Paperback reviews: The Sea Inside, Seven Terrors, Central Asia Through Writers’ Eyes, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

 

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The Sea Inside, by Philip Hoare (4th Estate, £9.99)

In Moby Dick, Melville’s narrator Ishmael ponders whether the whale, hunted ever more intensively for its oil, will “at last be exterminated from the waters.” He eventually dismisses the idea, proclaiming the whale “immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality.”

Such optimism now seems naïve. In Melville’s time, men chased whales in flimsy boats with hand-thrown weapons; the industry later evolved into a system of mechanised slaughter that brought cetaceans to the very brink of extinction.

Philip Hoare’s The Sea Inside is shadowed by the prospect that whales may soon be gone forever – their diminished numbers threatened now by pollution rather than the harpoon. Like his previous book, the Samuel Johnson Prize-winner Leviathan, this is a beautifully written mixture of travelogue and essay; Hoare travels the world, describing his experiences watching whales and dolphins and weaving in stories of those who have shared his passion for wildlife, from the 18th-century anatomist John Hunter, who kept a vast menagerie at Earl’s Court, to the author T.H. White, who befriended goshawks.

Hoare explores the fate of those species man has already driven to extinction, recounting legends of the moa – a Dinosaur-sized flightless bird native to New Zealand, slaughtered for its meat – and lingers over eerie black and white photographs of the Tasmanian Tiger.

And yet, despite these themes of extinction and loss, there is great joy in Hoare’s descriptions of his encounters with whales (“to find oneself hovering over the whale’s flukes is truly dreamlike… under the ocean’s sky, the whale’s blue world is light beyond light”), and in evoking that delight he may well motivate efforts for their preservation. That lends a sparkle of hope to this otherwise melancholy book. One could say Hoare has invented a new genre: an elegy for something not yet lost.

*****

Seven Terrors, by Selvedin Advic, translated by Coral Petkovich (Istros Books, £8.99)

At the beginning of Seven Terrors, Bosnian author Selvedin Advic’s fine debut novel, we find the unnamed narrator, a former radio journalist, emerging from a period of self-imposed isolation following the collapse of his marriage. When the daughter of an old friend, Aleksa, tells him that her father has disappeared, he agrees to help. Following clues in Aleksa’s journal, the narrator embarks on a journey into a dreamlike underworld, full of ghostly horses, solicitous djinns and other mythic creatures.

For all its wry humour and playfulness, this is a deeply serious exploration into the legacy of the Bosnian War, in which the fantastic elements are representative of an historical trauma too awful to describe directly. This oblique approach makes the Advic’s more straightforward statements on the futility of the conflict all the more powerful: “We had fought and died so sweetly for every little bit of land, for small dry hills, for impenetrable thickets, muddy glades, dead pear trees, gravel pits, water-worn gullies.” It is all extremely well done, and has been rendered into graceful English by Coral Petkovich.

****

Central Asia Through Writers’ Eyes, by Kathleen Hopkirk (Eland, £12.99)

Kathleen Hopkirk’s book collects anecdotes concerning Western travellers in Central Asia, from Marco Polo to the agents of the British Empire. Many of the tales derive from the so-called “Great Game” of the 19th century, when Russia and Britain vied for strategic supremacy in the region, sending spies to far-flung desert locations – where they often met grisly ends.

Eland Press performs a great service in reviving travel books that have fallen out of print, but this volume, first published in 1993, is one of their weaker selections. Hopkirk tends to uncritically accept her subject’s often jaundiced views on Central Asia (“no one has a good word to say for Urumchi”) and falls back on some Orientalist clichés: she describes the Turcoman’s tendency to sit “inscrutably” sipping tea.

**

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan (Atlantic Books, £7.99)

When Clay Jannon loses his job as web developer, he ends up working night shifts in a 24-hour San Francisco bookshop, run by the mysterious Mr Penumbra. Clay soon discovers that the shop is a front for a secret code-breaking society, which for five hundred years has been trying to decipher a manuscript by Aldus Manutius. When Clay introduces computers to speed things up a bit, he meets resistance from the society’s cloaked traditionalists.

The kind of book that would please the marketing department at a publisher, containing as it does elements familiar from the likes of Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code. Debut novelist Robin Sloan is a better writer than Dan Brown, but that’s not saying much. I found it all a bit self-consciously quirky; the ending is pure schmaltz.

**

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, by Mary Roach (Oneworld, £8.99)

Mary Roach’s witty, enjoyable book tackles the sticky subject of human digestion, answering questions you may not have thought to ask. Could thorough chewing reduce the national debt? (Yes, according to mastication fan Horace Fletcher.) Why don’t suicide bombers smuggle bombs in their rectums? (Apart from the obvious, there is “a rectal taboo” among Islamic terrorists.) And did constipation kill Elvis? (Possibly; at his death his colon was “two to three times its normal size.”)

Here’s a flavour of Roach’s no-nonsense style: “Yes, men and women eat meals. But they also ingest nutrients. They grind and sculpt them into a moistened bolus that is delivered, via a stadium wave of sequential contractions, into a self-kneading stack of hydrochloric acid and then dumped into a tubular leach field.” Bon appetit!

****

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