Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Animal Books for the Holidays

December 3, 2010

As we enter into holiday gift-buying time, like most writers (and readers!) I’m having fun recommending my favorite books to others—animal books, of course.

To start off, here (in italics) are excerpts from three published reviews I've written about volumes in the fantastic Animal Series (Reaktion Books). Each single- word title in this series investigates the natural and cultural history of one sort of animal..

On Ape, from the TLS (Times Literary Supplement, from London) of November 20, 2009:

The Canadian sociologist John Sorenson packs this little volume with riveting examples to show that “apes fascinate us because they seem to transgress the human-animal border.”.. Voyaging beyond King Kong (and Curious George), Sorenson deftly reveals a pattern woven through ape-related painting, literature and film over time: apes “mimic our behavior but they do so incompletely or imperfectly… laughing at our inferiors reaffirms our own abilities.”

I should emphasize that at no point does Sorenson imply that apes are imperfect humans; rather, he means to convey that chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans have suffered from humans’ discomfort as seeing ourselves reflected back—with some distortion—in apes’ gaze.

On Penguin, excerpted from the TLS of January 29, 2010:

The Antarctic historian Stephen Martin takes up a theme throughout the book:

The anthropomorphic tendency to see the human in the penguin is fuelled by the penguin’s appearance and gait. These flightless birds are famously bipedal, and “with their streamlined shape and flippers they are the most human-like of all birds.” Penguins in early accounts were likened to “young children with white bibs” and often made out to be vaudeville characters.

Parallels between these two volumes are fascinating: whether it’s apes or penguins, we humans seem highly intent on playing with boundaries, e.g., on seeing ourselves in other creatures.

But what about animals that are markedly different from us? Does boundary-thinking play out there?

On Oyster, from my March 2010 review at (where I write a monthly column):

Rebecca Storr notes early on the oyster’s strange impenetrability to the human gaze: “Unlike the mammals in this series, the oyster does not map onto the human form; it has no recognizable head, legs, eyes, mouth, skin, hands or arms. As a sea creature, it is quintessentially alien to the human form and to human experience.

Despite this challenge, Storr shows how the oyster has become much more than a slippery, briny treat for the human tongue. Because of its closed-up sealed-off nature, the oyster signals solitude; at the same time, because of the fluidity of its sexual nature, it tantalizes with boundary transgressions. Given these twin associations, the fact that the oyster stands for gluttony should be no shock: it’s alone and mysterious, yet capable of embracing maleness-and-femaleness in a single life. Is it any wonder that we eat oysters to celebrate and to seduce?

Boundary transgressions--again! Just like with apes and penguins, though in a fabulously different way. We may not see ourselves in oysters, but we reflect on ourselves through what we come to know about them.

In each Animal Series book-- I own Cat, Elephant, and Whale also—the illustrations are abundant and gorgeous; scientific facts about the animals under consideration are included. We readers are thus treated to a sense of the animals as real living beings, not abstract concepts. I also love that not only warm and fuzzy species are the focus; among the newer titles are Lion., Camel, and Spider.

Moving on from the Animal Series, here’s a further trio of recommendations from 2010’s cache of animal books:

As described in this space on November 12, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elisabeth Tova Bailey (Algonquin) is a book I’ve bought in quantity to give to friends. Through the observation of a single snail, Bailey opens up a new natural world to readers in prose both beautiful and edifying.

The Woods of Wicomico (Brandylane) is my choice for an animal-themed children’s book this season. Here’s how I’ve blurbed the book: Children will be captivated when they meet Timothy the tortoise, Octavious the osprey, Grahame the groundhog and their friends of various species, all dwelling in the woods of Wicomico. Nuala Galbari has written, and Buttons Boggs has illustrated, a narrative that's up-to-the minute in its environmental message, but timeless in its ability to bring animals to vital life as distinct individuals. Best of all, through its sparkling vocabulary, and original songs and lyrics, this book invites an engaged and creative response on the part of its young readers.

And finally, for anyone prone to wondering about the ancient nature of the human-animal bond—how, when, and why did it come to be?—I can’t resist recommending my own Being With Animals (Doubleday), available (or orderable) from many independent bookstores as well as and Barnes and Noble online.

Happy holiday book-shopping!


  1. December 3, 2010 9:34 AM EST
    Thank you for the excellent recommendations. I look forward to adding several of the volumes on your list to my library, and even more so to some time to curl up with tea, a cat on the knee and a paperback resting lightly on the cat.
    Best wishes,
    - Nuala C. Galbari
  2. December 3, 2010 4:19 PM EST
    Disclaimer: This is slightly off-topic, as this book doesn't sound like it has a whole lot to do with animals.... But I just read a review of John L. Locke's Eavesdropping: A History, and it sounds like it might be up your alley.

    Here's the review in question:
    - Joe Kessler
  3. December 3, 2010 6:55 PM EST
    Nuala, we'll have time to "talk books" on Sunday at the booksigning. Can't wait. Joe, this book is definitely relevant for a post on animals. I read the review and am intrigued. I wonder about the statement that no existing model of animal communication has taken eavesdropping into account. I've read a number of published articles about cross-species comprehension in the arena of predator calls, e.g., monkeys and birds each comprehending the other's alarm calls. However, it may be that these empirical data aren't fully appreciated in theoretical models, which as I'm always going on about, seem to be very limited and not fully cognizant of animals' complexity.
    - Barbara J. King
  4. December 3, 2010 8:30 PM EST
    Books I've just read and recommend are Homer's Odyssey, about a blind cat; Smiling Bears, about captive bears of several different species, their behavior and enrichment; and A Lion Named Christian (almost finished reading it), a reissue of the book from the 1970s for a new generation that has met Christian and his human friends on a most remarkable youtube video. I would have to write pages and pages to say more about each book but all 3 have been engrossing and enlightening for many different reasons. None are heavy or academic, anyone interested in animals would enjoy them. I've read several of the ones on your list (excepting the snail and oyster), Barbara, and can second your recommendations too.
    - Joanne Tanner
  5. December 4, 2010 7:19 AM EST
    I love Barbara's blog day--thanks for these recommendations. I'm still working slowly through *The Art of Racing in the Rain* (though *Lord of Misrule* remains on my list). The narrator is a dog, which wouldn't normally appeal, but it's done well, I think, and I love it so far. It's just very, very sad--it keeps ending up in the freezer. Happy Holiday Season, Barbara!
    - Colleen Kennedy
  6. December 4, 2010 8:45 AM EST
    Colleen raises an interesting point, in fact a discussion I've had with Joanne too-- what about books with animal narrators? My recent favorite may be Verlyn Klinkenborg's 'Timothy, or Notes of an Abject Reptile' from a few years ago. Klinkenborg writes beautifully mini-essays for the NYTimes' op-ed page, about life on a farm, or teaching writing to students, or other sorts of small wonders. Anyway, thanks for the book recommendations, there's nothing better than sharing them!
    - Barbara J. King

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.