The Hedgehog's Dilemma
A Tale of Obsession, Nostalgia, and the World's Most Charming Mammal
Bloomsbury: 280 pp., $25
Hugh Warwick is an ecologist who has spent 20 years of his life working with hedgehogs. They are cute, Warwick admits, but something beyond cuteness inspires passion, even obsession in hedgehog devotees. (Britain, God love 'er, is apparently full of "little hedgehog hospitals doing an amazing job with limited resources.")
This is a book about our relationship with the hedgehog; no other animal, Warwick writes, allows us to get so close. He describes the biology, physiology and general behavior of hedgehogs (rolling up in a ball to discourage predators, the perils and beauty of the nocturnal life and their relationship with fleas).
Warwick is delightfully nerdy: "Love did not blossom immediately," he writes of his fascination. "I suppose in the beginning we had more of a friendship and a working relationship. But I want to jump forward to the juicy bits."
These involve, as you can imagine, an unusual definition of the term "juicy bits," including scientists who eat their quarry, the bizarre behavior of hedgehog hunters and mating rituals (human and hedgehog) in the Orkney Islands.
There's more than a whiff of the legendary naturalist Gerald Durrell here -- his humor, his affection and his never-ending curiosity. "We are most willing to change ourselves in the grip of true love," Warwick writes. "True love, not the sort that tends to infect our appreciation of the natural world. . . . Sentimental love is superficial; it does not offer much."
Hedgehogs in love, Warwick simplifies to make a point, can't get close to each other without hurting each other, so they back away. In a similar fashion, we humans can't get close to the natural world without harming it: "The dilemma we face is in trying to get close enough to the wild without corrupting it out of existence."
A Whaler's Dictionary
Milkweed: 352 pp., $20 paper
"I hope to give fair warning to the reader, before this book is begun, that its pages are full of dim perceptions scarcely expressed. What follows is the result of the mad task I found within myself after more than a decade spent reading the same novel. I meant not to exhaust 'Moby-Dick' of meaning, but to exhaust myself of the meaning I found in it."
Beachy-Quick is a reader's reader, setting out to reveal the strange and wonderful journey one book has taken him on. Just as "Moby-Dick" contains Ishmael's dictionary, an attempt "to classify and define every whale a whaler may encounter," so Beachy-Quick's aim is to help a reader "gain a greater sight of what this leviathan 'Moby-Dick' itself might be, and in doing so encourage a closer reading."
The book is meant to be thumbed through, not read. "A Whaler's Dictionary" begins with the term "accuracy" (Ishmael's understanding of the imitative nature of language, in comparison with real life -- the encounter with the whale) and ends with the entry "you/thou," which describes Ishmael's relationship to Ahab. We the readers are Ishmael's You (he speaks to us), while the Ahab "tells nobody nothing. Ahab is chasing his Thou." This is a rich, profound, fascinating book, the kind that widens the margins of everything we read, making room for new observations, more creative relationships all around: writer/reader, person/book, literature/life.
Things I Wish My Mother Had Told Me
A Guide to Living With Impeccable Grace and Style
Lucia van der Post
Da Capo: 382 pp., $25
Lucia van der Post has written for several decades on style, travel and design for the British newspapers the Financial Times and the Times of London. How to take care of cashmere, how to get the right bra size, what to take on vacation (the beach, the city, the safari!), how to work and have a life -- Van Der Post doesn't compartmentalize like so many American stylistas -- her enduring lesson is that you can't have a sense of style without a strong sense of self. And you can't have a strong sense of self without deep interests and commitments. It cannot be fabricated or faked.
"Things I Wish" is full of extremely practical advice -- how to shop the Parisian puces (flea markets), the best anti-wrinkle creams, how to choose the best perfume, a list of Van Der Post's favorite shops around the world, the best presents for every occasion and a list of "Ten Dead Easy Starters" for stylish meals (melon soup, fig and mozzarella salad, and others). It's a dreamy book to read, cover to cover, in these ruthless days of constant loss. They can take away your savings, but you still know the best place to buy a gorgeous negligee. Conversely, you can pay a chief executive billions of dollars, but it doesn't mean he knows how to hold a fork. Well, it's something.