with heavy scepticism, “Is that supposed to be for me to read?”, thereby proving that the only person he thought less likely to be interested in the book than himself, was me.  So I started explaining how the book ended up on our coffee table and as I did, I opened it to the first page.

And was completely captivated.  I don’t mean “oh, this actually looks good” in an idle sort of way, I mean once I started reading it, I couldn’t stop and I heard MT ask about 30 minutes later: “Did you mean to start reading that now?”  Er… no, but shhh…

Part of this easy engagement definitely stemmed from my friend’s assurances that the story ended well; if she hadn’t sworn up and down that this was so, I’d have thrown the book down before I got to page 2 and refused to touch it again.  The donkey may end up in a great place, but he doesn’t start there.  Horrifying fact: donkey’s hooves never stop growing; they have to be trimmed or else they start curling upwards.

The story in a nutshell is this: the author, a runner, agrees to shelter and rehabilitate a donkey rescued from a hoarder.  Part of the donkey’s recovery success depends on being given a purpose, and at a loss for anything more purposeful, and with a secret curiosity about the sport of donkey racing, the author starts the donkey on the long path from death’s door to racing fit.

That nutshell makes it sound like it’s still more about racing than the more sedentary reader would like, but it isn’t.  This book is about the donkey – Sherman – and his fellow goat and equine friends, Lawrence, Flower and Matilda; it’s about the people involved in helping Sherman be his best donkey self, and, as filler to pad out the page count, a lot of interesting asides about related topics, such as the history of donkey racing (honest to god, it’s a thing), the people involved in racing donkeys, the benefits of animal/human relations, the benefits and dangers (in excess) of athletic training, depression, and the Amish.  Yes, the Amish.  It works.

McDougall is, at heart, a journalist, and the writing style and narrative reflect that.  It’s well written and an easy read, but it lacks that formal, reserved style sometimes found in similar books.  It’s chatty, and his personality comes through clearly, as does Sherman’s and his furry friends.  Who are awesome, by the way.

Running with Sherman is the best kind of feel good book, where the animal triumphs in the end, and everybody wins.  As the reader who’d rather be eaten than run (not really, but it’s a close thing), I’d happily recommend this book to anybody looking for an easy but worthwhile read.  Even MT is planning on reading it.

To See Every Bird on Earth

To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Lifelong ObsessionTo See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Lifelong Obsession
by Dan Koeppel
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781594630019
Publication Date: May 5, 2005
Pages: 278
Genre: Memoir, Natural Science, Non-fiction
Publisher: Hudson Street Press

What drives a man to travel to sixty countries and spend a fortune to count birds? And what if that man is your father?

Richard Koeppel’s obsession began at age twelve, in Queens, New York, when he first spotted a Brown Thrasher, and jotted the sighting in a notebook. Several decades, one failed marriage, and two sons later, he set out to see every bird on earth, becoming a member of a subculture of competitive bird watchers worldwide all pursuing the same goal. Over twenty-five years, he collected over seven thousand species, becoming one of about ten people ever to do so.

To See Every Bird on Earth explores the thrill of this chase, a crusade at the expense of all else—for the sake of making a check in a notebook. A riveting glimpse into a fascinating subculture, the book traces the love, loss, and reconnection between a father and son, and explains why birds are so critical to the human search for our place in the world.


The other day, I was having my weekly coffee with friends when one of them said to me, (in relation to a FB post of mine she’d recently seen): “You’ve become a real Twitcher, haven’t you?”

I hadn’t started this book yet, but my answer was a resounding “no” for several reasons, though it was hard to really define them for her.  Now that I have finished this book, it’s much easier, and I’ll get back to that at the end of my post.

To See Every Bird on Earth is meant to be, if you believe what it says on the wrapper, a book that explores the thrill of the chase across the world to witness as many of the earth’s birds as possible in a lifetime.   There’s some of that, but mostly, it’s the culmination of what I’m guessing was a lot of therapy for the author; a psychological catharsis of his family’s dysfunction, written and published.  In many ways, this book was marketed to the wrong demographic; those that find personal substance in others’ stories about personal journeys would find a lot to like in this book.  Needless to say, it’s not my jam.

BUT having said that, in between the family drama being laid bare, there was a lot of interesting insight into the world of Big Listers.  Big Listers are those that have seen thousands of the known species of birds in the world.  Known species is a moving target, and is currently around 10 thousand.  The biggest Big Lister has seen over 8 thousand.  This is about big numbers, big money, and big obsessions – and very little about the birds.  Koeppel, when he focuses on these people, does a better than credible job getting into their heads and their world and it was fascinating for me, in a rubber-necking kind of way.  The chance to see the birds these people have seen is tantalising; how they go about it, like a military invasion, isn’t.

And ultimately, this is why I’m not a twitcher, neither of the hobby sized or obsessive Big Lister variety.  True, I have the list of birds in my state, and I do check them off when I see them, noting the time and place.  But I don’t count, I don’t plan, set goals, or study, and I’m embarrassed at how few bird songs I can identify after the 10 years I’ve spent tramping around the bush – and at how easily I can confuse myself over identifications.

But I have no desire to ‘do better’  because my hazy goal, set when I started this and unchanged since, isn’t to just see the birds.  When I moved to Australia, not knowing how long I’d be here, I wanted to see Australia, I wanted to experience this place so far away from the rest of the world on so many levels.  Looking for birds (which are, let’s be honest, the low-hanging fruit of the wildlife tree), makes me look up, down, and into the bush; I have to actually explore my surroundings, and in doing that I come much closer to actually experiencing this amazing land.  The added bonus: not only have I seen (and am seeing) Australia in a way that will stay with me, but I have a new found sense of wonder wherever I go, including home to Florida.  I apparently lived 90% of my life alongside hundreds of bird species I never knew about because I never paid attention.  And by looking for the birds, I’m finding an entire world of wildlife right there for me to appreciate (or not, in the case of some).

So while I didn’t enjoy To See Every Bird on Earth as much as I’d hoped, I do thank its author for helping me clarify in my own mind my motivations for my avian hobby that definitely isn’t bird-watching.

A Brush with Birds

A Brush with Birds: Paintings and stories from the wildA Brush with Birds: Paintings and stories from the wild
by Richard Weatherly
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781741176445
Publication Date: November 12, 2020
Pages: 282
Genre: Natural Science, Non-fiction
Publisher: Hardie Grant

A Brush with Birds celebrates the exquisite artworks and incredible life of one of the world's finest bird painters, Richard Weatherly.

A skilled falconer and artist, Richard has spent more than fifty years observing birds and their natural habitats around the world, from Antarctica to Zimbabwe to New Guinea, Australia and America. In A Brush with Birds, Richard accompanies his stunning paintings and sketches with fascinating insights, anecdotes and knowledge gathered throughout his career.

Richard's work continues to document and celebrate the natural world, and reminds us of the importance of conserving our unique environment.


A few years ago, MT and I adopted the Icelandic holiday tradition of Jólabókaflóð.    We gift each other a book on Christmas eve, then retire to read our gifts and eat chocolate.  This year’s gift from MT was A Brush with Birds, which he bought because he thought it was written by an artist about how to draw and sketch birds.

He was half right; it’s written by a well-known wildlife artist.  But Weatherly is also something of a naturalist; when his art led him into the field, he worked with scientists and conservationists to a degree that his CV, I imagine, would be equally weighted by his artistic and scientific accomplishments.

The result turned out to be so much better than a how-to book about drawing birds.  This, instead, is a memoir of a kind, lightly touching on Weatherly’s journey from his family ranch (station) in Australia and his first personal encounter with a bird, to his higher education in England and his first forays into creating his own art, back to Australia and the homestead, and then on various adventures through Africa, North America, and Antartica.   Generously laced throughout the pages are his sketches, watercolours, and full oil paintings, done throughout the years, chronicling his journeys.

The narrative appears to be his own voice; it’s very much the printed equivalent to sitting on someone’s porch and hearing them tell their stories.  This mostly works, but I did ding my rating 1/2 star, because while that authentic voice made the narrative a warmer, more relatable one, the lack of editorial polish also made it harder to understand in spots.

A genuinely beautiful art book that is also an enjoyable read; it looks good and is good.

Seven Kinds of People You Find in a Bookshop

Seven Kinds of People You Find in BookshopsSeven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops
by Shaun Bythell
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781788166584
Publication Date: November 5, 2020
Pages: 137
Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Profile Books

In twenty years behind the till in The Bookshop, Wigtown, Shaun Bythell has met pretty much every kind of customer there is - from the charming, erudite and deep-pocketed to the eccentric, flatulent and possibly larcenous.

In Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops he distils the essence of his experience into a warm, witty and quirky taxonomy of the book-loving public. So, step inside to meet the crafty Antiquarian, the shy and retiring Erotica Browser and gormless yet strangely likeable shop assistant Student Hugo - along with much loved bookseller favourites like the passionate Sci-Fi Fan, the voracious Railway Collector and the ever-elusive Perfect Customer.


Having read his first two books, I was surprised when this arrived at how small it was.  But good things / small packages and all that.  It may be a small, slim volume, but it’s spot on and hilarious.  I’ve never owned a bookshop (yet) but I recognise these people from time spent in bookshops – and a library or two – everywhere.  I found myself reading most of it aloud to my husband, and we took turns naming those we know who fit Bythell’s descriptions a little too well, inside or outside a bookshop.

MT self-identified with type 3 of the Homo qui desidet or Loiterer, sub-type The Bored Spouse (though in his defense, he just buys his books way too fast).  I was relived not to have identified with the American sub-type of Family Historian, since I leave all that stuff to my mom, who is a first generation American, so comes by it honestly, at least.  I’d like to think I fall firmly in the bonus category of Cliens Perfectus as I generally enter a bookshop, talk to nobody, browse everything, and almost never leave without a stack, and the idea of haggling is one I find personally abhorrent, but then, doesn’t everyone think they’re the Perfect Customer?

All in all, a fun way to spend a few hours as long as you have a healthy sense of humor about humanity.

Murder at the Manor: Country House Mysteries

Murder at the ManorMurder at the Manor
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9780712309936
Publication Date: February 1, 2016
Pages: 384
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: The British Library

I read two stories from this anthology:  Gentleman and Players and The White Pillars Murder.  Both, it seems, stories I’ve already read elsewhere.  Luckily I only remembered enough to recognise I’d read them before, not enough to remember how they end.

Gentleman and Players is a Raffles short story deeply embedded in a country house cricket competition and is less a mystery than an adventure sort of story.  Mildly entertaining.

The White Pillars Murder is a G.K. Chesterton short mystery and it’s definitely a mystery, but the ending is beyond bizarre, and feels a bit like Chesterton is burning a bridge of sorts.  A bit preachy too. Not a fan.

I read these for the Country House Mystery square on my Halloween Bingo 2020 card.  Hopefully next time I pick up this book, I’ll remember I’ve already read these two stories.

Murder by Death: The book that was based on the movie that inspired the blog name

Murder by DeathMurder by Death
by H.R.F. Keating, Neil Simon
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 0352397276
Publication Date: January 1, 1976
Pages: 176
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Star Books

Novelization of the screen play by Neil Simon. Various "famous sleuths" (or their somewhat thinly disguised copies) are invited by a mysterious millionaire to stay at his house and solve a who-dun-it, with the winner getting millions.


 

I re-read this almost perfectly brilliant book, based on the absolutely brilliant movie, for Halloween bingo’s Dark and Stormy Night square.

If you haven’t seen the movie, written by Neil Simon and released in the 1970’s, and you’re a fan of classic mysteries and oddball humor, you’re missing out on a classic.  It’s brilliantly written and brilliantly casted.  It’s an homage and a spoof, so if spoof’s aren’t your thing, skip it, you’ll be disappointed.  It’s the original Clue! only the characters are based on Nick and Nora, Miss Marple, Sam Spade, Hercule Poirot, and Charlie Chan.

The book was written to be a faithful reproduction of the movie, though H.R.F. Keating uses the opportunity of the written word to name drop additional authors like Conan Doyle and Sayers.  And it is an exact, faithful reproduction of the movie – until the last 5 short paragraphs where Keating, apparently, couldn’t help himself and changed the ending.  It’s a small thing, but it sets my teeth on edge because it’s a sop.

Still, I cherish this book as I do the movie.  I just need to stop at the fifth to last paragraph.

Capital Crimes: London Mysteries

Capital Crimes: London MysteriesCapital Crimes: London Mysteries
by Martin Edwards
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780712357494
Publication Date: March 12, 2015
Pages: 319
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: The British Library

Capital Crimes is an eclectic collection of London-based crime stories, blending the familiar with the unexpected in a way that reflects the personality of the city. Alongside classics by Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley and Thomas Burke are excellent and unusual stories by authors who are far less well known.

The stories give a flavour of how writers have tackled crime in London over the span of more than half a century. Their contributions range from an early serial-killer thriller set on the London Underground and horrific vignettes to cerebral whodunits. What they have in common is an atmospheric London setting, and enduring value as entertainment. Each story is introduced by the editor, Martin Edwards, who sheds light on the authors' lives and the background to their writing.


 

I’ve had this anthology on my shelves for a few years, always waiting.  Well, this year I needed to read a mystery set in London for 2020 Halloween Bingo and I finally remembered I had this wonderful stash of stories all in one spot.

For this year’s bingo, I chose – of course – Conan Doyle’s The Case of Lady Sannox.  This is not a Sherlock Holmes story, in spite of the title, and it’s closer to horror than mystery.  It’s also classic Conan Doyle style.  As such, I guessed the twist at one point, when I read a specific sentence that reminded me of Holmes:

View Spoiler »

Don’t ask me why, but with that sentence I knew how the story would end.  And I was right, and it was horrifying.  Darkest London, indeed.

2 more short stories from The Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries

The Locked-Room MysteriesThe Locked-Room Mysteries
by Otto Penzler
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9780307743961
Publication Date: October 28, 2014
Pages: 941
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Vintage Crime / Black Lizard

In this definitive collection, Edgar Award-winning editor Otto Penzler selects a multifarious mix from across the entire history of the locked room story, which should form the cornerstone of any crime reader's library.

Virtually all of the great writers of detective fiction have produced masterpieces in this genre, including Agatha Christie, Edgar Allan Poe, Dorothy L. Sayers, Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, G.K. Chesterton, John Dickson Carr, Dashiell Hammett, Ngaio Marsh and Stephen King.

The purest kind of detective story involves a crime solved by observation and deduction, rather than luck, coincidence or confession. The supreme form of detection involves the explanation of an impossible crime, whether the sort of vanishing act that would make Houdini proud, a murder that leaves no visible trace, or the most unlikely villain imaginable.


 

The Black Lizard Big book of Locked-Room Mysteries claims, on its cover, to be “The most complete collection of impossible-crime stories ever assembled.”  Whether this is true or not, clocking in at 939 pages of small, two-column print, it’s definitely a monster and one I’ve been chipping away at slowly for years.  For this year’s Halloween Bingo, I needed Locked Room mysteries, so I turned to my Big Book and chose two from the same author: The Wrong Problem by John Dickson Carr, and Blind Man’s Hood by the same author writing as Carter Dickson.  I’ve read two of this author’s full length novels so far, one as Dickson Carr (The Mad Hatter Mystery) and one as Carter Dickson (The Skeleton in the Clock), both of which I enjoyed.  The short stories though, were a mixed bag:

The first, The Wrong Problem, was frankly, weird.  I gave it 4 stars for the sheer ingeniousness of the murder method but the rest seemed pointless.  To mention anything about the story, I think, would be to spoil it.  It honestly doesn’t deserve 4 stars but that murder method was diabolical.

The second, Blind Man’s Hood, made up for the first in spades.  This one turned out to be a perfect – absolutely perfect – short story for Halloween.  Yes, it takes place at Christmas, but ignore that, it’s irrelevant.  So. damn. creepy.  I read it before I went to bed last night and when I realised what I was reading, I knew two things:  no way I was going to stop, and that I’d have to stay away long enough to read something else before going to sleep.  The locked room solution isn’t particularly clever or even surprising, but the rest of the story, for me, was.  5 stars.

As I mentioned at the start, I read these for the Locked Room Mystery square on my 2020 Halloween Bingo card.