By Dan Riskin, Ph.D.
Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 260 pgs
Reviewed by Jon Muldoon
Dan Riskin was probably the first kid in his social circle during elementary school to break the news that Santa isn’t real.
I don’t know this for a fact, but judging by Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You, his literary non-fiction debut, the Beach resident seems to delight in not just myth-busting, but tearing down the very foundations of the way many think of the natural world.
The premise of the book is to share the many odd, fascinating and, yes, often gross ways in which creatures in the natural world go about their business, whether that business is eating, sleeping, feeding or reproducing. Through it all, Riskin (originally a bat biologist, now cohost of Discovery Channel Canada’s Daily Planet and host of Animal Planet’s Monsters Inside Me) emphasizes the evolutionary nature of much of this behaviour. A frequent point is that anyone attempting to model their lives on a “natural” model is either delusional or, at the very least, not very well informed on how much of the natural world works.
In fact, the book was inspired by Riskin hoping to find something other than evolutionary instinct in his love and affection for his newborn son, despite his knowledge that even human reproduction is really a product of “meat robots” following the orders of our DNA programming.
Despite all that heavy stuff, I haven’t had this much fun reading about the bodily functions of animals since, well, ever to be frank.
The playful nature of Riskin’s journey though the naturally bizarre is divided, appropriately enough, into chapters themed on the seven deadly sins: greed, lust, sloth, gluttony, envy, wrath and pride.
The book covers so much ground that it would appear to almost rule out a sequel, though I’m sure there’s an infinite variety of oddness still waiting for a moment in the spotlight.
I wouldn’t know where to begin with offering examples, as Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You covers everything from single-celled organisms to killer whales – but let’s try.
There’s the emerald sea slug, which after eating photosynthetic algae, actually manages to be an animal that performs photosynthesis (the mechanism that allows plants to “feed” on sunlight). There’s the startling revelation that a male zebra will kill baby zebras that aren’t his own offspring – therefore giving his own DNA a better chance of survival.
Then there’s the northern pintail duck, which has forced intercourse with females, in about a third of a second. You don’t have to delve too far into the details to fully appreciate why Riskin believes we really shouldn’t be modelling our own way of living after nature.
Keeping with the religious theme, the closing chapter does get a touch preachy, but that could be forgiven from someone as obviously passionate about the miracles of nature as Riskin seems to be.
To decide whether the book is for you, perhaps it’s best to consider the introduction, in which the author describes his experience in trying to convince a Canadian doctor to remove a botfly from his head (he named it Georgia), picked up while studying bats in Belize.
After describing the way the botfly reproduces, by planting an egg on a mosquito, which then plants the egg in a convenient mammal, Riskin takes great joy in describing the rest of the trip, during which his team tagged bats with radio transmitters. But he doesn’t shy away from the graphic details of what happens when a maggot grows in his scalp.
If that’s the most disgusting thing you’ve heard all week, maybe Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You isn’t the book for you. If, however, that rouses your curiosity even remotely, do yourself a favour and pick up a copy – it only gets weirder from there.
By Janet Dowler
iUniverse LLC, 540 pgs
Reviewed by Bill MacLean
Beach writer Janet Dowler has just released her second novel called Milk and Honey, War and Waste: Montreal’s Battle to Survive in Seventeenth Century New France. It’s a long title (certainly compared to that of her first release, Kintyre) and an ambitious undertaking, but in the 540 pages of Milk and Honey Dowler does a masterful job of bringing to life the world of les habitants in early Quebec. And she does it with the same controlled, consistent style that made Kintyre such an impressive debut.
Marte-Marie is the narrator of Milk and Honey and an old woman in 1715 when she is urged by her grandson, Pierre, to commit to paper the story of her life.
“You must write down everything,” Pierre continued. “From the very beginning in France, right up to today. And don’t leave out anything. Even if it’s bad. We want to have the whole story of our beginnings here.”
It’s a daunting task that Marte-Marie is not sure she is up to, but agrees to try. What gradually emerges is the incredible story of the founding of Ville Marie, the small outpost on the island of Mount Royal – the founding of Montreal.
Marte-Marie begins her memoir in the year 1650 when she is a young girl living in St. Joseph, Anjou, France. Her family are poor tenant farmers eking out a meager living. Life is hard, but of course, little Marte-Marie knows no other way. When tragedy strikes leaving her an orphan, she falls under the care of her local priest.
After she grows into a young woman he places her with an order of nuns whose sisters run a hospital in the nearby town of La Fleche. It is here that Marte-Marie begins her exceptional journey, and it is at this point in the novel where fiction encounters fact.
While working in the hospital, Marte-Marie hears tales of Jérôme le Royer de la Dauversière, the visionary founder of the Societé Notre-Dame de Montréal. When three of the hospital’s sisters – Catherine Mace, Marie Maillet and Marguerite Bourgeoys (who will eventually found the Congregation of Notre-Dame de Montreal) – decide to follow Jeanne Mance and Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve to join the small community of Ville Marie and minister to the natives of New France, Marte-Marie tags along.
On route she fights off the plague onboard ship, encounters Bishop Laval of Quebec who, being a Jesuit, is suspicious of the Sulpician order encroaching on his territory, and eventually arrives at Ville Marie, a tiny settlement of fewer than 100 colonists.
Soon Marte-Marie meets and marries one of the original coureur de bois, Hubert Vallon, who has been trapping in the region around the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers for several years before her arrival, and who is friends of the Algonquin, as well as the explorers Radisson and Groseilliers.
She and Vallon eventually establish a small but profitable farm on the island of Montreal where Marte-Marie becomes a true habitant, fighting off Iroquois raiding parties bent on driving the settlers back to France, enduring harsh winters, and the lonely isolation of being in charge of the farm and a growing family, while her husband joins Sieur de La Salle on his explorations of the Great Lakes, the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and the area that will eventually become Louisiana.
Hers is a deeply personal story, but one that also encompasses the early history of Canada.
In Marte-Marie, Dowler has created a reliable narrator; a strong, capable woman who describes the life of a habitant in rich detail, her strength and fortitude evident in the language of her narrative. Just as in Kintyre, Dowler avoids the temptation to slip into melodrama, instead maintaining a calm, matter-of-fact storytelling style that keeps her young grandson – as well as the rest of her readers – utterly captivated. Marte-Marie, even before she begins, realizes that she is about to attempt a monumental task, but one that is crucial to her family, as well as for the people about whom she is writing.
“I paused, remembering the first time I read one of Aesop’s Fables and realized the power and the timelessness of the written word … Could I produce that power?”
Marte-Marie does – as does Dowler.