Time for some mini-reviews!
Read but not reviewed in the last week or so have been:
- The Heart of the 5 Love Languages, Gary Chapman
- Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? Frans de Waal
- Shiloh: A Novel, Shelby Foote
- The Secret Life of Cows, Rosamund Young
A young friend of mine often sings the praises of The 5 Love Languages, and though I’m not married I wanted to check it out for myself. I accidentally checked out this ebook instead, which is a summary of the book’s contents. I imagine it would be a helpful reminder to those who have read the book, but as it was it only offered me a peek at what I might expect to read later. I’ll save further comments for when I read the actual love languages book!
Next up, animal intelligence! So, are we smart enough to know how smart animals are? Probably not. Frans de Waal, a primatologist whom I’ve read many times over the years, reviews the limits of studies about animal intelligence and points out that we’ve often done it in very boneheaded ways — trying to assess chimpanzees’ abilities to recognize faces by testing them on human faces, rather than chimpanzee faces, for instance. When experiments are designed artfully and humanely, animals from chimpanzees to corvids to octupii can show off their smarts. What’s important to note, though, is that animals have intelligence for their purposes; a generic “intelligence” based on human presumptions is not what we should look for. (Quasi-related: Beautiful Minds: The Parallel Lives of Great Apes and Dolphins).
I followed this with Shelby Foote’s Shiloh, a work of historical fiction from a bonafide historian. Foote was an eminent southern historian who created a three thousand history of the Civil War, and appeared in Ken Burn’s documentary on the same. I didn’t realize he’d written a novel, and had to investigate. Foote takes readers through the bloody spectacle by visiting various infantrymen and officers from both sides of the conflict, with excerpts from letters included for flavor. Not surprising from a historian is the level of visceral details, like the dew-soaked pants of the infantry forming their early morning line of battle. But knowledge as a historian doesn’t necessarily translate to compelling characters or a fascinating story, so Foote is doubly gifted as an author — for hooking the reader with his characters and luring them into the fray is exactly what he does. (Related: Jeff Shaara’s Blaze of Glory, also a Shiloh novel.)
Last and definitely least was The Secret Life of Cows, by Rosamond Young, a British cattle rancher who specializes in organic beef. I’d assumed from the title that the work would explore the mental, emotional, and social lives of cows, who I suspect are more fascinating that most people give them credit for. The author opens with an essay lambasting CAFO practices, which she regards as criminally unethical and the source of both inferior stock and inferior product, before sharing a series of stories about her cattle. These border on fanciful, with cows having conversations and the like; it’s saturated in anthropomorphism, so much so that it leaves a skeptical reader wondering how to separate the wheat from the chaff. There’s much to be gleaned here about the distinctive personalities that cows have, but there’s also an awful lot of imagination. I left it disappointed.. Unfortunately, despite their role in human history, cattle have not inspired many other books that might serve as competition. Maybe I can bug my cowgirl friend to let me hang out with her when she’s doing fieldwork one day… (Related: Cattle, an Informal Social History.)