Wednesday, June 6, 2012

June Book Review Club

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@Barrie Summy

I'm not even apologizing anymore for being a bad blogger. I yam what I yam. 

Speaking of yams, here's a book about bunnies. (Yes, I know that makes no sense. There's a reason I don't blog more.) Don't forget to click the icon for awesome reviews!

By Richard Adams
Macmillan, 1972

CHARLOTTE’S WEB is delightful, and I re-read THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY more than once in my far-off youth. On the whole, though, I’ve avoided animal books. In my view, any book that dresses a toad in a waistcoat is best used as a bookend.  (Yes, I do mean WIND IN THE WILLOWS.) (Not Pooh, though…he's a stuffed animal, which is A-OK with me.)

And so it happens that—even though it’s the favorite book of a wide variety of friends and relations (Yep. A Pooh joke)—I have only recently read WATERSHIP DOWN. Or, more accurately, listened to it on an MP3 player.

I always figured this was one of those charming books about bunnies nibbling clover under halcyon skies, raising their glossy heads only to spout a Zen koan.

I was wrong. As a result, I have spent forty forlorn years not knowing that hraka is Lapine for excrement, and that tharn is an economical synonym for that “deer in the headlights” look George W. Bush used to get when speaking to us from the Oval Office.

This is truly exquisite world-building. The rabbits of WATERSHIP DOWN have names and a language and culture. But theirs is a rabbit’s world, not a human one. It’s utterly true to itself —these rabbits know only what real rabbits would know, with nary a waistcoat in sight.

The book was born as a bedtime story for Richard Adams’s children, who eventually challenged him to write it down. While he was doing so, he watched rabbits and consulted an expert on rabbity behavior. He learned how wild rabbits react to weather, food, danger, and one another, how and why they build their warrens, how they treat their ills and communicate their needs.  From that knowledge, he built a society.

True, the rabbits talk to one another, using a language called Lapine. There’s also a halting common language that enables rabbits to communicate with birds and other animals.

And true, the story may be a bit less than lapinesque.  A prescient young rabbit named Fiver gets intimations of disaster, but cannot persuade his head rabbit to evacuate the warren. As a result, Fiver and his cousin Hazel—the book’s hero—lead a small band of exiles out of the burrow, following Fiver’s sixth sense to a new home. They fight off enemies, figure out how to float across rivers, and launch a quest for does to complete their new warren.

Their adventures take them to a couple of warrens that do not operate according to rabbits’ natural law. One is corrupted by the influence of men, and one is under the sway of a rabbit dictator—probably the most unlikely departure from reality.

But by the time we confront these anomalies, we’re so comfortable in the rabbit world that we accept the proceedings while understanding how very unnatural these deviant warrens are.

Having won our trust, Adams makes it believable when Hazel and others spring a pair of does from a rabbit hutch. It’s even okay (sort of) when Hazel launches something like a United Nations peace initiative with other species.

I know when I’m wrong. Now, on to THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN.