Books

Fathoms

Fathoms, The World in the Whale, by Rebecca Giggs (Simon & Schuster, 284 pages)

In July rescuers worked three days to free a humpback whale that had become entangled in 4,000 pounds of junk near the entrance to New York Harbor. This story had a happy ending; many do not, like the sperm whale found on the coast of Maine with a greenhouse in its stomach.

Yes, a greenhouse, full of tarps, ropes, flower pots and other necessities for growing tomatoes. Also found in the belly of the beast: a coat hanger, an ice cream tub and parts of a mattress. Suddenly the Book of Jonah doesn’t seem quite so fanciful.

“Like a chamber furnished for a prophet or castaway, these stomach contents recalled stories of people surviving inside whales,” writes Rebecca Giggs in her journey to “the world in the whale,” Fathoms.

This is the first book by Giggs, a nature writer in Perth, Australia, who has been compared to Rebecca Solnit (Drowned River) and Annie Dillard (The Abundance) but most reminds me of Diane Ackerman, the American poet and naturalist whose books include The Moon by Whale Light.

Like Ackerman, Giggs writes with a pen dipped in awe and approaches the natural world with reverence and curiosity. They also share an ability to say ordinary things in extraordinary ways, as when Giggs described a tired man with “fatigue pleated around his eyes” or says of a wet boat, “seawater griddles the windows.” In other words, they are not so much authors as poets.

Giggs begins with a riveting experience of attending the death of a whale on Australia’s coast, in her hometown. In nature, the death of a whale is called “whalefall,” a beautiful euphemism that describes how the whale’s body descends to the ocean floor, where it is food for a hidden ecosystem. “A whale in the wild goes on enriching our planet, ticktocking with animate energy, long after its demise,” she writes. “So the death of a whale proves meaningful to a vibrant host of dependent creatures, even as it may look senseless from the shore.”

The whale dying on the beach was not so beautiful, although Giggs manages to make it so, with her descriptions of a community that gathers around the whale in empathy.

As the whale wheezes and gasps over several days, surfers kneel, families take pictures, a woman tries to crown the whale with a wreath made of seagrass and flowers. (“It took three wildlife officers to pull her off the side of the whale, kicking.”) Giggs herself passes the time interviewing wildlife officers about why they can’t humanely euthanize the whale and why, when it dies, its body will be carted to a landfill. “The whale as landfill,” she writes. “It was a metaphor, and then it wasn’t.” She touches the whale and discerns its heartbeat, and then when it passes, launches an exploration of why whales, whose genetic ancestors go back 50 million years, elicit such emotion in humans and what is happening to them in a time of ecological change.

As made evident from her opening story about the greenhouse, Giggs is disturbed about how the detritus of capitalism is filling the ocean and its inhabitants. At least this cruelty to whales is unintentional, unlike in generations in past when we hunted the animals to near extinction. (As late as 1960 whales were the planet’s most economically valuable animal, commanding $30,000 per carcass, which amounts to about $260,000 today, Giggs says.)

She writes in unemotional detail of the boatside flaying of whales and how the whale, especially in the 19th century, was shockingly present in almost every aspect of life — from candles to oil to hair brushes to eyeglass frames to piano keys to the stuffing in sofas. Whales are not fish — they are mammals — but for a time, the Roman Catholic Church sanctioned their meat on Fridays during Lent. And during World War II, Americans were encouraged to eat whale meat in order to save beef for troops.

Fathoms is filled with interesting detail like this, and although she is not a journalist Giggs does a good job of separating myth from fact, while leaving open the prospect of mystery, as when a whale-watch captain explains the leaping of whales as nothing more than a grooming ritual, trying to get barnacles and lice off their skin. (Whales, it turns out, are lice-ridden, which you might want to remember if you ever come across one stranded on a beach.) Actually, some scientists believe that the leaping that so thrills whale watchers may enable communication with distant whales, and Giggs is not willing to discount the idea of play.

In all, Fathoms is a book of wonder, and although the American reader may occasionally tire of its focus on Australian events, Griggs is an accomplished tour guide to their complex world. B+

BOOK NOTES
If you haven’t already taken a side, it’s time to choose: Team Dan or Team Blythe?
Dan, of course, is Dan Brown, one of New Hampshire’s most famous writers, and his former wife was said to have been a great part of his success. The pair that The Guardian once called a “formidable literary team” divorced last year, however, and recent headlines show that a “finalized” divorce is not necessarily final.
Blythe Brown, according to The Boston Globe and other news sources, is suing the The Da Vinci Code author saying that he withheld information about new projects, among other unethical behavior she alleges.
Those new projects, it’s been reported, include a TV series based on Brown’s popular character Robert Langdon, and a children’s book released recently.
It’s a pity that the scandal has eclipsed the publication of the children’s book, which looks simply delightful. Wild Symphony (Rodale, 44 pages), illustrated by freelance artist Susan Batori of Hungary, is the story of an all-animal symphony conducted by Maestro Mouse. It’s not just a book but an interactive experience, with a website (wildsymphony.com), app and accompanying songs composed by Brown, who was an aspiring musician before he became an author.
Brown is not the first author of adult books to later publish a children’s book. Others include Carson McCullers (Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as a Pig), William Faulkner (The Wishing Tree), Aldous Huxley (The Crows of Pearblossom), Ian Fleming, creator of the James Bond books, who also wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and of course C.S. Lewis, equally famous for his Christian apologetics like Mere Christianity and his children’s books set in Narnia (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, among them).
There’s also E.B. White, who was a staff writer for The New Yorker and co-authored a classic book on writing, The Elements of Style, before going on to write children’s classics like Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little.
Another already famous writer has a children’s picture book in the works: J.K. Rowling’s The Ickabog, set for publication in November. Rowling and Brown will have to sell a lot of books, however, to compete with the best-selling children’s book of this week, also by an unexpected author: I Promise by LeBron James, the NBA superstar, is an aspirational book for preschoolers up to grade 3, illustrated by Nina Mata.

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