Book Reviews

Harriet Coles
Wednesday, December 1, 2010

With Christmas fast approaching, here are a few new books as last minute ideas for presents.

One for the young; one autobiography that reads like an emotional rollercoaster of a film; rip-roaring tales from the life of a wildlife film-maker. And to start with, the truly bizarre: Photobooth Dogs by Cameron Wu is unique. It is an idiosyncratic collection of photos of pets and their owners taken in photo booths from the 1930s to the 1980s. Although it sounds unlikely, this slim, nicely produced volume allows us a glimpse of the last century.

Photo booths were launched in 1927 and within a year we have one of the first photo of owner and pet — Anatol Josepho and his terrier. The booth produces a quite distinct type of photo because there is no one behind the camera to influence the picture. As a consequence this collection shows us people in old photos really being themselves. The owners are off-guard and fooling around, which makes the funny, faded sepia and white photos from the 1930s and 40s feel like they could have been taken yesterday. The people's affection for their pets brings them alive. This is an eccentric book and a timeless testament to the love people can feel for animals.

On to a bestseller which has been recently released in paperback: Cleo by the New Zealand journalist and writer Helen Brown. This is the extraordinary true tale of how a pet kitten arrives in a family after the accidental death of a child and kick-starts their journey through mourning and recovery. Helen writes of the family's mundane and then tragic life with a gently self-mocking honesty that speaks directly to anyone who knows life with cats and kids. The kitten Cleo is reserved by Sam, Helen's eldest son, just before he is fatally hit by a car. Cleo is then delivered a few weeks after Sam's death; bequeathed by him, as it were, to the family.

And that is how it happens, through their shock and devastation the kitten (who grows into quite an extraordinary cat) teaches them about living in the present, life after Sam's death and even about laughter. Helen Brown writes with a shocking honesty and openness about the emotional no-man's-land in which they — she, her husband and their second son — find themselves after Sam is killed. Somehow she experiences and observes (let alone survives) everything that happens and has recorded it in this brave and compelling book which touches on the extraordinary powers of the human-animal interface.

For readers aged 8–12 there is White Chin an intriguing new book by Marilyn Edwards with really impressive illustrations by France Baudin. A series of dramatic adventures takes a young urban cat — the eponymous White Chin — from rural abandonment to a secure farm home. A young girl Kirstie is involved in the key episodes, and yes, you guessed it, provides the farmhouse haven for White Chin at the end. What makes this book of note is that both writer and illustrator admirably avoid any sentimental anthropomorphizing of their animal characters. The human and the animal perspectives are two distinct but intertwined strands that encircle a story of poaching in the nearby woods. A great gift for 8–12 year olds with a well developed empathy for animals.

If all this talk of pets over the Christmas break seems like a busman's holiday then look out for the endlessly entertaining Mangroves and Man Eaters by TV wildlife journalist Dan Freeman. This book is a cornucopia of adventures, such as Dan's meetings with the ornithologist expert of West Indian birds after whom Ian Fleming's action hero James Bond was named, and with Amelia the original spider-actress in the Bond film Dr No. We are shown behind the scenes wildlife — the creatures with which the wildlife film crew have to cohabit while making their TV programmes from giant man-killing crabs to ruthless, unethical scientists. Dan describes how, with India rubber resilience, he narrowly avoided snakes, cyclones, the fangs of the wolf spider, Idi Amin, and an angry festival crowd in the desert. It is hard to pick one of the amazing adventures for mention, but how about his journey to film the man-eating tigers of the mangroves of Bangladesh? An engrossing read for the new year.

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