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Being A Beast Paperback – July 3, 2017
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"Intensely strange and terrifically vivid . . . An eccentric modern classic of nature writing." ―Dwight Garner, The New York Times
"Spectacularly unconventional . . . A meditative romp that leaves you laughing out loud (and occasionally cursing in anger), even as you soak up the spray of science . . . Steeped in scholarship yet directed by his own quirky mysticism, Foster brilliantly takes on questions of animal consciousness, cognition, emotion, and theory of mind." ―The New York Times Book Review
"A tour de force of modern nature writing . . . that shows us how to better love the world beyond ourselves." ―The Guardian (London)
"A blend of memoir, neuroscience and nature writing . . . that pushes zoological obsession to even greater heights―and depths." ―The Wall Street Journal
"Gonzo nature writing . . . Extremely entertaining." ―The New York Review of Books
"An embed with the animals . . . Foster's quirky book shows how emulating animals not only helps our understanding of them―it makes us more human." ―People
"Foster wants to be the wild thing, living as wild things live. In Being a Beast, he nearly convinces us that such shape-shifting is possible in the way he lyrically tells his stories―uncensored, intensely descriptive and often hysterical." ―Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"Extraordinary, hair-raising, and deliberately funny . . . Atrophied senses limit our lived experiences. Be a beast, says Foster, to become a better human." ―Maclean’s
"A splendid, vivid contribution to the literature of nature . . . Daringly imaginative . . . There's not an ounce of sentimentality in any of it, but instead good science and hard-nosed thought. Furthermore, Foster has the gift of poetry." ―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"A fascinating exploration . . . His attempts to actually be a beast make this a different sort of wildlife book. . . . Ultimately, Foster found reciprocity in his unusual and daring immersion in nature, feeling that he now knows the essence of animals' lives and is somehow newly known in return." ―Booklist (starred review)
"Woven through the lyrical narrative are neuroscience, facts about the creatures, and philosophy. . . . This book's fascinating premise, with its unique perspective of how animals perceive their surroundings, will be of interest to scientists, naturalists, and those who enjoy reading about natural history." ―Library Journal
"An extraordinary account . . . In lesser hands this could come off as trite or patronizing, but Foster is quick to acknowledge his shortcomings and errors in perspective regarding his project, and he projects a healthy sense of humor. . . . This approach, along with his willingness to address and avoid the temptation for anthropomorphism, makes his book interesting and informative." ―Publishers Weekly
"When it comes to wilderness porn, it's going to be very hard to beat Being a Beast." ―London Evening Standard
"Being a Beast is a strange kind of masterpiece: the song of a satyr, perhaps, or nature writing as extreme sport. Foster marks out the distance between us and the beasts in a way that helps sharpen their boundaries and ours―and ours are not always where we think." ―Financial Times
"This year's H is for Hawk, the book leaves you feeling that perhaps Helen MacDonald's bestseller might have been improved if she had only tried to fly." ―World Travel Guide
"An extraordinary book." ―Sunday Times (UK)
"Living like an animal in order to write about it sounds like a gimmick. It isn't. Groundbreaking? Definitely." ―The Scotsman
"A highly original attempt to break free from the anthropocentrism that often characterizes nature writing . . . A rich, joyful, and inspiring book." ―The Independent (UK)
About the Author
- Publisher : Picador; Reprint edition (July 3, 2017)
- Language: : English
- Paperback : 252 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1250132215
- ISBN-13 : 978-1250132215
- Item Weight : 7.7 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.5 x 0.57 x 8.25 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #878,501 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
"A timely novel highlighting the worth and delicate nature of Nature itself." -Delia Owens Learn more
Top reviews from the United States
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Unfortunately, if that is the goal this book fails at almost every level. It offers few useful insight into how animals “think” or whether or whether or not (or how) humans can come to any kind of realistic understanding of what it is like to be an animal in the wild.
The basic premise seems to come from the wife of one of Foster’s friends. She is a (good) witch and apparently spends part of her time as an animal (transitioning back and forth with the help of hallucinogenics). According to Foster (and the witch) prehistoric shamans spent a lot of their time as animals so that the whole idea of becoming an animal is possible and maybe even easy if one knows how.
Foster starts with a badger, an animal that lives underground and subsists mostly on earthworms. Like all wild badgers he rents a backhoe and digs a trench, carving out his underground hole with a shovel. He eats a few worms but has homemade lasagna delivered by a friend. Some deliveries include chorizo and updates on world news. Apparently badgers follow the news avidly and what badger doesn’t like pork sausage? Foster’s justification for the catered diet is that if a badger came upon a tray of lasagna (or a piece of chorizo) it would certainly eat it, so lasagna is OK if someone happens to leave some along the trail to his burrow. Deep questions are pondered without resolution: do badgers use adjectives? (p. 54). Maybe. Maybe not. The badger experiment fails.
So does the deer experiment. After stalking and shooting a few and imagining what it is like to be chased down by dogs have a bullet enter your body with fatal consequences, Foster decides he can’t become a deer because he is a predator and deer are prey. No common ground there. Can’t become an otter because they live in the river and are most naturally active at night. Foster tries but eventually retreats (in his wet suit) to the Staghunters’ Inn for several pints and some games of pool. Can’t become a Swift because they fly and never land on the ground their entire life. Foster can’t fly. Can’t become an urban fox because most of them are run over by cars within their first two years. Too dangerous to emulate plus the local constabulary is concerned about him, having not bathed or changed clothes in weeks, hiding in the shrubs at night and spying on things passing by. Like people, for example. Etc, etc, etc.
The writing? Extravagantly over the top. Here is an actual sentence from p. 141 (Foster is in a pub eyeballing some women and listening in on their conversation): “And so it went on: bums and then breasts tingled; shapeless pants were mockingly electrified; the fend shui of mantelpiece junk from Benidorm was evaluated. It cackled into the night as I bought narcotic beer I hadn’t thought I’d need, and tried to knuckle down to Greenmantle.” A lot of writing in the book is like this and even if you enjoy reading it the best that can be said is that the quality of the writing far exceeds the quality of the content. And don’t get me started on his metaphors. Even Foster knows they are bad, quoting his friend Burt; “I used to like metaphors until I met you.” (p.64)
If there are any insights to be had (and here I am trying to say something nice because right now I am feeling real bad for the Brits over the Brexit thing) I would say that Foster exposes us to a deeper understanding of smells in the wild, especially the smells of plants. One example: pp. 49-50 which combines some good writing with some good insights into the subtlety of smells and their importance to animals. There, I feel better having said something nice. (But for the most part the book stinks as bad as the animal poop he obsesses over.)
If you buy this book, skip the content and select something to read from the Bibliography. If you haven’t purchased this book yet I would recommend as an alternative Frans de Waal’s latest book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016), a wonderfully rich exploration of the Umwelt of a variety of insects, mammals and birds. Or just spend some time outdoors watching whatever wildlife you can find (birds in the daytime, feral cats at night, domestic dogs in the park at any hour). If you do this for a while you will have a better understanding of animal behavior than you get from Foster’s book. Plus you will have saved 20 buck$.
On the other hand, Foster spends substantial chunks of the book wallowing around inside his own head. Sometimes this feels relevant and worthwhile, but more often it just seems self-indulgent. I found it a chore to read many of these parts. Maybe I should have accepted the book as a traditional memoir with a running theme of "being a beast," rather than a more focused exploration of that topic. But I don't think that's what the book sells itself as, and I don't think it's as interesting or novel a project as really focusing on the relationship between human and animal experience.
I was torn on whether to give this book three or four stars. I usually purely enjoy reading, and I can't honestly say I enjoyed reading most of this book. But it made me think, and there were enough bits that were funny or profound or lovely that I feel glad I read it in retrospect, and have therefore rounded up.
Reading this is a fun and fabulous learning experience, and you don't have to live in a badger set or swim with newts or eat a diet of earthworms to have the reading experience!
Every single word was dripping with condescension and elitism and disrespect towards animals, and not once did I see him resist anthropomorphizing animals or fighting his childish biases. I found no evidence of him doing actual, extensive scientific research about animals, and only random, shallow trivia about animals to suit his silly narrative.
What a waste of writing talent, because occasionally, he did have some nice observations and turns of phrases. However, ultimately this book was not what it purports to be - a sincere attempt to empathize with animals. Disappointing.