THE ASTONISHING ELEPHANT by Shana Alexander

THE ASTONISHING ELEPHANT

An Ardent Appreciation of an Astonishing Animal
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KIRKUS REVIEW

An entertaining albeit at times overengrossed portrait—cultural, physiological, historical—of the elephant.

Since she can remember, Alexander (Happy Days, 1995) has been hooked on elephants. This then is her tribute to the great pachyderms, an Everyman's natural history that throws them in very winning light: ``They have essential nobility, serenity, sagacity, loyalty and playfulness, a simple goodness, a lack of animosity . . . they convey a sense of perfect beings.'' In an effort to embed this sentiment in the reader's mind, Alexander pursues both anecdotal and scientific tacks. The anecdotal material is delivered with a suave assurance. There is the mythic and nearmythic—the elephant dream of the Buddha's mother, the mammoths of Paleolithic cave art, and Hannibal's driving the beasts over the Alps (even if ``it is not clear what [Hannibal's] object was in bringing the elephants with him'')—and there are the plentiful zoo and circus stories, many of which are exemplars in displaying humans as the elephants' worst enemy (among the grotesqueries: tickets were sold to attend the electrocutions of rogue circus elephants). When Alexander hits scientific ground, she is less sure about what to include, so she tosses in everything. Her coverage of the zoological and conservation work of the DouglasHamiltons is intriguing, as is the research work of Cynthia Moss and Katy Payne. But when it comes to temperature inversions enhancing sound propagation, transrectal ultrasound probes, the importance of knowing that elephants have four salivary glands, and the like, the focus reaches critical mass and burns its connection with the intended lay readership. Her message of the elephants' peril—a result of poaching and habitat loss for both the Asian and African species—hits home hard, perhaps the most important element of the book.

As popular natural histories go, Alexander's is a yeoman's work, with enough telling details to give the elephant a justly unique, mesmeric image. (16-page photo insert, not seen)

Pub Date: May 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-679-45660-0
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2000