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Reviews Written by
Brian Griffith (Toronto, Canada)

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Empty Ocean
Empty Ocean
by Richard Ellis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £27.16

4.0 out of 5 stars A catalog of exterminations at sea, 12 Jun. 2015
This review is from: Empty Ocean (Paperback)
This book reads like a species by species catalog of destruction. About 90 pages focus on the various types of seals, otters and sea lions. Each species gets it's history of depletion, through many of these mammals occupy the same regions and were largely exterminated at about the same time by about the same hunters. Fish get about 80 pages, whales 42, sea turtles 25, sea birds 4, and coral reefs 25 pages. Overall, the tales of butchery get repetitious, but aspects of each story are illuminating. For example, I never knew that before the 1860s, whalers could take only slow whales that could be chased in rowboats with hand-thrown harpoons. Only after 1868, when a Norwegian inventor devised the exploding grenade harpoon fired by a cannon, did whalers become capable of catching the fastest whales such as the blues. The book also has good accounts of the popular protest movements to stop the plunder of seals, swordfish or whales. In some cases, Ellis points to encouraging recoveries of animals that had been slaughtered to the brink of extinction, as in the case of elephant seas in California, who have been loitering on the Pebble Beach golf course.


The Animal Connection: A New Perspective on What Makes Us Human
The Animal Connection: A New Perspective on What Makes Us Human
by Pat Shipman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.99

4.0 out of 5 stars The unending core value of animal relations, 4 Jun. 2015
As is usual for her, Shipman starts with a rather vast insight. Our relations with animals have always been central to who we are. To explore this, she takes several steps back and evaluates the whole range of scientific information on early human evolution. This requires a detailed examination of tool-making and language. These examinations take about two-thirds of the book. Only then does she build on this foundation to directly re-assess the story of our relations with animals. She revises previous theories, painting a picture of evolving mutual benefit, starting with the hunter-wolf alliance starting over 30,000 years ago. Concerning the later domesticated beasts such as horses and goats, she explores why hunters would delay killing and eating these animals. In the beginning, she argues, there were tentative arrangements of mutual benefit: protection: of wool and milk, tracking skills for help in killing change cornered prey, or food for friendship. The need for relating to animals, she nearly proves, is an essential part of what makes us human beings.


99 Lives: Cats in History, Legend and Literature
99 Lives: Cats in History, Legend and Literature
by Howard Loxton
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars A vista on all that cats have meant to us, 31 May 2015
This a clever, playful, artful presentation of global cat lore that is respectful and never silly. I enjoyed it a lot, half due to the rich blend of mini-tales, and half due to the art galley of images from all times and places.


The Conquest of the Ocean
The Conquest of the Ocean
by Brian Lavery
Edition: Hardcover

3.0 out of 5 stars Good story telling, but more about conquests than about the ocean, 30 May 2015
Lavery provides a colorful montage of great episodes in ocean history, such as China's sea expeditions of the 1400s, the battle of Jutland, or the rise of luxury liners. At first I thought it was a glossy picture book of facts, but the stories were lively, and generally narrated from the personal perspective of a real witness. There are military, scientific, economic, or social triumphs and tragedies. But perhaps most of the conquests are military, and these include some conquests far from the sea, such as the Spanish conquest of Mexico. All told, I'd say the book is a bit more about conquest in general that it is about the ocean or its native creatures.


The Invaders
The Invaders
by Pat Shipman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.36

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A flash of insight into our dog-enabled past, 21 May 2015
This review is from: The Invaders (Hardcover)
Shipman has a great leap of insight, applying the experience of modern invasive species to the history of our own species. It's a flash that illuminates the deep past, when Cro-Magnon homo sapiens invaded Europe, and a wave of extinctions followed. The insight itself takes little time to tell. It's the weighing of scientific evidence that takes up most of the book, and this gets quite technical. There are charts on how the body sizes of predators influence the size of their prey, or comparisons of the mitochondrial DNA between fossil and living canids. However, the story shines through, and it's a tale of how humans and wolf-dogs first found their great alliance.


Travels in Siberia
Travels in Siberia
by Ian Frazier
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A passion to follow the longest roads in the world, 18 May 2015
This review is from: Travels in Siberia (Paperback)
Frazier rambles through Siberia several times, driven by a basically inexplicable craving for more. He catalogs the journey with enjoyable, matter-of-fact informality, regarding almost no detail as too trivial to mention. Its a frank, on-the-fly sort of account, studded with rather passionate detours into historic tales of trappers, raiders, exiled dissidents, prison camp slaves or semi-nomad natives. The travel conditions are harder and more intimate than most tourists would tolerate, and the scenery oscillates between junkyard ugly and utterly spectacular. Whether the towns are semi-abandoned or the cities are humming with rising vitality, Frazier finds a level of tragedy, greatness, and regional pride that he can't seem to get enough of.


Russia: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East
Russia: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East
by Martin Sixsmith
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.08

5.0 out of 5 stars The long hand of patriotic fear, 5 May 2015
Europe's history has been typified by the spirit of democracy or that Asian cultures are despotic by nature. But underneath these geographical associations, Sixsmith highlights something deeper, namely the gigantic influence of insecurity. In a country of open land borders in every direction, Russians have faced a catastrophic series of invasions and battles for survival. The lesson has been rammed home that survival itself depends on unity in the face of the enemy. Salvation requires military-style strongmen to assume command. And those who will not serve their people's leaders with unconditional loyalty are betrayers who don't deserve to exist. This kind autocracy has been imposed top-down by tyrants, but it has also been demanded by ordinary people as a requirement of popular faith. I think Sixsmith has done a great service in highlighting this great root of traditionalism. Perhaps every nation has faced similar struggles over security or destruction and loyalty or betrayal, be it Spain, Germany, China, Saudi Arabia or Israel. This book gives a long, detailed look at the fear behind ethnocentric patriotism, and asks what kind of friendship can possibly overcome it.


Lives: Buddha
Lives: Buddha
by Karen Armstrong
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Deeply empathetic and moving, 1 May 2015
This review is from: Lives: Buddha (Paperback)
As usual, Armstrong leaves herself behind and enters the world of her subject. With only a few orienting references to other great spiritual teachers of the world, she captures the cultural universe surrounding the original Buddhist movement. Her eye is always focused on how insights and legends made a difference to people's lives. I suspect this is the most helpful exploration of the Buddha's experience yet given by a Christian, and it's a deeply moving account.


The Commonwealth of Thieves: The Story of the Founding of Australia
The Commonwealth of Thieves: The Story of the Founding of Australia
by Thomas Keneally
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.68

4.0 out of 5 stars Up close and extremely personal, 30 April 2015
This is a highly personal, intimate kind of history book, concerned very heavily with the stories of many real individuals. These people's crimes, sufferings, hopes, tragedies and victories are given with honest sympathy and impressive detail. There is equal regard for the female and male prisoners, the officers, the Aboriginals, the children and the sailors. It's a moving account of a time when savage punishments were deemed an inescapable necessity, and it could seem miraculous that mercy found a way.


Tibet: An Unfinished Story
Tibet: An Unfinished Story
by Lezlee Brown Halper
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Tibet as a Cold War football, 21 April 2015
This book is mainly about, not Tibet itself, but the way foreign powers have related to Tibet. The most prominent focus is on the various American efforts to foster Tibetan resistance to China, starting during the Korean war. The declassified information published here dates mainly from the 1950's, when the Cold War was at its height. The book documents efforts by the CIA to contact the Dalai Lama, gather intelligence, and equip airlifted teams of Tibetan resistance fighters. The overall implication is that America did not do enough. The Dalai Lama, however, seemed to remain cautious toward such efforts. In response to American offers of support in 1951 (eight years before he took exile in India), the very young Dalai Lama wrote, "As I pondered these thoughts, I continuously came up against two particular considerations. Firstly, it was obvious to me that the most likely result of a pact with America or anyone else was war. And war meant bloodshed. Secondly, I reasoned that although America was a very powerful country, it was thousands of miles away."


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