Saturday, 2 May 2009

Natural Acts – David Quammen ****

Somewhat over half of this book dates back more than twenty years, while the final 130 pages or so are twenty-first century additions. It’s a collection of (mostly) short pieces – and this is something David Quammen does superbly well. There are occasions when he seems to realize how well he does it, but apart from this occasional smugness it’s excellent writing where the topic interests him – patently obvious when he’s talking about wildlife.
Sometimes the approach can take you by surprise – speaking in defence of the mosquito, for example – and always there’s something to delight. I particularly liked the piece that puts across the idea that crows are bored underachievers, and the paean to the bat.
In his earlier writing, there’s only set of pieces where the lustre fades a little, and that’s when he talking about geology rather than natural history. It clearly doesn’t work for him quite the same way.
When I got onto the more modern section, I thought that Quammen was suffering from a literary version of that old chestnut that scientists do all their best work before they’re thirty. The first couple of pieces are tedious and really don’t live up to the electric prose of the earlier sections. But the realization comes with much better pieces further on that it’s not the date that’s the issue, it’s the length. Quammen’s writing style is absolutely perfect for a short, quickly digested piece. When you get to these longer articles – 28 and 49 pages – the whole delicate construction disappears and we’re left with something that isn’t in the same league. But don’t be put off – there are more short pieces to come.
Despite the disappointment raised by those couple of relative clunkers, the collection as a whole is engrossing and the short pieces are just the right length to capture the interest without ever flagging. The older pieces are as fresh, if not fresher, than the newer ones. All-in-all, just as Quammen clearly enjoys exploring the natural world, you will enjoy exploring the world of his writing.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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