Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History by Dan Flores

This biography of the coyote in biological, political and historical terms illuminates a much-maligned North American original.

coyote america

Dan Flores (The Natural West) examines an iconic North American original in Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History. This small, clever, charismatic predator originally roamed the interior West, enjoying a mutual tolerance with the people who lived there. Some Native American tribes built creation myths around the coyote, “America’s universal deity.” After European colonization, coyotes became the enemy of ranchers and herders–undeservedly, as scientists would eventually show, as their prey is more bite-sized. Decades of extermination efforts only encouraged the diminutive canine, however, whose range now extends from Alaska and Canada into Central America, from coast to coast. Coyotes now live in every major city in the United States, which surprises many but, Flores argues, shouldn’t: they were there first.

Styled as a biography, Coyote America follows its protagonist through history, geography, human perceptions and millions of years of American canid evolution, with detailed accounts of governmental policies regarding predators. Flores sees the coyote as an avatar for humankind. Like us, the coyote is highly flexible, can be social or solitary, and adapts well to changing environments. Coyote mythology, well documented in other books, plays a minor role here, although Wile E. makes an appearance.

Flores has a tendency to use nine words where two would do, but his slight long-windedness is well offset by the endless fascinations of his subject. Nature lovers, students of U.S. natural resource policy and those charmed by the native American “song-dog” will be engrossed.


This review originally ran in the June 7, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 words.

Joe Gould’s Teeth by Jill Lepore

This story of a missing manuscript and its darkly unhinged author has momentum and beauty.

joe gould's teeth

Joe Gould is best known through two profile pieces Joseph Mitchell wrote for the New Yorker. In 1942, Mitchell introduced a harmless eccentric engrossed in writing “The Oral History of Our Time”–at some nine million words, supposedly the longest unpublished work in history. In the second piece, in 1964, Gould (then deceased) is a dirty, sinister man, and Mitchell asserts that there had never been any such manuscript. Jill Lepore (a staff writer at the New Yorker and author of numerous works of nonfiction), like so many before her, was intrigued. Was there an oral history, or wasn’t there? Who was Gould, really?

Joe Gould’s Teeth is a biography of Gould, a study of the record he left behind and the story of Lepore’s search. Gould was a graphomaniac; his written legacy includes letters, diaries, essays, ramblings but rather little oral history. Lepore seeks the mythical manuscript, but finds the mystery of a man. She describes herself as stumbling, falling into the “chasm” of Gould, who claimed to be “left-handed in both hands” and whose thinking was “sticky” with details. She follows him through archives and memories, and into his obsession with African-American sculptor Augusta Savage. Savage, as a secondary character, is more sympathetic (and sane), and possibly more enigmatic than Gould.

Lepore’s contribution to this undeniably riveting story lies in her research, but even more in her wise, nuanced telling. Joe Gould was a genius, a madman, destitute, beloved of e.e. cummings and Ezra Pound, by turns likable and malicious. Joe Gould’s Teeth is an astonishing, wide-ranging and thoroughly enthralling work of history.


This review originally ran in the May 31, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 9 notebooks.

Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present by Gail Buckland

Disclosure: I read an uncorrected advance proof sent to me as a review copy.

who shot sportsI’m sorry not to love this book. I love the concept: a coffee-table style art book of sports photography, beginning with the first known “sports photograph” in 1843 (a portrait of an unknown tennis player), and including nearly 300 images. In the final publication, 120 of these photographs will be printed in color. My galley copy has just a few pages of full color, but I can tell the end result will be visually impressive.

The pictures are great. And the history is fairly well done: there is some discussion of technological advances (geared toward the layperson, not the professional photographer), and trends and values. The text itself, however, is very uneven. It started to bother me at about halfway through, as it began to repeat itself: in particular, Dr. Harold Edgerton’s feat in pioneering stroboscopic photography is noted over and over again, at different points in the book but also repeatedly on the same page. Who Shot Sports is organized thematically, with chapters like “Fans and Followers” and “Vantage Point”; within these chapters are photos that fit into that theme, from different eras. The surrounding text profiles the photographers rather than the athletes, and one of the express goals of the book is to highlight those often still unknown men and women (but mostly they are men, even now). These bios vary widely in length and quality, and often feel more like lists of facts than composed or relevant narratives.

But the line that stopped me and wouldn’t let me go was, “Banning African Americans, who were such talented athletes, was especially cruel and malicious.”

This is a racial stereotype that has not served African Americans well historically, and anytime we assume something to be true of an entire population, we look silly and find ourselves in some cases wrong. I read another 20-30 pages past this point, but couldn’t move on in my mind.

I will point out again that I read an uncorrected proof, meaning that this book is likely to see another round of editing before publication. They may catch this line in time. But they also sent this copy out for review, and should expect to be held accountable for its contents. Typos and formatting problems are common issues with galleys; images may be missing or shown in poor resolution, with the understanding that the finished copy will include the real thing. But tone-deaf racial profiling I can’t help but note.

This will clearly be a beautiful volume of photography. I think the text might be worth, at best, skimming. Unless of course you are as bothered by that one line as I was.


Rating: 9 light sources for photos, 3 for text. Draw your own conclusions (always).

Journey to Texas, 1833 by Detlef Dunt, trans. by Anders Saustrup, ed. by James C. Kearney & Geir Bentzen

Detlef Thomas Friedrich Jordt was born in the Holstein region of Germany in 1793, and in 1833 immigrated to Texas. He was motivated by a letter from an earlier immigrant, Friedrich Ernst. Although the two were not acquainted, the letter had circulated widely in the region, with an explicit message: that others should join Ernst in a land of promise and opportunity. Jordt’s own experience led him to publish in 1834 a book titled Reise nach Texas, under the pseudonym Detlef Dunt. The first English translation of this travelogue/travel guide was published in 2015 as Journey to Texas, 1833.

This is a varied and informative compilation, including not only Jordt’s original text but significant supplementary material. A translation of Reise nach Texas was found among the papers of the late Anders Saustrup, a recognized scholar of German immigration to Texas. James C. Kearney and Geir Bentzen then took on the project. Their introduction covers Jordt’s family history; the social, political and economic circumstances in Germany that pushed so many to emigrate; the significance of the Ernst letter; and commentary on Jordt’s writing. The translation of Reise nach Texas makes up a little more than half of the volume…

This is just a stub: my full review of Journey to Texas was published in the Spring 2016 issue of Concho River Review. You can subscribe or purchase a single issue by clicking that link.

I’d just like to add that this was an extra fun read for me personally, because I know quite well the area that’s covered in these pages. For many years my parents owned a ranch just a few miles from where Dunt/Jordt is believed to be buried. It felt a little like coming home.


Rating: 6 small towns I used to ride my bike through.

book beginnings on Friday: Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises by Lesley M. M. Blume

book beginnings

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

Guess what brought me to this one. It’s been a while since I read The Sun Also Rises (first discovered in Mrs. Smith’s English class in high school, which began my Hemingway admiration). I wonder if I’ll find time for a reread…

everybody behaves badly

I think these opening lines set the scene nicely – or the atmosphere of Hemingway’s life and fame, if you will.

In March 1934, Vanity Fair ran a mischievous editorial: a page of Ernest Hemingway paper dolls, featuring cutouts of various famous Hemingway personas. On display: Hemingway as a toreador, clinging to a severed bull’s head; Hemingway as a brooding, café-dwelling writer (four wine bottles adorn his table, and a waiter is seen toting three more in his direction); Hemingway as a bloodied war veteran.

I wonder how much that page of paper dolls would be worth now!

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Teaser Tuesdays: Coyote America: A Natural & Supernatural History by Dan Flores

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

Coyotes seem to make consistently interesting reading – for me at least – whether Native American mythology or the natural history that is handled here.

coyote america

I thought I’d share one of the fascinating tidbits I learned. Coyotes interbreed quite avidly with red wolves in the southern U.S.; not so the gray wolves of the West.

Mech also points out that killing coyotes, not mating with them, is intrinsic to gray wolf behavior. Julie Young of the Predator Research Facility even told me that in experiments there, coyotes inseminated with gray wolf sperm actually killed the puppies they bore.

They are quite clear on their preferences, it seems. That makes sense to me, considering the Trickster Coyote I knew as a child from books like Coyote &. Stay tuned…

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

A Distant Heartbeat: A War, a Disappearance, and a Family’s Secrets by Eunice Lipton

An inquisitive memoir investigates the author’s uncle, who was killed in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.

distant heartbeat

Eunice Lipton grew up with an awareness of her uncle Dave that was specific and conflicted in emotional tone, and vague in points of fact. She knew he’d been in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, and killed in action when he was 22. His brother Phil says, “Dave died for something. He was somebody.” His brother Louis, the author’s father, says he died for nothing. The author’s mother says he was the nicest man she ever knew. A Distant Heartbeat asks: Who was Dave Lipton? Why did this respectful son lie, tell his parents he would be working at a hotel in the Catskills, and then go to Spain? What does his story have to offer history?

Dave Lipton (formerly Lifshitz) was a Latvian Jewish immigrant, immersed in leftist youth politics in 1930s New York City. Surrounded by peers whose convictions mirrored his, Dave was one of very few to join that foreign war. His niece, born after his death, grew up with only scraps of his life and death: the repeated refrains of family members–died for nothing, died for something–and a few photos discovered in her childhood. She speaks to surviving veterans and friends of Dave, travels to an International Brigades reunion in Spain, studies letters and archival photographs. She finds more questions: What is the nature and cause of familial betrayal? Who was Dave’s mystery companion? In the end, Lipton’s research and musings offer only fleeting conclusions about family and principles, in a precise, elegiac journey through history, family tensions and human drama.


This review originally ran in the April 8, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 photographs.
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