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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Read Local: A Sloth and Other Wild Ones

Posted By on Wed, Jun 26, 2013 at 9:05 AM


New York City might be home to the big houses, but this scrappy city just happens to be the epicenter of publishing on the Best Coast. Join Alexis Coe every other Wednesday for Read Local, a series on books produced in the Bay Area.

This summer, two Bay Area writers take on endangered animals in very different ways. Jon Mooallem brings us Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, while J. Otto Seibold's Lost Sloth is a children's book about an endangered animal interacting with people.

See also:

Finally, The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia

The New Persian Kitchen


Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America

By Jon Mooallem

(The Penguin Press; 339 pages; $27.95)

"She kept mice in her bra!" my mother-in-law would exclaim, which was certainly more effective than simply stating, "My daughter is tracking spotted owls in New Mexico." Indeed, mice were kept close, but it served a necessary purpose: Owls can't be tagged if the food meant to tempt them dies from hypothermia.

In Wild Ones, San Francisco resident Jon Mooallem shares similar anecdotes. Before interacting with whooping cranes, the staff at Operation Migration dons giant bird costumes and shows the birds born into captivity how to, from inside ultra light planes, migrate from Wisconsin to Florida.

On many of the book's pages, people are trying to right past wrongs, but the absurdity isn't always so delightful. A TV crew poses for pictures with an unconscious bear's head strewn over their laps, and photographer Dan Cox films cubs starving to death.

As the book progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to parse Mooallem's title. Who, exactly, are the "wild ones?" Readers can't be sure, and that's where Mooallem's thoughtful book truly excels; there are few axioms when it comes to wildlife conservation. No one - not the conservationists or those who as flagrantly plunder, exist in a vacuum.

The author has offered us a sometimes elegiac, often hopeful, beautifully nuanced look at our relationship with nature and animals headed for extinction - but no answers. Mooallem is just a journalist - and father to the tiny progenitor of this book -who has done his job most excellently. The rest is up to us.

Lost Sloth

By J. Otto Seibold

(McSweeney's McMullens; 32 pages; $16.95)

With a quick turn of the deceptively muted cover, children ages four and up are suddenly met with a psychedelic living room. At stark odds with this colorful scene is a sloth in repose, pink guitar laying on his slumped body. The phone wakes him up, but he can't reach it in time because, you know, he's a sloth.

And that's the extent to which any preexisting sloth knowledge - they're notoriously slow and sleepy - is applicable. This urbane sloth is in a real hurry, but he's not motivated by tender shoots and leaves.

He's won a shopping spree. Great good luck - in addition to scoring a sweet pad with hotel carpet - but the catch is clear: he has just a few hours to claim his prize. Buses are missed and shortcuts taken - through a park replete with Occupy movement encampments - but he's (innately) his own worst enemy. He falls asleep on the job and loses his way, but in a nod to another excellent McSweeney's McMullens title, a hang glider conveniently comes to the rescue.

J. Otto Seibold cleverly posits the sloth's sluggishness alongside American consumerism, rendering it the kind of book parents will actually enjoy unpacking with their children night after night.

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Follow Alexis Coe on twitter @alexis_coe.

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