24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
The author delivers this biography like a Victorian Romance set against a rich, historic backdrop. Unlike typical biographies, the author rarely, if ever, steps in as narrator, but rather lets the story flow like a work of fiction. This made the story flow wonderfully, but after a while I worried that he might be taking too much artistic license with the story. So, I checked his end notes and was happy to read that he consciously decided to pick a novelistic style but then backs up each of his scenes and dialogues with sources. By the time I finished the first 8-10 chapters of endnotes, I no longer doubted the veracity of this story.
Perhaps the strongest point of this book is the brilliant way it captures the spirit and culture of the era Carl Akely was born into. The book uses scenes like the Chicago World's Fair with its fascination with industrialization and innovation and its zeal for the strength and promise of a rising United States to paint a vivid illustration of the times. It enhances this with the cast of characters that surround Carl Akely, such as George Eastman, PT Barnum, and Theodore Roosevelt who anchor the place and time in history. Also, the book weaves in the issues of the late nineteenth - early twentieth century natural history, from the millinery trade to the acquisitive nature of Victorian Natural History to the spread of Darwinism to a rising awareness of extinction to Eugenics to the budding conservation movement. Especially startling is the era's perception of the dominance and supremecy of Victorian Gentleman over the primitive cultures of Asian and Africa, and even Eastern Europe.
Against this vibrant backdrop, the author places the story Carl Akely, an amazingly driven and focused man. Perhaps a product of his times, or maybe just fortunate to be born with a mania that fit the era so well, either way, Akely was perfectly cast for the era. His drive to create a taxidermic art could not have been better timed. At the rise of his career, museums were clamoring to collect anything and everything, benefactors were willing to support extravagant expeditions and the general public had an appetite to devour the romantic stories of the explorers like Akely.
But this is also a story of a man whose dreams and drives built and destroyed. It was amazing to see how self-destructive his dreams were both to himself and his relationships. His African obsession were filled malarial and parasitic fevers and dysentary, his taxidermy brought the side effects of arsenic poisoning, and the passions that attracted people to him, kept relationships at a distance. In the end it is a story of a man, and like many stories it comes to an imperfect climax.
Overall, I loved this book and was unable to put it down. However I should point out that I grew up flipping the pages of Livingston, African Game Trails: An Account of the African Wanderings of an American Hunter-Naturalist (Capstick Adventure Library), and Green Hills of Africa (Scribner Classics), so this was right up my alley. The vocabulary is pretty impressive and I found myself keeping a dictionary close at hand. (This might be the only book I've read that used the word adumbrate - twice) I did have a problem with a couple natural history problems like the authors describing a hyena as a wild dog, which it is not or referring to a Francolin as a duck which also is incorrect, but all in all the book seems factually very sound.
I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to know more about Victorian era conservationism or loves a good Victorian adventure.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
I started reading with Tarzan and have never quite gotten it out of my reading DNA. I enjoy historical literature. I want to be challenged with my perspectives when it comes to what are the causes & effects. Thus, when I came across this fine work, I just couldn't wait.
The story of Carl Akeley(THE taxidermist) is truly a gem. It not only takes place in the guilded age, but keenly focuses on the African safaris of the time, as that age nearly brings them, their big game, and native ways of life, & other entities toward extinction. The author has crafted, not only a wonderfully sensational gem of a story, but one that, unfortunately rhymes too well with today's guilded age, where there are no Carl Akely's, Theodore Roosevelts, and others(that grace these pages), who valiantly try to curb a growing & unsatiable form of destructive capitalism(that would be casino capitalism, in today's vernacular).
The evolution of the museums during this time is expressed in detail through the life span of Carl/But by the mid-1880s not only was the frontier conquered, it was closed. The world had become smaller. Yet inside the smaller world everything was in a fragile union.This ecumenical philosophy would ultimately become the model for all museums. The people of the time were well aware that the bison and passenger pigeon were not coming back.
There are so many stories within this book that are just amazing. For instance, there is the biggest animal of the time, the world famous Jumbo The Elephant. He is killed on railroad tracks by a locomtive! When they opened his stomach they found hatfuls of british pennies, nails, keys, rivets, metal screws, gold and siver coins, pebbles, gravel and one very well masticated police whistle. There are many fine stories throughout this work with such finely tuned details, wonderfully fascinating.
Events of the time/In May, Governor Jeremaiah Rusk had given his permission to fire on one thousand Polish workers who'd had the temerity to march on the Milwaulki Iron Company. It was the same week as the Haymarket riots in Chicago. Or/The first federal legislation to protect wildlife, the Lacey Act, had been passed largely thanks to a klatch of weel-to-do ladies in Boston who had formed a group called the Audobon Society. Or when they discovered a mass graveyard of dinosaurs/The evidence showed history was one giant boneyard of extinct species. That everything today merely existed on a bright and smoldering fringe of eternal eclipse.
Yet it is the characters that the author breathes life into, with such detail and superb writing, that I just couldn't keep the pages turning fast enough, to see what REALLY happened.
His descriptions throughout are spot on/Later, passing over a river, they had seen hippos crowded together, mouths like fanged bathtubs/She lit another cigarette and watched out the window: at this other, strange new world passing by, where telegraph wires were strung on poles extrahigh on behalf of giraffes.
His geopolitical anaylsis of the times/-Uganda was now of great strategic importance. After all, whoever controlled the Nile controlled Egypt/India was the colony that mattered most: for all those delectable, exquisite textiles. For its calicos from Calcutta, for its Indian silk moths, for its wool from the Himalayan mountain goats, and its cashmere harvested from the soft chins of the pashmina goats of Sringar. Here was the driving force behind imperialism: feathers, fur, and fleece.
It is the examination of extinction and its causes by the various characters of the times that is at the heart of this fine work and it is very prescient for our time/If unprepared to defend himself, to defend against corruption of the species(meaning can be layered in many ways, like an onion, throughout this fine book) that was taking place right now under his very nose, survival was doubtful.
Eugenics is also a predominate theme, and again, it rhymes with our times/The natural social heirarchies-those gentle but powerful laws dictating where each kind took its place in the Kingdom of America-were under threat now. The most elite, moneyed individuals in New York should perhaps feel uneasy sympathy with these great, powerful lizards. In the end, nothing had been able to save the dinosaurs-those uncontested aristocrats of the Mesozoic.
Captivity/The zoo broke the wild creature's spirit. Corrupted its moral. When I read that I thought of the book, The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris.
In the end, it was balance. This was my reading of it as expressed by one of the characters/But certainly, for both societies and organisms, competition was essential. That's what was wrong when the oil trust and coal trust and steel trust and the beef trust and the six great railroads and even the sugar trust excluded competition; when they excluded competition they acted against nature and imperiled the very health of the nation. It was no more healthy than the tendancy toward over specialization, a tendancy equally fatal for a species as for civilization.
A Great sory told in an entertaining & informative manner.
Truth, in this case, is not only stranger, but more powerful.
Truly superb in every since of the word.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED !!!!!!!!!
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on December 14, 2010
I'm on my second read of Kingdom as it was impossible to put down the first time through. With so much detail and insight, Kingdom Under Glass reads like the best movie never filmed. It must have been amazing for Kirk to come across this treasure trove of truth (stranger than fiction) that has never really been told. Jay Kirk's style is truly gonzo, taking you on a journey through Akeley's soul, mind and body; almost as if Carl possessed Mr. Kirk for a time to complete his final epic work.
(After reading this book you'll realize that possession may have been another of Carl Akeley's superpowers).
Even though in his own right Carl was a bit of a superhero, I feel I need to comment on his struggle with being an artist or at least not being recognized as one. In my opinion a true artist would have realized much earlier on that there is no "perfect specimen" that can be caught, as perfection is subjective. His relentless pursuit of the most perfectly aligned creature made me (as an artist) cringe. A true artist would have crafted the perfect specimen from a lesser one or sculpted one from scratch. I think the guilt of not being the artist (the creator), is what turned Carl into the conservationist later in life. My 2¢ only.
Kingdom Under Glass inspired me to write my first book review. What more can be said?
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on October 6, 2010
`Kingdom Under Glass` is about Carl Akeley (1864-1926), an American taxidermist who invented modern taxidermy and was famous for going on dangerous African safaris in the company of Teddy Roosevelt and George Eastman (Kodak) in search of specimens for the American Museum of Natural History, which can still been seen there displayed in diorama's. Killing the largest elephants and great apes was Akley's life-long single-minded obsession, his white whale.
It's tricky to present the mass slaughter of African wildlife by rich colonialists in a modern light without being judgmental. But like freedom-loving Thomas Jefferson who owned slaves, or Teddy Roosevelt who shot 8 endangered white rhino on a whim because he was bored, yet also created the National Park system to protect wildlife. Kirk doesn't directly make a judgment about Akeley, but the reader is left with the facts and can't help but see through the romanticism of the time for what it really was, the frivolous slaughter of wildlife as a passing fad and entertainment. Akeley's magnificent obsession to preserve animals by ironically killing them was not lost even on him, and he eventually became like a stuffed museum piece, cold and heartless and ultimately an extinct species of man.
Kingdom is Jay Kirk's first book and it's a winner, to say it "reads like a novel" is cliche in an era of creative non-fiction writing, but it really is true. It reminded me of works by Simon Winchester or David Grann, who also resurrect forgotten but interesting adventurer-scholar Indiana Jones types from the 19th century. Although 340 pages the reading is effortless and goes quickly, I found myself almost speed reading at times, which I attribute to Kirks delightfully smooth prose and compelling narrative.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on August 15, 2011
Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals
by Jay Kirk
Henry Holt, NY, 2010
I wanted to like this book more than I did. The subject is fascinating: Carl Akeley, the pioneering taxidermist/conservationist who mounted Jumbo the elephant and created the museum diorama, and who also found time to push successfully for the world's first gorilla sanctuary when not hunting with Theodore Roosevelt or strangling a leopard with his bare hands. The strength of the book is the characters: Kirk re-creates a very colorful cast of men and women who supported, opposed, or exploited Akeley throughout his amazing life. Along the way, the reader will learn much about taxidermy and the "safari culture" (my term) of the early 20th century. Kirk succeeds, quite skillfully, in making the reader see, hear, and smell the world of colonial Africa. Clearly, the author did his research.
Kirk spends a lot of time in the Notes section justifying his "creative nonfiction" approach, an approach which makes the book hard to evulate or review. He argues that he was accurate in recreating the thoughts in long-dead people's minds, something he can't know regardless of the depth of his research. Scenes are inaccurately strung together and details invented. He explains he was driven by "commitment to narrative flow," which is not persuasive, seeing as how countless biographers have produced compelling narratives without resorting to fictional techniques. Also, this is a book that demands a good photo section, something that is peculiarly absent.
Bottom line: not all bad, but not what I hoped for when I picked it up.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on October 26, 2010
Jay Kirk's "Kingdom Under Glass" is an epic tale of masterly storytelling and the fascinating biographical education on the taut life of Carl Akeley, the father of modern taxidermy and a driven renaissance man who laid the foundation that established the first National Park in Africa in the Belgian Congo. Kirk's storytelling puts you *inside* Akeley's mind in a compelling narrative style that gives the reader a colorful visual of the era where other books often seem black and white.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
"Kingdom under Glass" is the splendid story of a man and his obsession, a genius who survived incredible hardships while collecting animals to show the majesty, the beauty, the variety of East Africa's dwindling wildlife. In order to appreciate Carl Akeley's contribution to science as the premier taxidermist who preserved animals as an art form one has to see his African panoramas in the Museum of Natural History in New York City. This is a highly unusual biography about a highly unusual man who began stuffing birds' skins for the milliner's trade as a boy. One wonders, why? Why would anyone want to do that? 200,000 birds from pheasants to sparrows were slain a year to provide the millinery trade with hat decorations. But Carl had his calling, his life's work running in his veins: to make a mounted animal or bird absolutely life-like and scientifically accurate, and to put them into an authentic environment.
Luckily the young Carl moved on to work as taxidermist at Ward's National Science Establishment in Rochester, NY. His first huge assignment was mounting a bull elephant named Jumbo, the pride of P.T. Barnum. Jumbo, incredibly, was hit by a train when the Show was moving to another location. Barnum asked Akeley if he couldn't stretch the skin a bit to make Jumbo even larger than he actually had been. Carl said he could and even dead the gigantic Jumbo was the circus' main attraction.
But Akeley's motive was the preservation of something beautiful, presenting the animal in a way that would be totally natural, not the usually stuffing of a creature with sawdust, a result which was never natural, never convincing. The taxidermist had to look at the animal beneath the skin, the muscles, the sinews, the vital parts of the animal which had previously been ignored. The animal had to be fleshed out so convincingly that it appeared to be living. The mounting of specimens at this level could be said to be sculpture as well as an incomparable teaching tool. Akeley spent years perfecting his art, trying plaster, clay and papier mache.
Akeley and his young wife Mickie went to Africa many times to acquire specimens for the American Museum's African Hall. He was once attacked by a leopard which the 5'5" 135 pound Akeley managed to kill with his bare hands after being severely bitten. A bull elephant charged Akeley and threw him between its tusks and Akeley barely survived from his injuries. Danger lurked everywhere and on one safari the group nearly died for lack of water. A passing caravan finally appeared and gave them filthy dripping skins containing sour goat's milk, which at least was wet and saved their lives. An elephant killed had to be skinned on the spot, the massive hide and bones being sent back to Nairobi for shipment to New York. Skinning an animal as huge as an African elephant required incredible effort and during one operation a chain of porters had to provide water from a distant spring, poured from bucket to bucket, porter to porter, salt being added to each bucket, until the salty water could be poured on the elephant's hide to keep it from drying out and decaying.
A huge contrast to Akeley's rather humble hands-on style of living on a safari, was that of ex-president Teddy Roosevelt. who was collecting animals for the Smithsonian and hired some 260 porters who carried along 60 pounds of leather covered books, linen table napkins, polished cutlery and fine china so the group could dine in one of the thirteen tents served by valets wearing white gloves. It really boggles the mind, however TR was no sissy.
When the Akeleys returned to New York City they brought along a small monkey that Mickie had captured in Africa and was extremely fond of. With no children, the monkey, JT jr. became Mickie's child. JT would careen around on the drapes, tearing them down, stripped off hunks of wallpaper and managed to destroy anything he could get his little grasping hands on. And he could open bottles and drawers with ease. In short he created havoc with the posh apartment and the place even smelled of monkey. Carl stayed away as much as he could. The ungrateful little monkey bit his mistress in the ankle and she almost had to have the leg amputated when a raging infection set in. Mickie was confined to bed for three months but still the monkey ruled the roost. Finally when he had bitten Mickie for the third time, Carl took him to a zoo. But that was the end of the marriage as Mickie left a Dear John letter on the bed and disappeared. As author Kirk says,Akeley had lost his muse.
It was Carl Akeley's destiny that he should die in Africa, it was in the cards, his death was preordained. It happened in the Belgian Congo, in gorilla country high in the frigid mountains above Lake Kivu. in 1926. At his side were his second wife, Mary, and the incomparably talented artist who painted the backgrounds of the dioramas in the African Hall, William R. Leigh. Mr. Leigh had said to Akeley "[The African Hall ] will be a page of natural history that will survive, perhaps, after much of this animal life has been wiped out- a record of something which never can be again- a document of inestimable value."
Carl Akeley was a taxidermist, a biologist, a conservationist, an artist, a photographer and an inventor. Biographer Jay Kirk brings Akeley to life in this very rich portrait. The biography is stunning and fascinating and peals away the layers of Akeley's psyche to find the real man and understand his genius, understand his vision.Don't miss it!
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
My chase for interesting animal anecdotes has taken me to some weird books from Pliny to Borges, but Kingdom Under Glass is one that I think most people would enjoy. It's about Carl Akeley, an early 20th century adventurer, inventor, friend of Teddy Roosevelt and, strangely, the world's greatest taxidermist (he actually taxidermied Jumbo the Elephant.) The book is so well-written and meticulously researched that it almost feels patronizing to talk about it like that -- like I'm trying to compensate for it being borinng by talking about the writing. But it really is just THAT GOOD. Somehow the author managed to track down some incredibly obscure side stories that turned out to be fascinating. My favorite: Teddy Roosevelt shooting and gutting an elephant to prepare it for skinning. After they went to sleep, Roosevelt sensed something and returned to the carcass to find a hyena, which had crawled inside and been trapped by the rigor mortis. He later shot the hyena through the dead elephant. Back to the weird books I mentioned earlier. Through this book, I found that Ackley's wife wrote a 250-page biography about her pet monkey in 1928. They think it may be one of the first books written from the perspective of an animal. Of course, I immediately bought it and loved it. You might too, if you can find it. It's called "J. T., Jr.": The Biography of an African Monkey.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 23, 2011
A book about a taxidermist can't be a worthwhile read, can it? Well, the review I read in The Seattle Times was too good to ignore so I bought the book. And, I pat myself on the back for being so wise to follow the reviewers recommendation.
This book reads like a novel, gives a history on some unique times and people that rarely are mentioned anywhere. I found it fasinating to hear of the exploits and drive of a person in our past that gave us the diarama's we can see at The Field Museum and New York Museum.
I gave my book to a friend who's quite wise in the ways of taxidermy and preserving big animals as well as a very travelled person in Africa. He's raving about this book.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on January 30, 2011
I think that other reviewers have done a good job of describing all the many strengths of this book. Jay Kirk is a superb storyteller, and paints many poignant and accurate historical vignettes. Carl Akeley deserves to be much better known than he has been, and while Penelope Bodry-Sanders' biography "African Obsession" is a fine book (and one that informed and inspired much of this one), "Kingdom Under Glass" can bring him to a much wider audience. If the subject appeals to you, I recommend it.
Nonetheless, the book has a serious flaw that has not been touched on by other reviewers, at least not as much as it should be. In reading the book, I never felt like there were any positive reasons shown for Akeley's "obsession", or for why anyone would want to spend a single day in the African wild. My point is not to turn Akeley into a saint or Africa into Paradise. It's just that most of the time while reading it Akeley came across to me as a brilliant, conscientious obsessive, and nothing more. Africa comes across as a place with a lot of ticks and exploitation and violence and animals and strange tribesmen, and nothing more. Needless to say Akeley and Africa were all those things, but they were and are much more besides.
I don't deny that there was some pathological obsession in Akeley, and Kirk portrays it in a vivid way. Perhaps it's just the cynicism of our age, but what is left out is that there was also a great deal in Akeley that can only be described as dedication and devotion to both wilderness and art. This may sound saccharine to contemporary ears but that says much more about us than Akeley, art, or the African wild. It is absolutely certain that money was not a big motivator for Akeley. Had it been he would have quit taxidermy at a relatively early age and focused on his unquestionable genius as a mechanical inventor (read Bodry-Sanders for more on that). He could then have been a wealthy man and traveled the world at his leisure. The desire for fame probably played some part in his motivation, but it is clear that Akeley was much too principled about his art and much too willing to make severe sacrifices to be a mere social climber or careerist. No, for all his obvious faults Akeley was devoted to his art and to wilderness in a way that few modern people seem to be able to understand (including many artists and conservationists, I'm sad to say). Again, Akeley was no saint and Africa no paradise, but the gritty "realism" of the book is, at least at times, a very truncated view of both.
Anyone who doubts this should read Akeley's own book, "In Brightest Africa." He chose the title to deliberately counter the "In Darkest Africa" genre of his day.
While it would be unfair to accuse Kirk of returning to the lurid "darkest Africa" style of the early 20th century, it is odd that it reads as much that way as it does. There is no question that Akeley was deliberately and consistently opposed to that view of the continent, but I never got a sense of that from this book. For that you'll need to turn to Bodry-Sanders, and Akeley himself. How could Kirk have missed this in his research, or why did he chose to ignore it?
Given that I think the author seriously truncates both Akeley and the African wild, why 4 stars? All I can say is the book is an excellent read for the kind of book it is, and it has brought Carl Akeley to a much wider audience. For me, those are strong enough positives to compensate.
I would like to add a couple of things in response to those reviewers who find irony in Akeley's role as both a hunter and conservationist. Carl Akeley more or less invented habitat dioramas. While I do not by any means condone all of Akeley's actions, it is vital to remember that for many millions of people, his dioramas were their first (and often only) taste of what real wilderness is like. To this day there are things that only habitat dioramas can convey--esp. the sense of the wild's spacious, expansive calm--that the ever-fleeting images of film and television can at best only touch for an instant. Also, many prominent conservationists (e.g. George Schaller and Dianne Fossey) found their early inspiration in dioramas. I have friends whose lifelong dedication to wildlife conservation was inspired by seeing museum dioramas as children.
As for the animals themselves, it is a deep and complex subject. I will just point out that far, far, far more animals have been killed to feed casual visitors to museum dining facilities than to fill all the habitat dioramas in the world.