Gerald Durrell: Three Singles to Adventure; Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons

The British naturalist Gerald Durrell is probably best known for his trilogy about his childhood in Corfu (which begins with My Family and Other Animals), but he also wrote a large number of other books, many of them describing his journeys to faraway countries to bring back animals for Britain’s zoos. Thanks to Open Road Media, who are reissuing his books in ebook form, I have had the opportunity to read two of them: Three Singles to Adventure and Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons.

three-singles-to-adventure First published in 1954, Three Singles to Adventure is an account of Durrell’s animal-collecting expedition to British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1950. Using the capital city of Georgetown as a base, Durrell and his two companions, Bob and Ivan, begin their mission by purchasing three tickets to Adventure, a village chosen at random from a map because of its intriguing name. First in Adventure, then in two other locations elsewhere in the country, the three begin to gather specimens of the mammals and birds, reptiles and amphibians, which live in that area of South America. These range from lizards, frogs and anteaters to anacondas, opossums and tree porcupines.

Durrell’s enthusiasm for his work really shines through on every page. His descriptions of the animals and birds he discovers are vivid and detailed, full of wonder, fascination and admiration; he even manages to capture the individual personality of each one. My personal favourites were the two-toed sloth who tries to escape in the middle of the night, the capybara who keeps everyone awake by gnawing on the wires of his cage and a big, lovable curassow bird called Cuthbert who gets under everybody’s feet at the most inconvenient of times!

While Bob was absorbed in the job of disentangling the hammocks from their ropes, Cuthbert cautiously approached across the floor and lay down just behind his feet. During the course of his struggles with a hammock Bob stepped backwards and tripped heavily over the recumbent bird behind him. Cuthbert gave a squawk of alarm and retired to his corner again. When he judged that Bob was once more engrossed, he shuffled forward and laid himself across his shoes. The next thing I knew there was a crash, and Bob fell to the floor together with the hammocks. From underneath the wreckage of mosquito-nets and ropes Cuthbert peered, peeting indignantly.

There’s one funny anecdote after another, many of them involving the hapless Bob, who only came along to paint pictures and finds himself joining Durrell in the most hair-raising of escapades!

As an animal lover myself, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for some of the animals, who clearly weren’t meant to be kept in captivity and were transported in sacks, boxes and cages, but having said that, I could see that Durrell did genuinely care about them and treated them in as humane a manner as he was able given the time and place. He would later become known as a conservationist, founding the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust with his own zoo in Jersey dedicated to helping endangered species.

golden-bats-and-pink-pigeons The second Durrell book I read, Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons, was originally published in 1977 and describes a trip to Mauritius in search of endangered animals to bring back to Durrell’s Jersey Zoo. Accompanied by his assistant John Hartley and secretary Ann Peters, Durrell was hoping to find specimens of the pink pigeon, of which only a few remained, the golden fruit bat of the island of Rodrigues, whose numbers had also dropped, and three types of rare reptile from Round Island, another island near Mauritius. All of these creatures, like the dodo before them, were at risk as a result of habitat change and new predators – cats, dogs, rats etc – which had been introduced to the islands with the arrival of human beings. Durrell’s intention was to take a small number of each animal to be bred in captivity and eventually re-released into the wild.

This is another fascinating read, with some lovely descriptions of the beautiful scenery – including a whole chapter which describes a swim through a coral reef. I didn’t like it quite as much as Three Singles to Adventure, though, which I think was partly because the types of animals and birds featured in this one appealed to me less. It’s not as funny as the other book either, although Durrell still has some amusing stories to tell about his time in Mauritius. I loved the episode where, on the day of their bat-catching expedition, he and his companions arrive at the airport carrying a large quantity of fruit to use as bait (including a large and particularly smelly Jak fruit), only to find that they are over the weight limit for the plane.

Frantically, we discarded all the heavy items of clothing and equipment we could manage without. It made an interesting pile. If there had been any doubts about our sanity before this, they were soon dispelled, for what sane person would discard shirt, socks, shoes and other items of wearing apparel in favour of bananas, mangoes and a Jak fruit that one was conscious of at fifty paces?

I really enjoyed reading these two books! Each of the new editions includes biographical information on Durrell and a selection of family photographs; Three Singles to Adventure also has an index of the animals and birds mentioned in the text. I would highly recommend either or both of these books and am looking forward to reading more of them.

Thanks to the publisher Open Road Media for providing review copies via NetGalley.

The Georgian Menagerie by Christopher Plumb

Elephants, kangaroos, parrots, zebras, bears, tigers, camels – we all know what they look like and how they behave; even if we haven’t actually encountered them for ourselves in a zoo or on safari, we’ve certainly seen them on television and read about them in books. But there was a time when, for British people at least, these animals and birds were new and unusual. The Georgian Menagerie: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century London is a fascinating account of how these creatures were brought to Britain and what happened to them when they arrived.

The Georgian Menagerie Christopher Plumb draws on a wide range of sources including diaries, court cases, wills and other legal documents, advertisements, newspapers, letters and even poems and jokes to explore the stories of exotic animals and birds in Georgian society. As the British Empire grew during the 1700s, overseas trade and shipping increased and it became easier to travel to faraway destinations; this meant that menagerists and private collectors were able to obtain animals from distant continents and – as long as they were able to survive a long sea journey – bring them home to exhibit to the public.

The book features anecdotes from all over Britain, but specifically London, where most of the early menageries were located – including Pidcock’s Menagerie in the Exeter Exchange and Kendrick’s Menagerie at Piccadilly. While a lot of attention is given to the menageries with their large collections of creatures, eventually some of the animals and birds (canaries, for example) became more common and ordinary people could sometimes afford to buy one to keep in their own home.

Unfortunately, though, some of the animals being imported were required for a different purpose. In a section entitled Ingredients, we learn about the popularity of turtle soup, the use of bear grease by wigmakers and the demand for perfumes made with oil from the glands of civet cats. And even dead animals were of interest to the Georgians: they could be studied by anatomists, artists and naturalists, and were often then stuffed and put on display in museums.

As you can probably imagine, many of the anecdotes in the book are very sad to read. The people who were removing these animals from their natural habitats had no idea how to look after them correctly and, in most cases, didn’t seem to care. The animals and birds usually didn’t live very long in captivity and had short, miserable lives, being fed inappropriate food and provided with inadequate housing. There are stories of a young polar bear kept for a month in a wooden barrel with fresh water poured in daily and a parrot left unable to walk after being tethered to a perch on a short chain, to give just two examples.

Sometimes the animals would take their revenge. In a chapter called Bitten, Crushed and Maimed you can read about owners, keepers and spectators being injured or attacked by animals – not always because the animal was being tormented or badly treated, but also due to human ignorance. If people didn’t know how to care for the animals, they didn’t know how to behave around them either and seemed to have no understanding of the dangers of taunting rattlesnakes, trying to climb on elephants’ backs or poking fingers between the bars of cages!

The Georgian Menagerie is not always a pleasant read, then, but I suppose not everything in our history is very pleasant. And of course, there are lots of amusing and lighthearted anecdotes in the book too, particularly in the final section, Humour, which discusses the novelty of electric eels, the jokes surrounding Queen Charlotte’s zebras, and the relationships between parrots and their owners. Christopher Plumb’s style throughout the book is engaging and easy to read and there are plenty of beautiful illustrations by artists of the period. References and sources are provided both within the text and at the back of the book.

Despite the sometimes distressing descriptions of animal cruelty, I found The Georgian Menagerie completely fascinating. I love reading about the eighteenth century and this book gave me an opportunity to explore an aspect of Georgian life about which I previously knew very little. Definitely recommended!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

I always feel a bit apprehensive when reading a book like Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi which has been read by so many people and seems to divide opinion so much. Would I love it or would I hate it? I was actually expecting to hate it, since I did try to read it a few years ago and gave up after a couple of chapters. After deciding to give the book a second chance and making it to the end this time, I was surprised to find that I had the exact opposite reaction – I loved it and was completely captivated by it from start to finish. Now I’m annoyed with myself for waiting so long before giving it another try!

Pi Patel’s father runs the Pondicherry Zoo, so Pi has grown up surrounded by animals. However, this still doesn’t prepare him for what happens when he and his family decide to emigrate to Canada, taking several of their animals with them to be traded to other zoos. When they are shipwrecked in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Pi finds himself trapped in a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan – and a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker.

I remember that when I first tried to read Life of Pi I struggled to get through the opening chapters, but this time I found them much more interesting. Not much actually happens in this early section of the book, but the scene is set for the rest of the story. We learn a lot about animals and how they are treated in zoos. We also see how Pi explores various religions and the benefits of each, before deciding to be a Christian, Muslim and Hindu all at the same time. But it wasn’t until the shipwreck scene and Pi’s subsequent discovery of the tiger sharing his lifeboat that I really became absorbed in the story. The account of Pi’s battle for survival and his relationship with Richard Parker makes for fascinating and compelling reading. It’s hard to believe that a story which takes place mainly within the confined space of a small lifeboat can be so enthralling!

Which brings me to the final section of the book. At first I hated the way the book ended and I did feel cheated – I expect a lot of readers have felt the same way, which will be one reason for the love/hate divide – but then I found that I couldn’t stop thinking about it and how clever it was. I have rarely come across a book with such a thought-provoking and ambiguous ending. I’m so glad I decided to give Life of Pi a second chance, as after my first attempt at reading it I had thought it just wasn’t for me.

Have you ever been surprised by a book after giving it another chance?

Short Story Reviews: Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Lawson

One of my personal challenges for 2010 was to read more short stories. So far I haven’t been making much progress, but I made up for it this week by reading two very different short stories: The Brazilian Cat by Arthur Conan Doyle and The Drover’s Wife by Henry Lawson.

The Brazilian Cat by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I don’t use any real method in choosing which short stories to read.  At the rate I’m reading them (only six so far in 2010!) there are enough available online to keep me busy for years, so I’ve just been selecting one or two pretty much randomly.  As I’ve never read any of Conan Doyle’s works other than some of the Sherlock Holmes books, I decided to try one of his stories from Tales of Terror and Mystery (published 1922).

The Brazilian Cat, one of the “tales of terror”, is a quick, easy read. Marshall King, heir to Lord Southerton, has been invited to stay at the home of his cousin Everard, who has recently returned to England from Brazil. Everard has brought a menagerie of animals and birds back to England with him, including a peccary, an armadillo, an oriole…and a Brazilian cat.

“I am about to show you the jewel of my collection,” said he. “There is only one other specimen in Europe, now that the Rotterdam cub is dead. It is a Brazilian cat.”
“But how does that differ from any other cat?”
“You will soon see that,” said he, laughing. “Will you kindly draw that shutter and look through?”

What exactly is a Brazilian cat? Why does Everard’s wife seem so desperate for Marshall to leave Greylands Court? And why is Everard receiving so many mysterious telegrams? You’ll have to read the story to find out.

As a short horror story I wouldn’t say it was terrifying, but it was suspenseful with the tension building at a steady pace throughout the story.  There’s nothing very deep or profound about The Brazilian Cat, nothing complex or thought-provoking, but it’s entertaining and worth reading if you have a few minutes to spare.

Read it online here

The Drover’s Wife by Henry Lawson

Henry Lawson has been described as one of Australia’s greatest writers but until now I had never read any of his work.

The Drover’s Wife (1892) is the story of an unnamed woman who lives in the Australian bush with her husband and four young children. Her husband is a drover and spends very little time at home; at the time of our story he has been away for six months. When the children spot a snake slithering into the house, their mother makes a bed for them on the kitchen table and sits up all night watching over them. During the long hours of darkness she reflects on her life “for there is little else to think about”.

Although the story is very short and contains very little action, it manages to leave a lasting impression of the hardships, obstacles and overwhelming loneliness faced by a woman living an isolated life in rural 19th century Australia. The drover’s wife’s lifestyle has made it necessary for her to become independent, brave and resourceful. As she sits in the kitchen waiting for the snake to emerge, she remembers all the times in the past when her husband has been absent – on one occasion she had to fight a bush fire on her own; on another she fought a flood. She has also had to defend herself and her home from “suspicious-looking strangers” and “crows and eagles that had designs on her chickens”.

And yet the drover’s wife has grown accustomed to being on her own and is making the best of her lot in life:

“All days are much the same for her; but on Sunday afternoon she dresses herself, tidies the children, smartens up baby, and goes for a lonely walk along the bush-track, pushing an old perambulator in front of her. She does this every Sunday. She takes as much care to make herself and the children look smart as she would if she were going to do the block in the city. There is nothing to see, however, and not a soul to meet… But this bushwoman is used to the loneliness of it. As a girl-wife she hated it, but now she would feel strange away from it.”

I recommend reading this story as it’s an important piece of Australian literature. Having read some of the essays and analysis online however, it seems there’s more than one way to interpret the story. Some people consider it to be anti-feminist because it implies that all of the drover’s wife’s pain and suffering is caused by the absence of her husband. This is interesting because on my first reading I had seen it as a straightforward portrayal of a woman’s courage and bravery; yes, it would have made things easier if her husband had been around to help her, but she was doing the best she could to take care of herself and her children – husband or no husband. I can see I’ll have to give it some more thought. Have you read the story? What was your interpretation of it?

You can read The Drover’s Wife online here

I’ll try to make more progress with this personal challenge and post my thoughts on some more short stories soon!

Pictures of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Lawson both in the public domain

Review: Watership Down by Richard Adams

I first read Watership Down when I was about 10 years old. It immediately became my favourite book and I re-read it many times. However, it’s been a long time since my last re-read and I wondered if I would still love it as much as I used to.

I know some people may consider a book about talking rabbits to be silly and childish, but Watership Down is not really a ‘children’s book’. It’s one of those books that can be enjoyed on different levels by people of all ages. In fact, the writing style and vocabulary used in this book is of a higher standard than many ‘adult’ books. It’s also not just ‘a book about rabbits’ – it’s a book about friendship, leadership, freedom, adventure, happiness, sadness and so much more.

Hazel and his brother Fiver are two young rabbits living in the peaceful Sandleford Warren. When Fiver has a premonition that the warren is going to be destroyed, he convinces Hazel and several of their friends to embark on an epic journey to find a new home. During their search for Fiver’s ‘safe, high place’, they encounter a number of problems and dangers including humans, predators and even other rabbits. The biggest obstacle of all, however, comes with the realization that as the group consists solely of male rabbits, they urgently need to find some females – this leads to a daring attempt to rescue some does from the overcrowded enemy warren of Efrafa…

Hazel and his friends are not cute little bunnies. They are intelligent, resourceful animals capable of solving almost any problem that is thrown at them. When faced with having to cross a river, for example, they observe that a plank of wood is floating on the surface of the water and they figure out how to use it as a raft. The rabbits are given such human thoughts and emotions that you can easily forget they’re actually not human! However, from a physical and behavioural point of view, they always behave like real wild rabbits. Richard Adams used R. M. Lockley’s The Private Life of the Rabbit as his reference.

Each rabbit has their own individual personality – Hazel is the leader, Fiver the sensitive prophet, Bigwig the fighter, Blackberry the brains, Dandelion the storyteller, Bluebell the clown, and so on. This allows every reader to identify with at least one rabbit and to choose a favourite (mine was always Bigwig, who at the beginning of the book was overbearing and aggressive but learned some important lessons during the journey to Watership Down and ended as one of the most highly respected rabbits in the warren).

One of the things I love about this book is the way Richard Adams has created an entire rabbit world. This includes:

  • A rabbit language, known as Lapine. Even before I began my re-read of the book, I could still remember that hrududu is the Lapine word for car, that a lendri is a badger, and Elil means enemies.
  • A rabbit religion. Rabbits are taught that Frith created the world and is represented by the sun. Inle is the word for moon, and the Black Rabbit of Inle is a grim reaper-type character who appears when a rabbit is about to die. The rabbits often talk about “ni-Frith” – noon – and “fu Inle” – after moonrise.
  • Rabbit folklore. The rabbits love to listen to stories about their hero, the legendary El-ahrairah, ‘the Prince with a Thousand Enemies’.

I think the author’s wonderfully detailed descriptions of the English countryside also deserve a special mention. As almost all of the places he writes about – the farms, hills, valleys and meadows – are places that really exist, it would be possible to follow the rabbits’ journey on a map or even to visit them yourself.

So, did I still enjoy this book as much as I did when I was 10? Yes, of course I did. No matter how many other books I read, Watership Down will always hold a special place in my heart.  I’ll leave you with a favourite quote from the book:

“‘Animals don’t behave like men,’ he said. ‘If they have to fight, they fight; and if they have to kill they kill. But they don’t sit down and set their wits to work to devise ways of spoiling other creatures’ lives and hurting them. They have dignity and animality.'”

Highly Recommended

Genre: General Fiction/Pages: 478/Publisher: Penguin/Year: 1972/Source: My own copy

This review is part of my Great Books series.

Review: Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin

I received a review copy of this book from LibraryThing Early Reviewers. Willy Vlautin is the lead singer and songwriter with the band Richmond Fontaine and Lean on Pete is his third novel. I’ve seen a lot of other reviewers comparing him to John Steinbeck, though I haven’t read enough of Steinbeck’s work to know whether that’s an accurate comparison.

Charley Thompson is a lonely fifteen year-old boy who lives with his irresponsible single father. The book begins with their arrival in Portland, Oregon, where Charley’s father has been offered a new job in a warehouse. Charley is desperate to get a job of his own so that he can earn enough money to put food on the table but the only work he can find is at the Portland Meadows race track with a disreputable horse trainer called Del. Portland Meadows has seen better days and is now home to hundreds of old, tired horses and second-rate jockeys who can’t get work anywhere else. It is here that Charley meets Lean On Pete, the racehorse who becomes his only friend and companion.

Willy Vlautin uses very simple prose with no flowery descriptions and no big words. As the story is told in the first person from the point of view of fifteen year-old Charley, this writing style is very effective – he uses the kind of language that Charley would realistically use. Despite his miserable home life, Charley comes across as quite a sensible, likeable person, and I really wanted to see him survive and be happy. I did get a bit bored with constantly being told exactly what he had to eat for every meal (usually cheeseburgers, if you’re interested), though I suppose for a teenage boy fending for himself with no money, it was probably quite important!

Almost all of the other characters we meet are drug addicts, alcoholics, or living in poverty, painting a portrait of a side of society we don’t often read about. Most of these people show Charley some kindness, but aren’t really in a position to be able to help him – Charley and Pete are completely alone in the world and there’s a constant atmosphere of sadness and loneliness that hangs over the entire book.

Lean on Pete was a big step away from the type of book I usually read, but I didn’t regret the couple of days it took me to read it.

Genre: General Fiction/Pages: 288/Publisher: Faber & Faber/Year: 2010/Source: Received from LibraryThing Early Reviewers