First of all, did anyone else watch The Office season premier this night? Oh. My. God. I expected it to be good. But it just blew me away. I laughed hysterically at times. I almost grinned my face off in happiness at others; at a certain point, I actually pumped the air with elation. I don’t do things like that. But, seriously, The Office is just getting better and better every season.
Ok, gush over. Time to talk about books! (I’m so behind on reviews)
Recently, I’ve read both Reason for Hope by Jane Goodall and Stiff by Mary Roach. They aren’t really connected, but since I’m never going to catch up unless I combine books, there you go.
First, the Goodall book. It’s a memoir that grew out of an extended interview discussing Goodall’s continued optimism in the face of so much tragedy. I found it a very nice read; rather like talking with an intelligent, caring person who has seen a lot more of life than I have and has some good advice. I recommend it. :)
I lay there, part of the forest, and experienced again that magical enhancement of sound, that added richness of perception. I was keenly aware of secret movements in the trees. A small striped squirrel climbed, spiral fashion in the way of squirrels, poking into crevices in the bark, bright eyes and rounded ears alert. A great velvet black bumblebee visited tiny purple flowers, the end section of his abdomen glowing rich orange red each time he flew through one of the patches of sunlight that dappled the forest. It is all but impossible to describe the new awareness that comes when words are abandoned. One is transported back, perhaps, to the world of early childhood when everything is fresh and so much of it is wonderful. Words can enhance the experiment, but they can also take so much away. (79)One thing I had learned from watching chimpanzees with their infants is that having a child should be fun. (87)So here we are, the human ape, half sinner, half saint, with two opposing tendencies inherited from our ancient past pulling us now toward violence, now toward compassion and love. Are we, forever, to be torn in two different directions, cruel in one instance, kind the next? Or do we have the ability to control these tendencies, choosing the direction we wish to go? (143)I thought, as I have thought throughout my life, how lucky I had been in my own childhood. Because I had grown up during World War II, the luxuries now taken for granted by middle-class Westerners were, quite simply, unavailable-except at exorbitant prices on the black market. I had learned the true value of food, clothing, shelter-and life itself. Along with my contemporaries I had moved into a postwar world in which self-reliance was a necessary quality. We did not feel it was our right to have a bicycle, a television, a dishwasher, and so on; those were things you saved up for, and were proud of because they were earned by the sweat of your brow. (197)
Even if we only suspect that other living beings have feelings that may be similar to our own, or not too dissimilar to our own, we should have doubts about the ethics of treating those beings as mere “things” or “tools” for our own human purposes. Even if all animals used are bred especially for our use-in the labratory, or for food, or for entertainment-does this make them, somehow, less pig? less monkey? less dog? Does this deprive them of feelings and the capacity to suffer? If we raised humans for medical experiments, would they be less human and suffer less and matter less than other humans? Were human slaves less able to feel pain, grief, and despair simply because they were born into slavery? (224)
Now, for Stiff. Some of you may recall my disappointment with Roach’s other book, Spook. I didn’t have high expectations going in. In fact, if I hadn’t mooched it before I read Spook, I wouldn’t have read it at all. And I would have missed out on a great book.
I don’t know if Roach had a different editor or what, but all of the problems in Spook were missing from Stiff. Instead, Stiff was a compulsively readable exploration of what happens to bodies once their owners have left them behind. There were some slower chapters, and I did have a problem with Roach’s callousness towards animal testing (esp. after reading Goodall, which had reaffirmed my utter abhorence of it).
Another group tried putting a new type of protective boot onto the hind leg of a mule deer dor testing. Given that deer lack toes and heels and people lack hooves, and that no country I know of employs mule deer in land mine clearance, it is hard-though mildly entertaining-to try to imagine what the value of such a study could have been. (152)
Nevertheless, I found Roach very caring of her human subjects, and the topics were all interesting. Those are you who are squeamish might want to avoid this one; Roach visits the Tennessee body farm to learn about decomp and isn’t afraid about sharing all the disgusting details. She also made an unfortunate comparison between human brains and one of my favourite foods (not going to share to spare y’all) that I really wish I could forget. With that caveat, though, I highly recommend this to anyone curious about death.
I ask Dennis whether he has any advice for the people who’ll read this book and never again board a plane without wondering if they’re going to wind up in a heap of bodies at the emergency exit door. He says it’s mostly common sense. Sit near an emergency exit. Get down low, below the heat and smoke. Hold your breath as long as you can, so you don’t cook your lungs and inhale poisonous fumes. Shanahan prefers window seats because people seated on the aisle are more likely to get beaned with the suitcases that can come crushing through the overhead bin doors in even a fairly mild impact. (127) There is her heart. I’ve never seen one beating. I had no idea they moved so much. You put your hand on your heart and you picture something pulsing slightly but basically still, like a hand on a desktop tapping Morse code. This thing is going wild in there. It’s a mixing-machine part, a stoat squirming in its burrow, and alien life form that’s just won a Pontiac on The Price is Right. (179)She explains the difference between rotting and composting, that the needs of humans and the needs of compost are similar: oxygen, water, air temperature that does not stray far from 37 degrees centigrade. Her point: We are all nature, all made of the same basic materials, with the same basic needs. We are no different, on a very basic level, from the ducks and the mussels and last week’s coleslaw. Thus we should respect Nature, and when we die, we should give ourselves back to the earth. (263)