Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Nature Books at the Half-Year

July 1, 2011

At the half-year mark for the year 2011, I’ve read 34 books. List-making makes me happy. I list almost anything- exceptional places to visit in European capitals; types of chocolate one can purchase in that amazing chocolate store on Cary Street in Richmond; things my daughter said as a child and still says as a teenager worthy of archiving for the ages; funny or endearing or exasperating things my husband or I see the cats do; and of course, which books I read annually.

Numerically speaking, I’m off-pace from last year’s total of 75. I’m unworried, because I’ll be reading a great deal this summer, fall, and early winter, off the campus clock as I shall be.

Anyway, it’s no race. The year that I turn away from a very lengthy book because it slows my rate is the year I’ll kill off the book list. (Last year I read Robert Bolano’s immense, dense 2666, and I just recently finished Murakami’s long The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. These examples prove my honor is intact.)

For statistical amusement, I’ve done some further counting. Though—or is it because? -- I write non-fiction, my fondest mental home is fiction; 26 of the 34 books are novels (or short-story collections in a few cases).

What’s notable too is the outsized impact of the books about animals. Only 4 non-fiction books and 2 novels are animal books, but almost all press hard into my consciousness. I’m true to my genre here, it seems, because winners of the coveted “Alpha and Beta Books of the 2011 Half-Year Award” go to non-fiction books on chimpanzees and bears.

Andrew Westoll’s The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary taught me, and moved me, so much (in my very own discipline!) that I devoted one of my regular columns to it. The image of the chimpanzee Tom, so pummeled physically and emotionally for 31 years as a biomedical service animal, made me think of the (non-volunteer) organ “donors” chosen by society to “complete” (give and give and give till they die) in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Ninni Holmqvist’s The Unit. Only because of the Canadian chimpanzee sanctuary run by Gloria Grow, Tom lived out the rest of his life surrounded by dignity and love—and participated in his own medical care in surprising ways. Read my column here:


“The bear book,” as I call it-- Else Poulsen’s Smiling Bears—is the beta book. Poulsen’s up-close, smart descriptions of captive bears’ learning and teaching behaviors—often through sophisticated gestures—surprised and delighted me by the chapter. Meet some of Poulsen’s favorite bears in my blog post from a few weeks back:


Entering fiction-world, I see that the two animal-related novels are wildly different. One is a cheeky, sexed-up but deeply intelligent tale of a speechifying chimpanzee, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale. Hale’s background research into ape behavior impressed me a lot. I interviewed him here:


The other is termed a children’s book, but I found it a plain good read. Dark’s Tale, by feral-cat rescuer Deborah Grabien, is set in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Grabien shies away neither from the grim realities experienced by homeless animal nor from a touch of magical realism, and the overall effects is an absorbing story.

Two more novels weave in so much about the natural world so captivatingly that they deserve mention here. Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is the well-known one. Set in the Amazonian region of Brazil, it features not only a half-smart half-clueless set of scientists working for a pharmaceutical company, but also a vine-choked, creature-of-every-unimaginable-kind-stocked jungle that came thrillingly alive for me. It’s a good story with characters to care about (what else, from Patchett?) .

Eleanor Lincoln Morse’s An Unexpected Forest features a lead character who finds his routine world upended suddenly when his job ends. He falls head over heels in love with 1000 mis-delivered spruce-tree seedlings. The steps he—and a widening circle of those he cares about—takes to rescue and “rehome” these trees resonate with the animal-rescuer side of me. I liked thinking flora instead of fauna for once!

There are some ideas for nature-related summer reading. I’d love to hear yours.


  1. July 3, 2011 6:26 PM EDT
    Thanks for the recommendations, Barbara--I love your blog. Did you ever read "Lord of Misrule"? Just wondering what you thought of it. And have you ever read Jane Smiley's *Horse Heaven*? It's kind of goofy (and published several years ago), but I liked it.
    - Colleen
  2. July 3, 2011 7:48 PM EDT
    Colleen, I've read neither. I've enjoyed some of Jane Smiley's other books though, so maybe "Horse Heaven" would be a good bet (groan....) for me. Thanks for writing in!!
    - 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.