Customer Reviews: Timothy, or Notes of an Abject Reptile
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on March 12, 2006
What a wry, original, disarming, imaginative, and instructive tale! Author Verlyn Klinkenborg considers the subjective journaling of 18th century English curate Gilbert White regarding a real life tortoise who lived on White's property in Selborne, and from White's biased human observations crafts a rebuttal unlike any other: a bestial philosophic treatise. Timothy is a sentient being who has much to teach us from her example (White in his paternalism erroneously concludes Timothy is male).

Through Timothy's narrative we are shown our own species' arrogance, cruelty, and bumbling tack. "How do I escape from that nimble-tongued, fleet footed race?.... Walk through the holes in their attention". Timothy's discourse on instinct versus reason is worthy of university level discussion. "Tottering, stilt-gaited beasts. A sad plight. Reason too often a will-o'-the-wisp. Instinct a relic within them."

Jane Austen in a carapace. Elegance amongst the asparagus.

As one reviewer notes, this is "one of the best meditations on slowness, patience, and endurance". It will make you re-consider humankinds place in the world. An excellent book club read, it will lead to many long discussions. One can also predict increasing crowds at the reliquary of Timothy's shell at the Natural History Museum in London.
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on March 19, 2006
I've enthusiastically read Klinkenborg's columns for the New York Times for years, but I entered into this book with some misgivings. Even the title seemed strangely clunky, and after all, how many writers can really pull off a book told from the viewpoint of a tortoise?

My doubts were swiftly (by tortoise standards) allayed. This is certainly the most eloquent meditation on the natural world that I've ever read. (And coming from a lifetime Sierra Club member, that just might mean something.) Klinkenborg is not just an extraordinarily gifted writer. I believe he is an admirable human (and tortoise) as well.
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on April 14, 2006
I picked up this book because I'd read a review that compared it to GILEAD, one of my favorite novels of the past 10 years. While the stories are wildly different, the comparison is a good one. Both novels are meant to be read slowly, and will evoke deep emotions about life and humanity.

Timothy the tortoise is about as unlikely a narrator as there is. Snatched from his Mediterranean birthplace, he winds up in the garden of Rev. Gilbert White, whose meticulous diaries about his 18th century parish still exist today. Timothy's reflections on the humans around him and on the cycles of life in the village are informed by his slowness, of course, and by his extraordinary longevity (tortoises often live 80 years or more, significantly longer than the humans of White's day). The novel's appreciation of the intricacies of nature, the beauty of the seasons and the value of slowness are meant to be savored, and his reflections on humans and their follies come as sly and often moving little revelations scattered throughout the novel.

There's something to appreciate on every page of this short and lyrically written novel. I enjoyed it while sitting in my garden, like Timothy. It's one of the most memorable and unusual novels I've ever read. You won't be disappointed by taking a chance on this one.
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on November 17, 2006
Timothy is a tortoise. She understands and speaks English---albeit in incomplete sentences. She knows some geography. She knows the thoughts, the worries and beliefs of the inhabitants of 18th century Selborne, England. She knows what goes on in their churches and their homes, even though she has presumably never entered any. She knows what takes place in winters, even though she has hibernated through every one.

Never mind!

Suspend your disbelief. Accept that Timothy is omniscient. Enjoy her descriptions and commentary. It reads like poetry, with lots of witty bits and little jabs at the absurdity of humans. It had me laughing out loud at times.

On Easter: " 'The lamb who was slain now liveth again,' he [Mr. Gilbert White] believes. And so he says aloud to his parishioners. Though on this earth, the lamb who is slain is supper."

This book is a rare treat, so read it slowly. There's a glossary in the back to help with the names of local areas, the obsolete and botanical terms.

BTW, The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White, which inspired this book, is available to download at Project Gutenberg [...]. A search for "tortoise" points to several letters that mention an unnamed, old Sussex tortoise.
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on April 8, 2006
I chose this book for a book group I am in and out of 8 of us, only two really liked it. Nobody actually hated it, but here is what the problems were:

- The writing structure: The book is written from the perspective of the Tortoise and in attempting to offer a unique voice, the author chooses to use a device of fragmented sentences. It's very cumbersome to follow, especially at first. More than one person noted that about 2/3 of the way through, it suddenly got a lot easier and more flowing but we cannot pinpoint why.

- The writing style: The book fades in and out of an omniscient point of view from the Tortoise. Timothy remarks about things that he/she could never know. Timothy seems to know what Gilbert White says in his sermons, yet has never attended a service. Timothy seems to know that the blood rushes to one's head when one hangs upside-down from a tree. For some, Timothy simply knows too much, and it pulls the reader out of the story. Personally, I looked past this and let the story flow. I noticed it, and forgave it.

- The complete and utter irony of the premise: The book is basically a human, writing what he believes a Tortoise thinks, about humanity. There are several points where the book tries to point out how much we really DON'T know about nature or the way a creature thinks or the way this Tortoise thinks, and whenever the point is well-made from the animal's perspective, the reader is left thinking "wow, that's a little bold, considering that a HUMAN wrote this book." Granted, I think the author gives a nod to this irony by stating "Humans are blinded - even the naturalist - by being human. Barely able to witness what is not human." So, if you can look beyond this as a reader, the book will be more enjoyable.

Those were the main issues people had.

Personally, I found the philosophy in the book inspiring. It made me ask questions about humanity, religion and death. I give it 4 stars just for that.

Although do note that again, the writing style is tough to get used to. It was really hard for me to keep going in this book, but eventually it does get easier.
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on April 24, 2006
In Timothy, Verlyn Klinkenborg gives voice to a tortoise. The real Timothy was a Mediterranean tortoise who found herself transported to England, where she was kept and observed by the late eighteenth-century curate and "pioneering naturalist," Gilbert White. But step by step and sentence by sentence, it is Timothy who explores the mind of her observer and assembles for us a portrait of Selborne village, Gilbert White, and her own views (or are they Klinkenborg's?) on life, adaptability, and nature. Timothy is a beautiful and deceptively nuanced book.
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on February 15, 2006
The New York Times, the LA Times and the Miami Herald, among many, have already given Timothy rave reviews, and here is one more.

Verlyn Klinkenborg has created the world of a tortoise, and how she lives in the world, as a seamless whole. With the same skill and devotion he brings to the "Rural Life," column in the New York Times, Kinkenborg builds up sensual layers of what Timothy inhabits and what inhabits her: Mediterranean sea and sun and English garden soil, until the reader realizes that for an animal there is no divide, nothing to bridge. You will come away with deepened love of "this one parish," this one world. Read this book, there is nothing like it.
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VINE VOICEon June 27, 2007
I have enjoyed other writings of Klinkenborg - appreciated their direct style with carefully chosen words and well-formed thoughts. As I began Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile a found the short and often fragmentary sentences slowed my reading. As I progressed I was further slowed by unfamiliar vocabulary - huckaback, shambles, scute, taw ... Then I discovered the glossary in the back which provides a definition when context is insufficient.

As I delved further into the book my complaints turned to admiration. Klingborg's fragmentary sentence structure fits perfectly into the very concrete thought patterns he attributes to Timothy the tortoise. While Timothy may be philosophical at times it is a philosophy of life firmly planted in the natural world not the abstract philosophy of humans. The vocabulary is necessary to embed the story in a particular place and time - a critical aspect of Timothy's world.

Wisely, Klinkenborg does not carry the conceit of narration by a tortoise to the extreme. Timothy reports and/or comments on more that she would have actually been in a position to observe - most notably the travels of her owner's nephew, Gilbert White's observations re: sex and instinct in the "natural kingdom" (which, naturally, excludes humanity). But in these observations, Timothy quietly exposes the foibles of man.

Combining these elements, Klinkenborg creates a story that not only holds your attention but also requires introspection of the reader - what is the reader's (and Timothy's) place in the world?
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on March 29, 2006
Klinkenborg, a member of the New York Times editorial board and author of Making Hay, has produced a wondrous flight of fancy. This is a book written by Timothy, a tortoise kept in the late 1700s by Gilbert White, a curate and the author of The Natural History of Selborne (the small English village where he lived and served).

Timothy and Gilbert White both actually existed; Timothy's shell is preserved in the Natural History Museum in London. Timothy's philosophical view of the fast-paced, ridiculous, two-legged humans are always refreshing, often amusing, and sometimes sad.

The text is more accurately a prose poem than a novel; with wonderful descriptions of eighteenth-century village life. Farmers, smiths, sheep shearers, hop pickers, and of course, the family and visitors to the curate's garden where Timothy lived all play a role. They are observed and recorded in a manner similar to White's musings on nature. The seasons, the droughts, freezing winters, diseases, and deaths are all chronicled fleetingly by Timothy.

Timothy, while he appreciates the kindness of White, still yearns for his warm home and freedom. Actually a female, Timothy also finds White's fumbling attempts at studying nature somewhat humorous.

"There is too strong a propensity in human nature towards persecuting and destroying."

Mr. Gilbert White writes. The rest of nature concurs. From Timothy, or notes of an abject reptile.

Armchair Interviews says: Timothy is truly a most unusual and unique book--both in writing style and subject matter.
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on January 30, 2014
I'm sure the book is a pretty good read. Timothy is creative and thoughtful, very quotable. However, the CD sounds like it is slowly read by Diane Rehm with a cold. Terrible and grating. Buy the book.
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