MODOC

THE TRUE STORY OF THE GREATEST ELEPHANT THAT EVER LIVED

The simply astonishing, exhilarating story—complete with high adventure, betrayal, and resurrection—of Modoc, elephant extraordinaire, told by Helfer (The Beauty of the Beasts, 1990). They were born on the same day, a hundred years back, in a Black Forest village: Bram Gunterstein, son of a circus animal trainer, and Modoc, an Indian elephant headed for big-top life with the Wunderzircus, a provincial troupe. Their love for each other develops early, when Bram is just a toddler and Modoc a youthful one-ton package, and Bram's father on his deathbed councils Bram to watch after Modoc. That he does, and the tribulations and pleasures they share defy the imagination: The circus is sold out from under Bram to the sinister Mr. North; Bram stows away on the vessel transporting Modoc, leaving behind the girl of his dreams; discovered, Bram wins over the captain, but the ship sinks during a hurricane; Modoc and Bram float to the shores of India, where Bram learns further tools of the trade at the maharaja's elephantarium; there he lives in a teak-built compound, tends to Modoc, and is honored to have an audience with the sacred white elephant; he woos and wins a woman from the village but is warned that North is on his trail. He strikes out with Modoc to the teak plantations of Burma, is captured by rebels, loses his wife, confronts North, journeys to the US and fashions a spectacular show for Modoc, wins back his earlier love, only to have the elephant sold out from under him again. Helfer (an animal trainer by trade) happens across Modoc and buys him in the 1970s, then Bram appears yet again. The story is told with a heart-tugging warmth that, granted, at times slips into Disney mode, but that feels credible: There is, amazingly enough, a truthful tang to the picaresque proceedings. One glorious pachyderm and one cracking story. (b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1997

ISBN: 0-06-018257-1

Page Count: 272

Publisher: HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1997

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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.

HORIZON

Distinguished natural history writer and explorer Lopez (Outside, 2014, etc.) builds a winning memoir around books, voyages, and biological and anthropological observations.

“Traveling, despite the technological innovations that have brought cultural homogenization to much of the world, helps the curious and attentive itinerant understand how deep the notion goes that one place is never actually like another.” So writes the author, who has made a long career of visiting remote venues such as Antarctica, Greenland, and the lesser known of the Galápagos Islands. From these travels he has extracted truths about the world, such as the fact that places differ as widely as the people who live in them. Even when traveling with scientists from his own culture, Lopez finds differences of perception. On an Arctic island called Skraeling, for instance, he observes that if he and the biologists he is walking with were to encounter a grizzly feeding on a caribou, he would focus on the bear, the scientists on the whole gestalt of bear, caribou, environment; if a native of the place were along, the story would deepen beyond the immediate event, for those who possess Indigenous ways of knowledge, “unlike me…felt no immediate need to resolve it into meaning.” The author’s chapter on talismans—objects taken from his travels, such as “a fist-size piece of raven-black dolerite”—is among the best things he has written. But there are plentiful gems throughout the looping narrative, its episodes constructed from adventures over eight decades: trying to work out a bit of science as a teenager while huddled under the Ponte Vecchio after just having seen Botticelli’s Venus; admiring a swimmer as a septuagenarian while remembering the John Steinbeck whom he’d met as a schoolboy; gazing into the surf over many years’ worth of trips to Cape Foulweather, an Oregon headland named by Capt. James Cook, of whom he writes, achingly, “we no longer seem to be sailing in a time of fixed stars, of accurate chronometers, and of reliable routes.”

Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.

Pub Date: March 20, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-394-58582-6

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

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