May 2010

Alan Good

nonfiction

The Animal Review: The Genius, Mediocrity, and Breathtaking Stupidity That Is Nature by Jacob Lentz and Steve Nash

Jacob Lentz and Steve Nash hate America. They also hate pandas, alpacas, and locusts. In their new book, The Animal Review: The Genius, Mediocrity, and Breathtaking Stupidity That Is Nature, which is not so much new as bound, Lentz, a writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live, and Nash, an advertising writer, examine and then grade various animals based on characteristics such as cuteness, usefulness, and “deadliosity.” The animals listed above all received Fs. I know the authors hate America because, in reviewing the North American mountain goat (Grade: B+/A-), they claim that most animals indigenous to this continent are lame: “Our eagles are bald, our trout are swimming at third-grade levels.” That quote goes on, but I can’t go with it. I’m reluctant to reveal their views on the bald eagle, which every red-blooded American knows deserves an A++; however, journalistic integrity compels me: “The bald eagle… is the entitled blue blood of Kingdom Animalia.” They agree that the bald eagle, due to “its terrifyingly sharp beak, long talons, stark yellow eyes against a bright white head, and a wingspan that can reach eight feet… has style to spare,” but that’s not good enough for these freedom-haters. Lentz and Nash (it doesn’t have the ring of Sacco and Vanzetti) can’t find anything physically or evolutionarily amiss with our national symbol, so they invent an attitude problem: “the fawning worship of an entire nuclear-armed nation went to its head, and soon not even its massive nests (the largest of any bird in North America) could hold its swelling ego.” Treason! 

The Animal Review is not an important book, but it is a book, as opposed to a blog, which it also is. Books based on blogs are popular these days. Books about things people did for a year are also popular. I’ll call my blog The Year of Living Drunkenly. (I also considered The Year of Being Regular.) The climax will be when some top editor takes me out for a three-martini lunch and says, “A.G., baby, we want to do a Drunkenly book.” 

Somebody said something like that to Lentz and Nash, but mercifully I didn’t have to read about it. There are good things about The Animal Review. It’s at its best when its authors relate odd facts in humorous fashion: “Like all members of phylum Echinodermata, sea cucumbers have an endoskeleton just below the skin. Oh -- and when threatened, many a sea cucumber will shoot its organs out of its anus.” 

There are some funny observations: “As with all disgusting ocean creatures, the sea cucumber is considered a delicacy in Asia.” (You might think gustatory appeal would factor in to the grading, but not so: the clam gets a C, and the garden snail barely passes.) 

The book is at its worst when the facts are phony, and when metaphors are abused: “The locust is Nature’s teenage girl.” When food is scarce, desert locusts move closer together to compete for resources; then “the crowding triggers a metamorphosis and the locusts enter the feared ‘gregarious phase.’ This is characterized by a remarkable shift in appearance and attitude and a precipitous drop in grade-point average.”  

Do you remember Chuck Norris? Do you remember those Chuck Norris jokes that were popular a couple years ago? The king cobra is the Chuck Norris of The Animal Review: “One bite from King Cobra is enough to kill twenty-five people or drop an elephant. Sometimes King Cobra does this as a party trick.” If you liked that joke you’ll like this book. 

Lentz and Nash wrote The Animal Review because biology is too nonjudgmental. Science, they claim in the foreword, “ignored the fundamental reality that some parts of Nature are more interesting than others.” I disagree. Ask an entomologist why she’s an entomologist, and she’ll probably say insects, particularly the insects she studies, are the most interesting creatures.  

They’re not the first writers to turn a judgmental eye to nature. Ogden Nash wrote subjectively about many animals. My favorite poem turns on the stupidity of pigs. 

Here is what Herman Melville, in a story called “The Encantadas,” has to say about a creature regarded by many people today as adorable: 

What outlandish beings are these? Erect as men, but hardly as symmetrical, they stand all round the rock like sculptured caryatides, supporting the next range of eaves above. Their bodies are grotesquely misshapen, their bills short, their feet seemingly legless; while the members at their sides are neither fin, wing, nor arm. And truly neither fish, flesh, nor fowl is the penguin; as an edible, pertaining neither to Carnival nor Lent; without exception the most ambiguous and least lovely creature yet discovered by man. Though dabbling in all three elements, and indeed possessing some rudimental claims to all, the penguin is at home in none. On land it stumps; afloat it sculls; in the air it flops. As if ashamed of her failure, Nature keeps this ungainly child hidden away at the ends of the earth.

One of the best things about the book is its design: it looks and feels like one of those educational animal books for children. The nostalgic pleasure for this former Zoobooks aficionado ended there; those childhood books induced awe and wonder. The Animal Review induces frequent eye rolling and occasional interior laughter. 

The Animal Review is not a book to be read in one sitting. It’s better to just flip through it and look at the pictures, try to guess, from the table of contents, what the animals’ grades will be, and then disagree with the grade, and wonder why the hell they didn’t include otters. 

There are some places a blog can’t go. A print copy of The Animal Review is perfect for the person who doesn’t have a computer, or a smart phone, Kindle, iPad, etc. It could also be useful during the part of a plane ride when they tell you to turn off all electronic devices. I usually spend that time shaking and sweating and holding in my screams as I imagine the cabin engulfed in flames, but some people prefer to read a book or magazine. Blogs don’t last forever. They’ll stop maintaining the Animal Review blog eventually; the book will be proof that it existed. 

I hate the foreword, and some of the jokes are lamer than most of the animals indigenous to North America, but The Animal Review is funny. I’d like to be able to say, “Buy this book!,” but why should you buy it when all of the content (and more) is available for free on the Internet?

In conclusion, I’m happy that the skunk, the vulture, and the ladybug got high marks, but I’m pissed about the alpaca. Grade: C 

The Animal Review: The Genius, Mediocrity, and Breathtaking Stupidity That Is Nature by Jacob Lentz and Steve Nash
Bloomsbury
ISBN: 1608190250
144 Pages