Kooky, clever thoughts on extinction, with an emphasis on the species known as the Pere David deer.
By a.d. 800, the milu, or Pere David deer, lived nowhere except in the forbidden game park of the Emperor of China. The creature seemed a worthy topic, journalist Twigger (Angry White Pajamas) and his agent agreed, so the author set out to investigate, and what he wound up with is a mélange: his figuring out, often in dark humor, how to proceed; his research on the Pere David (he gets snubbed by the world’s expert); background work on the man Pere David and how he spirited a herd of the deer from China to France, how the herd found a home at the Duke of Bedford’s Woburn Abbey, and how the fallout from the Boxer Rebellion turned China’s Pere Davids into spit roasts. Twigger gives the Pere Davids their due: fanciful creatures “with the tail of a donkey, the head of a deer, the neck of a camel . . . and the hooves of a cow . . .” He even travels to China to see them (though Bedfordshire had healthier specimens), but then extinction fast becomes his more beguiling topic: he touches on nuclear war, a book that gets mis-shelved in a library, the warped notions of the Extinction Club, the good/bad/ugly of survivorhood, even the words writers dread when the publisher’s warehouse calls: “You’re pulped, mate.” Short chapters here can have the quality of beautiful postage stamps, miniatures of subjects, despite their sometimes only tangential relevance to the subject of extinction, let alone of milu—the Bodleian Library, for example, or Deep Time, or a timeless summer afternoon (“the kind . . . that is done nowhere better than Oxford”).
A snappy contemplation of extinction and beating the odds, and how ordinary folk can do the extraordinary if they know when to make the effort.