FIFTEEN WRIGGLY BEASTS
What is it about these swallows
soaring with their buddies in perfect synchronization?
Or those beasts that hide all day, slink about in our back yards at night?
Or those creatures demanding kisses of us after doing laps in the toilet?
Or how those that disdain us, only to bring half-dead birds, lay them lovingly on our doorstep?
There is no logic to it, and this is reflected in the reviews below
drawn from our newest section of prize-winning
Starred Reviews.


Birdsong by
The Seasons

A Year of Listening to Birds
Donald Kroodsma
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Those of us who know next to nothing about birds do know that the Machiavelli of the bird world is the lowly cowbird. But Kroodsma? "We never got around to talking about cowbirds, but I know you must love them."

    You loved this world and all the forces that make it what it is, and what better story than the making of a cowbird, how it relies on all the savvy accumulated over eons of time to foist its child-rearing duties on other birds?

"A villain to some," he says, "but you know otherwise."

The author, as you may have gathered, is a bit bossy, tells you where, specifically, to go to listen to certain calls on the CD. Me? I just stick it in my computer, let the birdsongs run on and on, a background to his wonderful commentary, this man who loves bird and bird calls above all else in the world, who tells us that he just had to have two CDs at the back of this book. Imagine him, haling the editors of Houghton Mifflin up and down because they tell him he should be content with one, it costs enough, as it is, they explain to him, with one of these great kiskadee sonograms, and he froths over, explaining, "You don't understand,"

    One disc was simply not enough. This book is about using sounds not so much to identify birds as to identify with them; so much of the joy of listening is to linger and listen to one bird for an extended period.

"Listen to one of the most intelligent species, for example, as two American crows eloquently discuss life matters during a nine-minute session."

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The Centaur in the Garden
Moacyr Scliar
Margaret A. Neves, Translator

(Texas Tech University)
It is no easy task to put together a novel with a centaur for protagonist, but Scliar pulls it off because the devil is in the details. During Guedali's private bar mitzvah, the ritual shawl is placed over his shoulders, "the fringe of the talit falling over my haunches and hindquarters, one front hoof pawing the ground --- as it always did when I was nervous." The sacred wine? Oy, gevalt. He knocks it over with his beautiful tail. "It's nothing, my mother quickly said."

    but it was something, something very large. It was my tail, my hooves; it was an animal that was there.

"Oh mama. Oh papa. I so much want to be a regular person, to be normal," he tells them. Finally, when he runs away to the south he ends up --- where else? --- in a circus. He's a hit, standing there in front of the crowds, declaiming passionately. It's the best place for him, and he has told the owner --- who looks like Greta Garbo --- that his brother (a deaf-mute, his face "is all burned") is hidden back there behind. "It is well-made, your costume," she says. It is "authentic horsehide," he tells her. It works. until she tries to bed him.

Then he has to run away again. Like the wind.

We can call this a fable, and it is a nicely constructed one, so much so that we can go along with it when Guedali happens across another centaur --- or rather, a centauress, named Martita --- there in Rio Grande do Sul. They are, obviously, meant for each other, and they retire to a convenient near-by castle, owned by a rich widow, who loves them, and doesn't mind two horse-children taking care of her, and who conveniently dies, leaving them all her worldly goods.

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Chickens in the Road
An Adventure in Ordinary Splendor
Suzanne McMinn
(Harper One)
Ms. McMinn seems to get along better with cows than with people, or at least with men people. This, after buying her first heifer: "I named her Beulah Petunia and became besotted with her." She also becomes besotted with milking Beulah Petunia (I didn't make up that name: McMinn did).

    I'd never heard of milking a cow once a day, but I liked it. I brought home three-quarters of a gallon the first time. I stared and stared at the milk in my refrigerator. And took it out and examined it. And put it back. And took it out. And photographed it like it was artwork. My cow and I, we made that.

Then comes time to get Beulah Petunia married, so Suzanne studies "cow heat cycles" and starts checking out BP's "flower petals" twice daily, "looking for signs." Immediately she tells us what she has learned, becomes our teacher on cow lust and calf production, whether we are interested in cow babies or not.

And the odd thing is we do get interested. All of a sudden out of the blue we want to know all about milking cows and cow cycles in heat and finding a husband for them and marching them across field and stream for a brief courtship and marriage so we can have cow kids to fawn over.

Because McMinn is a great enthusiast, and, on top of that, a cheerful writer. She is also there, at the beginning, a dreadful farmer, just like the rest of us might be if we were to pack up and head out to the north forty. She didn't know then (she knows now) how to pick out the proper place to change one's life from city to country.

So we learn the hard way how to live with horses, cows, pigs, goats, snow and slush in winter, the hot sweats of mid-summer, chasing raccoons out from under the bed, tending to the baby critters (along with her own babies). Finally learning --- like a computer, forty acres is a great teacher --- so that at last it starts to work, and we can even spend time making burnt sugar cakes and sweet potato pie there in West Virginia.

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Cold Skin
Albert Sánchez Piñol
Cheryl Leah Morgan,
Translator

(Canongate)
There's a whole body of Island Literature out there. The original is Robinson Crusoe, and other notable adventures include Aldous Huxley's Island, Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, H. G. Wells' Island of Dr. Moreau, and the satirical Penguin Island by Anatole France, which was well summarized by one critic: "As soon as the penguins are transformed into humans, they begin robbing and murdering each other."

The champion chiller of island lore is William Golding's The Lord of the Flies, about several English schoolboys shipwrecked on an island. Several of them try to organize things in keeping with all they were taught about English rectitude and justice, but soon enough the wilder side takes over, beginning a saga of ensavagement and murder.

The Sitauca are not only endless in numbers, they have the ability to unhinge any humans on their island. Gradually, the Austrian Grunera and the unnamed narrator go dotty under the continuing nighttime assaults on their fortress, with declining supplies of gin and bullets and firepower. The assault turns somewhat more strange when we discover that the Grunera is consorting, daily, in the sack, with one of the blue-blooded toads.

The narrator is intrigued, gives it a try, and goes into ecstasy. He says one might think it would be like making love to "a cadaver, freshly dead" ... but then he reveals that it is "beyond ecstasy," an "extreme passion."

    I had foreseen a brief copulation, sullied and brusque. Instead, I entered within an oasis. At first, the coldness of her skin sent me a-shivering. But our temperatures calibrated themselves to some unheard-of degree in which such concepts as hot and cold become meaningless. Her body was a living sponge spilling forth opium. My humanity was annulled.
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The Hindoo Fly
"I swatted a persistent fly this morning and it fell with a broken wing, and some internal rupture no doubt, and lay on the ground on its back, desperately moving its little black legs. I gazed down at it with something of an Indian conscience, or at any rate with that fearful fellow-feeling with which we are likely to regard even our worst enemy at the approach of the common foe.

Nearby, a colony of ants had its home, and there was a great coming and going round the entrance, where the colonists were taking in stores of the crumbs that had fallen from my table. Running hither and thither in their spasmodic spurting way, sometimes quite erratically it seemed, as though they relied upon some other sense than sight, they hurried off with their burdens into their mysterious underworld, the entrance to which was a narrow cleft between the flagstones of my verandah pavement, or emerged, often as many as a dozen at a time, suddenly, like a puff of dark smoke, or as though shot up in a lift.

The fall of the wounded fly, almost into their midst, with a pretty deafening thud one wouId have thought, did not seem to discompose them in the least, and one or two of them, unburdened, passed and repassed quite close to it on their indefatigable journeyings without appearing even to notice it, though above their own small noises, scuffle and patter of ant feet, shrill of ant voices, it must surely have been kicking up the most infernal rumpus.

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Crow Planet
Essential Wisdom from
The Urban Wilderness

Lyanda Lynn Haupt
(Little, Brown)
Crows are one of the few creatures of nature that are growing in numbers. They have an innate ability to live and prosper alongside humans --- as do seagulls, pigeons, rats and roaches. Haupt thus offers the thought that if you find an injured crow, the best thing you might do for the ecology of the planet is to let it die.

Astonishing thought from a respected conservationist, but the facts are that "Crows living in the urban landscape reap the benefits of easy food and shelter, and their populations are barely checked by cars, cats, and other urban and suburban hazards."

Crow Planet is all of a piece, and Ms. Haupt is obviously committed to saving the planet. Her observations on the depredations of humans are acute. Without diminishing the virtues of this book --- and there are many --- this reviewer wondered at the absence of the obvious here.

Crows are survivors, may even outlive the human race. And we once read an interesting treatise on using such survivors for feeding the starving when it would no longer be economically feasible for the world to feed on cows and pigs, chicken and sheep, shrimp and salmon. The obvious solution was Pizza Pigeon, Rat Fricassee, Seagull Stew, and Roach Creme Pie. How about utilizing the exploding population of crows?

In her exhaustive research on the family Corvidæ, there is nary a word on crow cookery. We all know about blackbirds baked in a pie. But should we not be preparing Crow à la King, House Crow Stew, Corvid Flambé, Blackbird Liver Patè, Crow in a Basket?

Haupt already admits to storing bird body-parts in her freezer.

    I have found [she confesses] that the refrigerator police are not terribly active, and if a pretty bird hits your window, or appears in your parking strip, or is proffered by a neighbor who is privy to your macabre tendencies, then there is really no good reason not to pop it in a Ziploc next to the lemonade concentrate and the Hâagen-Das for future study.

And, outside of study, would they not, perhaps, be us

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Debt to
The Bone-Eating
Snotflower

Sarah Lindsay
(Copper Canyon Press)
Ms. Lindsay has an affection for slippery sea-creatures: whales, squid, and cephalopods (octopi). Especially the latter. Quite a few of the sixty poems here are songs of praise for the lowly octopus. Lowly, but not dumb. Scientists assure us that these eight-armed creatures are quite handy with their many arms which can be feet as well . . . to walk themselves over sea bottoms. In emergencies they're able to yank a coconut shell over their heads for protection, even slip through a keyhole if they must.

Jules Verne made it a creature to be feared, especially when it went after the Nautilus and tried to eat it for lunch. I well remember that scene in the Disney version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, where that beast came after Nemo's crew and had to be fought off by Mason the Brave. The beak-like appendage at the center of the creature's body looked faintly vulgar, a bit of 1950s comic sexism at its worst.

Ms. Lindsay has a warmer (and more gentle) view of the simple cephalopod, writing

    The octopus has no bones
    the octopus has no voice,
    Her mouth is in her armpit,
    her body in her head.
    She scarcely has a face.
    Her eyes are purple squares
    in domes with fleshy lids.
    She spurts a purple cloud
    and safe behind it flies...

But she does admit, "her curling makes me shiver / when I should be moved to praise."

The biggest octopus of them all, Enteroctopus dofleini, can grow to 600 pounds, with a reach of thirty feet, and if one ever caught you, evidently he or she can drill a hole in your brainbox and freeze you with a jolt of spit, then leisurely wrench you asunder to savor your salty, meaty flavor.

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Flying Blind
One Man's Adventures Battling Buckthorn,
Making Peace with Authority, and
Creating a Home for Endangered Bats

Don Mitchell
(Chelsea Green)
In the 60s Don Mitchell drove around in a VW bus with decals, wore his hair long, and smoked dope. He convinced his draft board that he was a "a pacifist deserving C. O. status: an objector to war on grounds of conscience." After two years of alternative non-military service, he and his love, Cheryl, ended up in Vermont and because he had written a successful novel (which he sold to Hollywood, making a bundle) they had the cash to buy a 150 acre farm where they lived peacefully on the land, raising sheep and working at Middlebury College nearby.

Move forward to 2007, and the feds come to visit. Not to draft him to go to Afghanistan but to draft him to build a flyway: pruning back trees, opening up others, getting rid of invasive plants, and doing studies of flight patterns and building nesting areas. For bats.

"Had someone from the government come to me in 1972," he tells us, "and asked permission to trap bats on our land - - - I would have sent him packing."

    Almost as soon as I "went back to the land," though, government authority became cast in a different light. Every county had an agricultural office where bureaucrats were paid to see that folks like me succeeded at their efforts to make good at farming - - - and could throw some taxpayer money in a farmer's direction if he would perform some specified practices.

Thus we hippies got coöpted, explaining to ourselves that the hydra we call "government" had a few extra loose heads that could be knocked about for our own gain.

The beestie in question is the Indiana bat, Myotis sodalis, that had been deemed "endangered." (Remember those halcyon days when our government was still concerned about endangered species, not endangered wars in foreign lands?)

Vermont Fish and Game wanted to protect these bats - - - along with eight other species, to build flyways and nesting areas. They offered to pay Mitchell to cull plants and beef up the Shagbark hickory that offered the bats an ideal home to raise a family of little batlings, give him official government money to improve his farm and be an ecological good guy. Don and Cheryl signed on, and this is their story.

And it's a dandy. Mitchell is a writer who knows how to construct an intelligible sentence, and knows how to convey the obscure lore that is part and parcel of local Fish & Game operations, The Forest Management Plan and "the program known as WHIP," under the aegis of the NRCS, within the hydra-headed USDA bureaucracy.

He also gets immersed in the industrial-strength frustrations of working with the feds and the wildlife management of Vermont. He also learns bat-lore - - - even bats named after the state of Indiana - - - especially all there is to know about the plague known as "White nose bat syndrome," an infection that has already killed off millions of them in the United States.

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Out
Stealing
Horses

Pers Petterson
Anne Born, Translator
(Graywolf Press)
Time does lose its sequence in Horses, but it does so with art, as we move through the Nazi occupation of Norway into Trond's growing up, living in 1948 with his father in the woods there above the Klara River.

When, finally, in old age, he returns there to live alone, he sees in the mirror his face "no different from the one I had expected to see at the age of sixty-seven. In that way I am in time with myself."

Age and years are meticulously bound and burnished ... recounted, as meticulous as the points of light caught there by the best of writers ... in this case, in an almost romantic image, Trond's father sniffing the trees they have just cut down. Or, the milkmaid, whose voice had "the sound of a silver flute when she walked up the path to sing the cows home." Or, the woods at night, "the scent of resin and timber, and the scent of earth, and a bird whose name I did not know hopping around in a thicket rustling and crackling and sending out a steady stream of thin piping sounds from the dense foliage a few paces from my foot."

Time may be the hero here, but there is also a boy growing to be a man, inarticulate at that age of change, watching, as he does, from the edge of the woods, watching his father kissing a woman who is not his mother. "There was something in my throat that itched and hurt in a weird way, wanting to come up, but if I swallowed hard I could keep it down."

Time, and growing up, and chance, the odd odds that play such a role in our lives: Trond, hidden, watching his father disappear up the hill, hand-in-hand with a woman who is not his mother; disappearing, as fathers must disappear, into or out of space, or time, or disillusionment ... his father vanished with another mother, a mother of three, one with the odd name of Odd, who, at age ten, is accidentally shot to death by his twin brother, Lars ...

... the same Lars from 1947, who lives down the hill from Trond in 1999, there in east Norway, just above the river and the Swedish border, there just before the millennium.

Out Stealing Horses is timeless, good, filled with wonder; too good, by far, to be put down easily --- or easily forgotten.

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The Tiger
Of the six surviving subspecies of tiger, the Amur is the only one habituated to arctic conditions. In addition to having a larger skull than other subspecies, it carries more fat and a heavier coat, and these give it a rugged, primitive burliness that is missing from its sleeker tropical cousins. As the encyclopedic reference Mammals of the Soviet Union puts it: "The general appearance of the tiger is that of a huge physical force and quiet confidence, combined with a rather heavy grace." But one could just as easily say: this is what you get when you pair the agility and appetites of a cat with the mass of an industrial refrigerator.

To properly appreciate such as animal, it is most instructive to start at the beginning: picture the grotesquely muscled head of a pit bull and then imagine how it might look if the pit bull weighed a quarter of a ton. Add to this fangs the length of a finger backed up by rows of slicing teeth capable of cutting through the heaviest bone. Consider then the claws: a hybrid of meat hook and stiletto that can attain four inches along the outer curve, a length comparable to the talons on a velociraptor. Now imagine the vehicle for all of this: nine feet or more from nose to tail, and three and a half feet high at the shoulder. Finally, emblazon this beast with a primordial calligraphy: black brushstrokes on a field of russet and cream, and wonder at our strange fortune to coexist with such a creature.

Unlike wolf or bear claws, which are designed primarily for traction and digging, a cat's claw is needle-sharp at the end, and bladed along a portion of its inside length. With the exception of a snake's fang, it is about as close to a surgical tool as one can find in nature. When extended, the claws of the forepaw become slashing blades with the result that the victim is not so much sliced as flayed. But this is almost incidental to the forepaws' most important purpose, which is to plant a pair of virtually unshakable anchors in an animal's flesh. Once the forepaws are fully engaged, a tiger can literally ride its prey into the ground.

In the final nanoseconds of an airborne attack, a tiger's tail will become rigid, balancing and stabilizing the hindquarters almost like the tail fin on an airplane. Meanwhile, the tiger's forepaws, combined with its fangs, form a huge three-point grappling device, as if for a moment the claws had become extensions of the jaws. Working together in this way, they can cover an area of a square yard or more to manifest a gathering and gripping capability comparable to the mouth of a much larger creature --- something more on the order of a salt-water crocodile or an allosaurus. The interplay of paws and jaws shifts according to the task at hand. Once the prey is down, these same assault weapons can become the most delicate scalpels and clamps, able to disembowel an animal, organ by organ.

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Tigerland
And Other
Unintended
Destinations

Eric Dinerstein
(Island/Shearwater)
Dinerstein admits "an inordinate fondness for bats." It wasn't always thus; even though he was a naturalist, he found something unattractive about them, as many do. Too many movies about Transylvania, perhaps.

It wasn't until a tropical biology course with the "charismatic lecturer" Frank Bonaccorso that he fell in love with his newly important field-work:

    My real change of heart must be attributed to the sheer delight of coming face to face with a cast of unforgettable creatures. We captured charming Honduran white bats with clown-like yellow ears and leaf noses that, within minutes, lay tamed in our hands, chewing contentedly on pieces of banana. I fed sugar water from an eyedropper to docile, long-tongued, nectar-feeding bats, the hummingbirds of the night.

Fortunately for the reader, Dinerstein is not just a batman.

His studies in the wild have taken him to Tibet to seek the fabled Snow Leopard (made famous by Peter Matthiessen's book), to Kathmandu (with its torrential rains) to perform a tiger census, and the Galapagos to see and hear and study "endemic" birds, mammals and terrestrial plants,

A tiger census involves seeking out the animal's prey by what they call "turd biology." "A turdologist in Nepal," Dinerstein reports, "must be able to distinguish the discrete clusters of small round droppings of hog deer, the more elongate pellets of spotted deer, the wider cylinders of the sambar, the even larger offerings of swamp doe, the vitamin-shaped tablets of hares, and the bonbons of wild boar." He concludes,

    If measuring tiger tracks was astoundingly dull, crawling on hands and knees to pick up turds was a close second.

In his introduction, Dinerstein promises not to be too discouraging on the subject of the creatures and plants of the wild and their present state of preservation. But as the book progresses, the asides that make the reading of this such a delight begin to fade, turn more hectic and troubled, especially as he encounters the old bugaboos --- ecological blindness, over-population and the wiping out of whole species of plant and animal life.

His most troubled report comes from New Caledonia. Forty percent of the world's nickel is mined there by means of strip mining, "and not merely coincidentally it is home to some of the worst soil erosion in the world." Then there are our own Western Plains, where "Varmit Societies" still "make a sport out of blasting prairie dogs to smithereens.

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Timothy; Or, Notes of
An Abject Reptile

Verlyn Klinkenborg
Josephine Bailey, Reader

(Tantor --- 5 CDs)
Timothy got trapped in 1740 in Silesia and transshipped to England. He ends up in the hands of Gilbert White, the author of The Natural History of Selborne, an exhaustive study of plants, animals, reptiles and birds of a small town in Southern England.

White was one of the first naturalists, a man who observed, and observed obsessively, the birds and bugs and beasts that lived and died around him. The turtle, Timothy, was excellent grist for his mill after he took up abode in White's garden.

We can never be sure how old he is, for, as Timothy reminds us not a few times, turtles are the longest-lived creatures --- some able to survive for 150 years. And throughout his life, Timothy has found humans to be very peculiar indeed:

    For a time I flinched whenever a human approached, especially Mr. Henry Snook, who carried such a stoop of belly before him. The feet would stop, but the top might timber on to me. I still doubt the stability of the species. All that brain bulk merely to prop them up? Or are they less top-heavy than they appear?

He notes the strange world-view of humans: "The louse under the shirt of the Sunday parishioner leaves St. Mary's unblessed. No matter how its host prays. Eyes screwed shut. Hands folded. Beseeching hard. A next life, please, with no biting and sucking insects."

Timothy's most intense study is White.

    Late on summer nights he comes into the garden. To see if the bat still flies. To observe by candle-light what moths and earwigs do in the dark. He appears without false hair. Candle held to one side. Pale natural skull like a half moon under his stubble. He clasps together the waist of a coat thrown over his open shirt. Hiding the animal within. Bare calves beneath, spindles of flesh. He does not look very wise, tossing stones into the hedge to make the sedge-bird sing its night song.

"I have seen these humans in their disarray. Far more common than any finery. Hair wrung into knots. Stockings fallen. Skirts clotted with mud and manure. Eyes, noses red from fist-rubbings, coarsening wind."

    Eruptions on rough hands from hop-picking. Itching tumors from harvest-bugs. Jaws tied up with the tooth-ache, the head-ache. Faces choked with drink, sweat, sleep, stupidity, confusions of the rut. Such a bulk of being to regulate. Disorder stalks them day and night. They stalk it back.

"Great soft tottering beasts" he concludes.

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The Truth
About Marie

Jean-Philippe Toussaint
Matthew B. Smith
Translator

(Dalkey Archive Press)
After Marie made love with Jean-Christoph de G. ... he went off and died. Didn't go very far, though: he collapsed in the doorway of her tiny apartment there on rue de la Vrillière. Dead as a doornail.

Marie first met J-C in Tokyo --- she did fashion stuff, he raced horses --- and one of their earliest adventures comes when it's time to fly J-C's purebred race-horse Zahir back to Paris. The beast manages to slip out of his horse-trailer there on the grounds of Narita bringing everything to a standstill in the wind and the rain and the night. Cancel all flights ... there's a black stallion running loose on the tarmac: "its body twisting in a swirl of muscle and a spray of rainwater."

    Without pause, it galloped directly at the vehicles, fixed in the beams of their headlights, its eyes wild, savage, mad, its mane flapping in the wind, flinging mud and sweat in every direction.

"It was galloping at the vehicles, picking up speed on the Narita tarmac, as though preparing to take on the obstacle in front of it, this shifting phalanx of vehicles charging it, as though ready to leave the ground, to take flight into the sky, a winged Pegasus vanishing into the darkness to join the thunder and lightning."

§   §   §

It occurs to me that this is the most daunting horse-race I've ever attended, better than anything you'd see at the Kentucky Derby or Churchill Downs ... a horse in its wild black beauty, bringing an entire 21st Century complex to a halt. It's nuts.

As a matter of fact, The Truth about Marie is truly a goofy movie, a film-noir, the scenes laid out precisely, the characters forming themselves before our eyes so nicely. Despite the title, there is, I suspect, no "truth about Marie" ... for she refuses to hold in place. She is a phantasm in a fast arc, up from her small apartment in Paris, then to join J-C's extravagant thoroughbred-flying international sportsters, then back to ground again in the arms of her no-name lover on the salty beaches of Elba.

Toussaint is at his best with catastrophes, and there are several sprinkled thoughout The Truth about Marie. Not only do we get a corpse in Marie's bedroom doorway, and a champion racehorse loose on the flying fields ... but there's a terrific wind-up on in the isle of Elba: a fire ravaging the woods, killing off a few (more) horses, bringing narrator and Marie back together again after a long hiatus.

If we were to graph The Truth about Marie on a chart, it would be what stock traders call a "triple top." First a man kaput on the floor, Zafir, the loose black cannon on the plains of Narita, and another near-death on the fields of Napoleon's exile island.

And these three characters: Marie (the tough Parisian), cool Jean-Christoph (who captures Zahir by whispering endearments in his ear), and our anonymous narrator, willing, apparently, to take on any task that Marie may lay on him.

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Walking with Abel
Journeys with the Nomads
Of the African Savannah

Anna Badkhen
(Riverhead)
Badkhen isn't just jetting in there to take pictures for National Geographic. She wants to live with them. She goes to the elders there in the bourgou by the Bani River to seek permission to join a family, to be with them, and walk with them, and eat with them; to sleep in their huts, to learn their language.

When they break camp, "As the Fulani had been doing for thousands of years, the family notched and notched the routes of the ancient transhumance deeper into the continent's bone, driven by a neverending quest for pasturage, a near worship of cattle, and the belief that God created the Earth, all of it, for the cows."

Like Stark, Badkhen is a rare travel writer. She can do something so few of them can. She can immerse herself in the lives of the Fulani, then transform their dusty, poor, thankless nomadic lives into near poetry.

For instance, if you are a wandering cowherder, you must learn the stars, for "it was simply impossible for the Fulani cowboys not to know them --- maybe not all, but some. They had to."

    Without such knowledge, Oumaroou explained, they wouldn't know to avert their eyes on the night the Pleiades first sprayed into the eastern sky. Only three creatures could look at the Pleiades on the first night of the constellation's heliacal rising without harming themselves, a black horse, a strong cow, and a black addax. But if a man saw the constellation on that night, he would die.

Badkhen (and the reader) sleep on the earth aside the women and the babies, eat the millet and rice (always mixed with milk), shea butter (smelling of chocolate and shit), trudge into town for the Monday market (calabasas on their heads), drink the brackish water, and live by the rhythm of the cows.

Who is this Badkhen, and how does she stand it; a year with the cow people of Mali? As any of us who have lived in or near the desert, there is always the wind, and the eternal, pervasive, invasive grit. Here, we can hide in our trailers or our shacks. There, in the open Sahel, there is no hiding. It's hot, it's gritty, and it's merciless. The wind is called "harmattan." It drives some crazy.

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Birds
The Art of
Ornithology

Jonathan Elphick
(Rizzoli International)
It is arranged chronologically, starting with a woodcut from 1492 by one Hortus Sanitatis --- a village scene with eight birds --- followed by a 1550 watercolor, a ferociously beautiful ruffle-tailed rooster (technically a "jungle fowl," father to all our present day chickens).

In the wonderful Burros & Paintbrushes: A Mexican Adventure, Everett Gee Jackson recalls flying over the Mexican jungle in an old DC3, bound for Lake Chapala. The airplane was cousin to many Mexican busses of that time (and this): it had no door, was filled with to the brim with fruit, vegetables, and livestock.

Somehow, a jungle fowl got out of its cage and when the crew tried to catch it, it flew right out the door. Jackson watched it for a long time, watched it circling, circling, knowing it would come to rest in a strange jungle, from whence it had gotten its name. Thus Mexican transportation.

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The chronological arrangement in Birds makes it possible for us to see why John James Audubon was so special. In contrast to those who came before him in the bird-sketch biz, his drawings had life, such life. Most of his predecessors, such as George Raper and Sarah Stone, were in the decorative business, making watercolors which were gorgeous, colorful, and stationary.

Fourteen of Audubon's representations are included in Birds. They veritably jump off the page. Audubon was haunted by more than birds. He was beset by the idea of producing the most gorgeous book of them all: he was forever and a day lugging his prints around, searching for the finest printer. Birds of America, finally issued in England, cost $100,000 in 1830's currency ... well over a million dollars today. The book was printed in "double elephant folio," more than three feet long by two feet wide. Not only was it big and heavy, it bankrupted everyone involved --- printers, publisher, author, distributors. The only ones who didn't go broke were the birds.

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