Majestic and misunderstood: new in bookstores

sharks and people cover The image on the cover of Thomas P. Peschak's "Sharks & People" is breathtaking ... and a little bit enigmatic.

What do I mean by enigmatic?

Is the kayaker, who's paddling in the sea of Japan, the subject of that 11-foot Great White's appetite or curiosity?

Anyone, of course, would freak out if they were in that kayak, but Peschak's book takes us far away from the Peter Benchley/Steven Spielberg cliche of blood and massive, razor-lined jaws.

A contributing photographer to National Geographic Magazine, Peschak provides a fascinating portrayal of this ancient creature's plight in the contemporary world. It's no surprise: He explains that he's been up close and personal with sharks from an early age. That early experience informs all of his writing, not to mention his photos, which give us sympathetic portraits of a beautiful creature:


Peschak is interested, as his subtitle announces, in "Exploring Our Relationship with the Most Feared Fish in the Sea."

That relationship, it turns out, is not so great. On the back cover of this exquisite, coffee-table book, published by the University of Chicago Press, you'll find a shocking statistic:

Sharks killed by people: 38 MILLION People killed by sharks: 5

(Where are these figures from? 38 million is based on estimates of sharks traded on the fin market in the year 2000; 5 is the average annual shark bite fatalities between 2002 and 2012.)

He gives us grisly photos of sharks hunted and killed by the hundreds, piles of shark fins for the lucrative fin market ... There's also the simple threat posed by human pollution, which Peschak illustrates in this encounter between a whale shark and a plastic bag:


How does Peschak feel about all of this? Enraged, of course.

"My Western culture," he writes, "portrays the shark as a malevolent man-eating monster. The fear of sharks has led to violent retribution against these animals, which have been pursued with everything from explosives to rifles to gill nets and hooks."

Benchley/Spielberg, though, aren't the only ones to blame for kindling this fear. John Singleton Copley  captured the horror of a shark attack more than two centuries ago, in his painting Watson and the Shark:


There's a metaphysical quality to this scene, too -- Watson's like a lost soul desperately reaching for good Christian help before he's gobbled up. But it's the sheer terror of those dark, open jaws that always gets me. Pure doom.

Peschak's book, however, isn't pure doom. He shows us shark sanctuaries around the world, as well as the efforts of divers and surfers to create new methods of deterrence. Sharks have a "400-million-year-old sensory system to detect smells, tastes... even low-level electrical impulses." That has led some divers and surfers to develop devices to ward off sharks with a low electrical current. The technology's not the best yet--sometimes, unfortunately, the diver gets zapped in the process, too.

Peschak's book is the ideal gift for the shark lover in your family. Oh, come now, don't roll your eyes at me, my friends.  This is not a throwaway line.

Usually, coffee-table books follow a familiar formula: They go heavy on images and light on the text. While Peschak's book does follow that formulation, his text is hardly superficial. You will learn an extraordinary amount about these amazing creatures in this book -- how they hunted alongside dinosaurs, and how aspects of their anatomy, like their dermal denticles (skin teeth), are a wonder of nature's engineering.

You'll come away with far more than you expected, as well as a sobering thought. Sharks are as old as the dinosaurs, but the biggest threat to their future isn't an asteroid slamming into the earth: It's us.

To learn more about Thomas P. Peschak, check out his website here. I heartily recommend it.

Hmmm...just curious: new in bookstores

curiosity cesare ripa Philip Ball is a writer to be envied -- he's a non-affiliated academic who ranges far and wide wherever his curiosity takes him.

In the case of his new book, curiosity holds up a mirror to itself -- and to all of Western civilization. With Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything (University of Chicago Press), Ball shows the long, difficult road that science has taken in order to be allowed to ask every and any question about the natural world.

The book balances on two questions which he asks  early in the book:

"[I]n the wider world mightn't there be something ill-disciplined, even improper, about a voracious curiosity that permits nothing to be too trivial or obscure?"

"Was there after all something in the old accusation that it is weak-willed to succumb to the wiles of curiosity?"

The answer, too, is given early: "[T]he problem of our times -- and also its great good fortune -- is that temptation is everywhere."

The remainder of the book is a delicious expansion on this point. Long before the Hubble Telescope or the Mars rovers, there were multitudes of truth-seekers who risked punishment and Pandora-like warnings in order to ask the simple question, "Why?" (Cesare Ripa's emblem for the personification of Curiosity, above, gives us an unfriendly-looking figure who's deeply in need of a comb.)

Ball's non-affiliation with any academic institution (according to his website, he did serve as an editor at Nature for many years) clearly shows, and that isn't a bad thing. He's spent enough time working to earn a living that he knows you don't serve yourself or your audience by writing something that's inaccessible.

When, for instance, he describes  a century's worth of evolving attitudes to curiosity, he manages to pull it off in a single, deftly-written sentence: "The turning point in Western attitudes to curiosity occurred in the seventeenth century, which began with an essentially medieval outlook and ended looking like the first draft of the modern age."

If that's all you learn about how the 17th century changed, it's more than enough. Hits the nail right on the head.

Ball is an exhilarating treat to read, either in this new book or in his others ("Universe of Stone," about Chartres Cathedral, is a personal favorite). Let your curiosity be your guide, and don't worry about it: As Ball reminds us, humanity's earned that right.

Timely and timeless: Virgil's translator

I'm not trying to be morbid -- but I do tend to think of the health and welfare of George R.R. Martin a lot, and I'm sure that plenty of other fans of "A Song of Ice and Fire" do, too. Just go over to YouTube and you'll find a music video by the team Geek and Sundry called "Write Like the Wind (George R.R. Martin)" that's so funny it could draw a chuckle out of Tywin Lannister. EPIC TRANSLATOR: David Ferry, at 88.

The other writer I also worry about nearly as much is the award-winning poet David Ferry. He is the sublime modern translator of Publius Vergilius Maro --  otherwise known as Virgil.

No one translating today, in my humble opinion, has better captured the magic of Virgil than Ferry. He's given us translations of the Eclogues and Georgics, and a recent collection published by University of Chicago Press includes passages from the Aeneid. Will we see Ferry's complete translation of this phenomenal, incomplete epic one day?

I hope so, but I worry. Ferry is 88. He's not a spring chicken, and the Aeneid is not a short poem.

On the other hand, Ferry was recently interviewed on the PBS Newshour, and it made me happy. He looks incredibly well and far healthier than a person 10-15 years younger. Check it out below.

According to this interview, his translation of the "Aeneid" should be completed in about two years. I can't wait! (Mr. Ferry, please get a flu shot.)

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Glimpses and sightings of an epic

Dipping into the pages of a new poetry collection by David Ferry, "Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations" (University of Chicago Press), makes me feel as giddy as I do when I hear that a new trailer of Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit" is about to be released.


Ferry is an acclaimed poet in his own right -- check out "Of No Country I Know" -- but what I've eagerly followed over the years are his translations from Virgil.  His "Eclogues" and "Georgics" translations (both published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux), are beautiful songs of the Earth, of prophecy, of pragmatism and protest.  Reading them has always made me wonder, When is Ferry going to tackle the big one?  What about Virgil's "Aeneid"?

His new collection "Bewilderment" gives the answer: He's working on it.

Along with the sharp clarity of original lyrics "Coffee Lips" and "Street Scene," there are long passages from books II and VI of the Mantuan's masterpiece.  I'm more than giddy, however; I'm also humbled by it. Ferry's book is dedicated to his late wife, critic Anne Ferry, and near the end of this collection, his version of Aeneas' departure from Troy feels informed by Ferry's own grief.

After he evokes the image of Aeneas hoisting his lame-legged father onto his back:

I take up the tawny pelt of a lion and

Cover my neck and my broad shoulders with it,

And bowing down, I accept the weight of my father...

he then continues on with Aeneas' grief when he fails to find his wife at a reunion site before the fugitive Trojans escape from their burning city:

When all of us,

At last, had gotten there, we all were there,

But she had vanished and she wasn't there.

Gone from her people, gone from her child, and her husband.

That final line is searingly painful to read. Anyone who's lost a loved one knows what this is. Everyone is Aeneas in their grief.

Glimpses and sightings of Virgil's epic -- I feel a little like Palinurus with Carthage behind and the deep sea ahead.  Can't wait for the rest of Ferry's project.