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Jay Kirk – Kingdom Under Glass

December 10, 2010

LibraryThing Early Reviewers149. Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man’s Quest to Preserve the World’s Great Animals by Jay Kirk (2010)

Length: 374 pages

Genre: Non-Fiction; Biography

Started: 26 November 2010
Finished: 01 December 2010

Where did it come from? LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Why do I have it? I initially requested it because it involved both museums and conservation.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 12 October 2010.

A taxidermist
concerned with conservation.
Bit ironic, no?

Summary: Carl Akeley is the founder of modern taxidermy, and is responsible for the famous African Hall in the American Museum of Natural History. Akeley lived and worked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when African hunting safaris were still popular, but the realization was growing that Africa’s abundance was not limitless, and that man might very well be hunting most of the big game animals to the brink of extinction. Akeley and his wife Mickie were among those hunters, but Akeley’s goal was not sport, but rather the preservation and reproduction of Nature in museum dioramas where they might serve as a snapshot and a record to instruct future generations. But where is the balance between preservation in a glass box and preservation of a living species, the balance between killing animals and saving them?

Review: There is a way of writing narrative non-fiction, and in particular narrative history and biography, that works to balance fact and speculation and to bring the story and the subject to fore while letting the author’s presence recede into the background. I’ve read multiple books that do this successfully – The Devil in the White City and The Lost City of Z, among others – and I’ve no doubt that it’s the style Kirk was shooting for in Kingdom Under Glass. Unfortunately, he missed the mark: Kirk’s style of narrative vacillates between reproducing conversations and even inner thoughts without so much as a qualifier, to presenting entire scenes where every verb is slapped with a “might have,” and every inference or interpretation is defended almost belligerently in the endnotes. In general, his authorial voice comes through on every page, as though he didn’t trust the story to be interesting enough on its own.

Even forgiving the strange biographer’s shenanigans, Kirk’s prose style just didn’t sit well with me. There were lots of strange sentence constructions and random fragments, and a tendency to inflate the writing with more two-dollar words (occasionally used slightly incorrectly) than were necessary. I got a sense that he had no problem playing fast and loose with the language and the facts if he thought his interpretation sounded better. For example, there’s some nice alliteration in the phrase “while the mastodon’s skeleton macerated in a brick tank the size of an aquarium…”, but unfortunately what Kirk is actually talking about is an elephant, not a mastodon; a telling mistake in a book that’s likely to be of interest to people who know something about zoology.

But even forgiving the narrative style *and* the prose, I still had a hard time getting involved with the story. Akeley lead an interesting life, no doubt, but he’s not a particularly likable or sympathetic subject for a biography. To me, a ten-year-old who spends his summers skinning squirrels in his bedroom does not say “misunderstood future genius” so much as “potential sociopath,” and his thirty-year-old self’s “romance” with a fifteen-year-old runaway who was more than a little mentally unbalanced herself read as equally creepy. Neither Carl nor his wife particularly grew on me as the story progressed – rather the opposite, in fact; Mickie got so obnoxious that I started to wish for a lion to eat her and put us all out of our misery – and my favorite parts were when the story focused more on the Akeley’s associates and acquaintances.

For all of that, however, I’m still not entirely sorry I read this book. When I was a child, I loved natural history museums second only to zoos, and I did learn quite a bit about the origin and creation of the animal dioramas that always fascinated yet repulsed me. Also, Kirk paints a very good picture of the tail end of the Gilded Age and the gradual waning of the safari craze, and all of the accompanying attitudes and prejudices of the time, which is not a topic that I’ve read much about. (I do wish that there had been a little more time spent on the founding of the first gorilla preserve and the shift to conservationism that was hinted at in the title, however.) Overall, while I did learn something, and I appreciate the introduction to a person and a topic I might not otherwise have thought much about, I didn’t care much for its packaging, and probably would have been better served reading one of Akeley’s own books, or other contemporary memoirs. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: While Kirk’s style might work for others more than it did for me, based on my experience I’d probably say give this one a pass, unless you’re particularly interested in the topic.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: None yet. Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: He felt heartsick when he saw the gorilla start its death tumble.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 12: “At best, the work was a sort of assembly line: One boy skinned a bird, passed it along to the next, who wound tow for the body.” – the fiber of flax, hemp, or jute prepared for spinning by scutching (which means to dress flax by beating).
  • p. 22: “Others had tried excelsior as a substitute for muscle, and even Charles Willson Peale, who had built the very first natural history museum for the public in Philadelphia back in 1786, had experimented by carving the musculature of his manikins out of wood.” – fine wood shavings, used for stuffing, packing, etc.
  • p. 52: “Something he would have to see and find with his hands, the ape’s unseen essence – the pongid’s noumenon, as his philosopher friend might have put it – concealed and revealed simultaneously by the deception of its outer skin.” – the object, itself inaccessible to experience, to which a phenomenon is referred for the basis or cause of its sense content.
  • p. 67: “In each massive hall were dozens of smaller pavilions, where the process of electrometallurgy, or modern dentistry, or demonstrations of how rock could be crushed and pulverized now to a more exact scree, or gold extracted by chemical lixivation, or otherwise useless gems plucked from the deep could be polished and put to good use, were celebrated alongside the endless new machines.” – leaching or treatment with a solvent.
  • p. 117: “It was dark out, so no matter how she narrowed her eyes, Mickie could only make out the vague adumbration of a tree here and there in the cloudy moonlight.” – a faint image or resemblance; an outline or sketch.
  • p. 121: “And here they were, cultivating land that had never been broken, living in mud-wattle huts with grass roofs, a tribe of arrivistes given to drinking champagne and silk garters.” – a person who has recently acquired unaccustomed status, wealth, or success, esp. by dubious means and without earning concomitant esteem.
  • p. 123: “He recommended leather leggings for snaky country, then demonstrated on a mannequin how to properly wind a puttee around the calf, and how to fix the garter just below the knee.” – a long strip of cloth wound spirally round the leg from ankle to knee, worn esp. formerly as part of a soldier’s uniform.
  • p. 168: “The blue silk puggaree wrapped around Mickie’s own white sun helmet fluttered like a pennant in the grassy breeze, and from the nearby bank of the river they could hear the rattle of seedpods in the stirring bulrushes.” – a scarf of silk or cotton, usually colored or printed, wound round a hat or helmet and falling down behind as a protection against the sun.
  • p. 185: “Did they know that when he was leaving for this great adventure, J. P. Morgan himself, that carbuncled ugliferous half-rotten old Midas, stuffed to the gills with his rotten wealth, had said, “Wall Street expects every lion to do its duty!”” – Google turns up only 45 results for this, and one is this book itself. I suspect it’s not a real word.
  • p. 278: “Instead, he’d entwined himself as best he could in a shrub – the only hope he had of not blasting himself off the mountain – and when he pulled the trigger it was like he’d disengaged a chock under the ape.” – a wedge or block of wood, metal, or the like, for filling in a space, holding an object steady, etc.

**All quotes come from an Advance Reader’s Edition and may not reflect the final published text.**

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. December 10, 2010 9:54 am

    Oh, sorry this one didn’t work for you. Than it probably won’t work for me either and your idea of finding Akeley’s own books is a good one. Thanks for the review.

    • December 10, 2010 9:59 am

      Gavin – This is definitely a case where I think picking it up and reading a page or two would be sufficient to tell if you’d get along with Kirk’s prose style, and is definitely recommended before you buy. But, on the other hand, if you’ve got an e-reader, Akeley’s memoir In Brightest Africa is in the public domain!

  2. December 10, 2010 1:16 pm

    Oh, I hate it when biographers don’t work with their subjects—people have flaws and can be downright weird and creepy; acknowledge it!

    • December 13, 2010 9:06 am

      Omni – Kirk wasn’t exactly cagey about the fact that Akeley was a little creepy – apparently his aunt wanted to institutionalize him as a kid – but he also did kind of have a big ol’ crush on Akeley, too. Which, given that the dude strangled a leopard with his bare hands while its jaw was clamped on his arm, I can kind of understand. That’s badass.

  3. December 10, 2010 7:06 pm

    But I like the word “arrivistes” though — is it just me, or do the French have a lot of words that mean that? Does that say something about the French?

    • December 13, 2010 9:07 am

      Jenny – Maybe just that the old money folks in France are really good about coining phrases?

  4. December 11, 2010 8:17 pm

    I do like that word “ugliferous” and may employ it in the future as a vague insult, maybe.

    • December 13, 2010 9:08 am

      Sharry – Real word or not, it definitely does lend itself to eloquent cussing. :)

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