Neptune's Ark:From Ichthyosaurs to Orcas
by David Rains Wallace
(University of California Press) $27.50
David Rains Wallace uses a spur of land above San Francisco as his inspiration for a quietly fascinating history of the sea. He has a bit to say on the strange early creatures, such as Cyclomedusa (resembles a fried egg), but his great love is for marine mammals: Enaliarctos, a bear-like ancestor of seals; Allodesmus, "great blubbery beasts with lustful, pugnacious dispositions"; and Steller's sea cow, a giant West Coast manatee hunted to extinction so quickly that no complete specimen remains.
While there is something beautiful in simply understanding, say, the origin of walruses, it's not an honest beauty unless you admit that scientists make mistakes. Big whopping mistakes—like accidentally piecing together fossilized skeletons from different species and calling it a single gargantuan sea snake. (At the heart of every paleontologist is a kid pining for monsters.) And until recently, scientists didn't speak out against mass animal slaughter. Fortunately, Wallace gives a great deal of space to the ways we've misunderstood things, which few science writers do, and lets the reader know about things we still don't understand.
Wallace's stories can be really fun: sea otters learning that octopuses, a favorite food, love to live in aluminum cans, and serious discussions of really cool gross things like lampreys and hagfish. But there's a note of sadness. Along with their bickering, scientists don't necessarily take good care of their own. The man who may have been the greatest marine fossil hunter of the past century, Douglas Emlong, drifted into madness and committed suicide while the Smithsonian withheld funding for his finds, which were so brilliant that paleontologists are still sorting them out. LAUREL MAURY
Misery Loves Comedy
by Ivan Brunetti
Ivan Brunetti seems to have spent his entire life on the verge of a nervous breakdown. His comic Schizo, collected here with various other works, is like a 200-page therapy session where he scrapes the tar off his horrible, horrible soul. It's only fitting then that Misery Loves Comedy, this intensely personal yet ultimately public display of human slander, has an introduction by Brunetti's real-life therapist. To Brunetti, the world is a sick, depraved mound and everything on it deserves to be wiped into oblivion. "My ultimate fantasy is, like, I'm Jim Jones and planet Earth is my Jonestown...." His drawings transition seamlessly from classic cartoon styles to realistic pen and ink, but his themes stay focused: He's a piece of crap, the world is an even bigger piece of crap, and there's no hope for any of it to get better. When the comic isn't an illustrated manifesto against humanity, it works as hard as it can to disturb and alienate anyone who might read it. His short strips and single-frame comics are possibly the most disgusting, scatological drawings ever published, yet somehow they're undeniably funny. Anyone who doesn't share Brunetti's black sense of humor could easily find his work to be vile and atrocious, and that seems to be exactly what he is aiming for. "Someday I'll shit out a work so filled with hatred for the human condition, it'll cauterize skin on contact." JEFF KIRBY
The Little Girl and the Cigarette
by Benoit Duteurtre
(Melville House) $ 14.95
You've got to hand it to the French. Benoit Duteurtre is a young satirist who's written 10 books, and Milan Kundera has sung his praises. Duteurtre has a reputation as a rabble-rouser and provocateur, so what do the French do? They give him his own TV show, called Astonish Me Benoit. Imagine if we did the same in the U.S.—the mind reels at the thought of a 1970s variety show called That's So Vonnegut.
The Little Girl and the Cigarette is the first of Duteurtre's books to be translated into English, and luckily the satire translates as smoothly as the language. A man sneaks a forbidden cigarette in a bathroom, when a child walks in on him. The little girl screams bloody murder, and soon enough, the smoker is on trial for pedophilia—corruption of a minor, don'tcha know—while a cold-blooded killer on death row starts spouting Deepak Chopra–like platitudes and the masses scream for his release. Like most satires, the ending is a little weak (can you really remember how Gulliver's Travels ends?) but the novel goes down swinging—it gets its excited jabs in at everything from the nanny state to the way that children rule the adult world like tiny tyrants. PAUL CONSTANT
The Ministry of Special Cases
by Nathan Englander
Noses bear symbolic weight in Nathan Englander's first novel, The Ministry of Special Cases. (His first book was the short-story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.) Nikolai Gogol's short story "The Nose" comes to mind, another story of urban panic and disorientation that bucks easy interpretation. But where Gogol is dreamy and surreal, Englander writes his characters into a vivid social and historical moment: The nasally well-endowed Poznan family is torn apart by Argentina's Dirty War, when several thousand students, trade unionists, and left-wing activists are "disappeared" by their government. Pato Poznan, the only child, is arrested by the junta's agents, and his parents' marriage fractures as their responses to the kidnapping diverge. Englander's style mixes the ridiculous and the very serious. He creates a blackly humorous sense of unease, writing jaunty dialogue even as his characters bottom out and despair. The nose jobs that the Poznans eventually receive are funny and horrifying, and the aesthetically mixed results cut their last connection with Pato and their Jewish heritage. Three nose jobs in, one starts to lose track of what Englander might be trying to say about identity, the past, and capital-M Memory. But the eponymous Ministry, where they repeatedly attempt to file a habeas corpus claim, is an awesome, exasperating vision of bureaucracy. DOMINIC SCARPELLI