Monday, August 15, 2011

Book review: Kingdom Under Glass

Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals
by Jay Kirk
Henry Holt, NY, 2010

I wanted to like this book more than I did. The subject is fascinating: Carl Akeley, the pioneering taxidermist/conservationist who mounted Jumbo the elephant and created the museum diorama, and who also found time to push successfully for the world's first gorilla sanctuary when not hunting with Theodore Roosevelt or strangling a leopard with his bare hands. The strength of the book is the characters: Kirk re-creates a very colorful cast of men and women who supported, opposed, or exploited Akeley throughout his amazing life. Along the way, the reader will learn much about taxidermy and the "safari culture" (my term) of the early 20th century. Kirk succeeds, quite skillfully, in making the reader see, hear, and smell the world of colonial Africa. Clearly, the author did his research.
Kirk spends a lot of time in the Notes section justifying his "creative nonfiction" approach, an approach which makes the book hard to evulate or review. He argues that he was accurate in recreating the thoughts in long-dead people's minds, something he can't know regardless of the depth of his research. Scenes are inaccurately strung together and details invented. He explains he was driven by "commitment to narrative flow," which is not persuasive, seeing as how countless biographers have produced compelling narratives without resorting to fictional techniques. Also, this is a book that demands a good photo section, something that is peculiarly absent.
Bottom line: not all bad, but not what I hoped for when I picked it up.

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