Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Jay Kirk, Kingdom Under Glass, 2010

Here's an effective opening sentence for a book: "He felt heartsick when he saw the gorilla start its death tumble." And then a very functional second sentence: "It was coming right for him."

They're from Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals, my pal Jay Kirk's first book, to be published by Holt in November. I met Jay when we were both fellows at the MacDowell Colony, a sort of artists' retreat where writers and painters and such are given cabins in the woods and three meals a day. Evening entertainment is usually comprised of ping pong and presentations. Jay and I paired ours, since I'd been given a magnificent "cabin" -- heated flagstone floors, a loft, more space than I could fill with all the documents I needed to write The Family. I read an excerpt about Jonathan Edwards, which wasn't as boring as you might think -- there was sex, Satan, and blood. Jay read an excerpt from Kingdom, then very much in-progress. It might have sounded less promising even than Edwards: its subject is a 19th century taxidermist named Carl Akeley. But Akeley didn't just stuff animals, he hunted them -- he once strangled a leopard with his bare hands -- all in the service of "knowledge," or maybe it was art, or maybe it was just for the thrills of the Gilded Age and a rising empire that sought to freeze the world behind glass. You can see the results and decide for yourself -- Akeley created the New York Natural History Museum's Hall of African Mammals. But don't just go and gawk -- read Jay's book, as I'm starting to do today, for an important piece of the story of how Americans first came to see wilderness as "nature."

Also, authors: covet this cover: