Trachemys scripta elegans (Wied) — Karl Bodmer

Books Acquired, 10.20.2011

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A good lookin’ pair this eve. First up, Tony D’Souza’s novel Mule, which looks rather promising (the cover and premise alone earn it an advanced spot in the stack). From K. Reed Petty’s review at Electric Literature—

Mule is Scarface for readers of The New Yorker: It plots all the emotional points on a man’s rise and downfall, while explaining everything you need to know to avoid getting caught while driving $50,000 worth of marijuana from California to Tennessee.

D’Souza’s book is the most satisfying in answering the details that cable skims over. Our hero, James, is an out-of-work freelance journalist with a new family and no safety net. When he gets an opportunity to make some quick cash, he researches the business of driving drugs like a long-form journalist: How do you convince a bank teller to hand over your $7,000 savings account in hundreds? What are your rights if a cop pulls you over in Texas versus Nevada? And, as James asks of a buyer he meets on his first run: “How much does an ounce weigh?”

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The Species Seekers by Richard Conniff also seems really cool. The book explores the strange intersections of science and adventure. Press release—

Conniff takes us back in time—before the words “scientist” or “biologist” even existed—to when a popular fever for the natural world swept through humanity. Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, amateur naturalists made it their mission to go to the most perilous corners of the planet and bring back astonishing new species. Linnaeus, Darwin, and Wallace dominate most histories of the great age of discovery.  But they owed their success to this network of enthusiasts, who worked mainly for the pleasure of adding “to the power and grace and beauty of the Infinite.”  Among them:  A grave-robbing anatomist who became the model for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a Catholic missionary who held off bandits at gunpoint, and a British ornithologist who lost his left arm by jamming it down the throat of a charging leopard—but happily lived on to play a good game of tennis.

Discovering new species wasn’t a rarefied pastime; it was a pandemic, a social disease that struck every corner of society, claiming such notables as Thomas Jefferson, who laid out mastodon bones on the floor of the White House, and Mark Twain, who set out to become an Amazonian explorer, but went bust in New Orleans and had to make do with the river at hand.

Amid its tales of adventure and intrigue, The Species Seekers offers unmatched insight into one of the great revolutions in the history of human thought. At the start, God was in heaven, Man was the center of the universe, and everyone accepted that the Earth had been born yesterday for our benefit. But we weren’t sure where vegetable ended and animal began. We didn’t know what species were, or that they could be joined by common origin. We had no way to identify the causes of the pestilential diseases that made death a constant companion.

All that suddenly changed, as the species seekers introduced us to the pantheon of life on Earth—and our place within it.

Audubon’s Death Mask