2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
, September 2, 2013
This great book presents a prismatic and at times kaleidoscopic view of a very grand swath of almost everything. Well, not quite everything, but an amazing cross section of interesting and obscure material is fair game for author Caspar Henderson.
In the introduction, he explains what he was up to as follows: "I have tried to look at a few ways of being from different angles and, through 'a wealth of unexpected juxtapositions,' explore how they are like and unlike humans (or how we imagine ourselves to be) and also how their differences from and similarities to us cast light on human capabilities and human concerns".
That pretty much sums it up.
The book is organized as a abecedarium, with 26 (actually 27) chapters, (there are two for X) each one nominally dealing with a creature whose name begins with that letter. I say nominally, because the subject of the chapter is nothing more than a gateway into a labyrinth of free association that at times will almost take your breath away.
To provide a flavor of this, here's one sentence from each of the chapters (one X only this time)...
1. Axolotl - Three or four thousand years ago in Mesopotamia people imagined that a being called Oannes, half-man and half-fish, rose from the sea to teach wisdom to mankind.
2. Barrel Sponge - Even if we accept the idea of deep time as a reality, it is still hard to understand because its dimensions are so far outside our normal cognitive range.
3. Crown of Thorns Starfish - The drug addict, drunk, wife-shooter and writer William Burroughs used to tell a story about a man who teaches his anus to talk.
4. Dolphin - Spinner dolphins of both sexes sometimes engage in orgies of more than a dozen individuals, known as `wuzzles'.
5. Eel - Moray eels have a second set of jaws deep at the back of their throat which shoot forward at high speed, grab the prey and rapidly protract backwards again, pulling the prey down into the oesophagus as the animal closes its mouth.
6. Flatworm - Death has always been a looming presence, a lurking silent interlocutor behind a bewildering variety of masks, with whom we have an intermittent but unending dialogue in our heads.
7. Gonodactylus - "The sun", wrote Galileo, "with all those planets revolving around it and depending upon it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the universe to do".
8. Human - As the tale goes, Orpheus makes such beautiful music that the birds and beasts are enchanted, the trees and rocks dance, and even rivers change course in order to get closer to him.
9. Iridogorgia Pourtalesii - The DNA in a few thousand people, joined in a single chain, would reach the nearest star.
10. Japanese Macaque - Japanese macaques have long red faces and eyes that are close set like those of George W. Bush.
11. Kiripha-Ko and Thikili-Ko - It would be nice to have animal company that is not under our thumb and has more charisma than the cockroach, the super-rat, and other "super species" which, some predict, will dominate a degraded future environment.
12. Leatherback Turtle - In the karesansui, or Zen gardens, of Japan, rocks and vegetation are arranged in gravel or sand which is in turn scored with lines and patterns.
13. Mystaceus - Each species of jumping spider taps out its own distinctive dances of intimidation and seduction - three or even seven-act shows that combine features of a semaphore, flamenco, and South African gumboot dancing.
14. Nautilus - Alfred Tennyson anticipated Wells: The hills are shadows and they flow / From form to form and nothing stands; / They melt, like mist, the solid lands, / Like clouds they shape themselves and go.
15. Octopus - Perhaps the most significant role for a cephalopod in Greek and Roman myth is as an inspiration for the Scylla, a monster that seizes sailors between three sharp rows of teeth mounted in each of six heads at the end of six long necks.
16. Pufferfish - Prickliness, toxicity and ferocity have served the Pufferfish well in the exuberant but ruthless ecosystem of the coral reef.
17. Quetzalcoatlus - At the time of writing, films of wingsuit `flight' available online include Grinding the Crack by Jeb Corliss and Sense of Flying by Espen Fadnes.
18. Right Whale - The males compete not by fighting but by trying to out produce each other in the sheer quantity of sperm that they pass to females in frequent and promiscuous couplings from their prodigious testicles (each one of a mature male's pair can weigh half a tonne, or about 550 lb - the largest of any animal).
19. Sea Butterfly - Sea butterflies are pteropods: sea snails that swim by flapping pad-like `feet' which have grown into wings.
20. Thorny Devil - Moloch was a Canaanite god who in John Milton's account was smeared with the blood of human sacrifice.
21. Unicorn: Goblin Shark - Like the Wuggly Ump, its other habits are obscure.
22. Venus's Girdle - If squeezed they yield but then return to their original shape like gumbles, the fictional creatures in the neglected Australian children's classic, Bottersnikes and Gumbles.
23. Waterbear - In a half joke, the cosmologist Stephen Hawking calls humans a `chemical scum', so tiny and insignificant are we in the vastness of space.
24. Xenoglaux - One of the most striking European works of art may be Francisco Goya's etching in his Caprichos series, `The Dream of Reason Produces Monsters', in which a sleeping human figure (perhaps the artist himself)is mobbed by owls and bats with terrible eyes.
25. Yeti Crab - `Panspermia' is not, as it may sound, the name of a distant planet in the 1974 soft porn shlockfest Flesh Gordon, but a perfectly serious scientific idea.
26. Zebrafish - Voltaire admired the English but he barbed his praise: "Do not, while in their company," he wrote "express surprise that they have such pretty children".
See what I mean?
Unexpected juxtapositions, indeed.
My highest recommendation...