July 26, 2012
(++++) BACK IN PAPERBACK
Saving the Ghost of the Mountain: An Expedition Among Snow Leopards in Mongolia. By Sy Montgomery. Photographs by Nic Bishop. Sandpiper. $7.99.
Frankenstein Takes the Cake. By Adam Rex. Sandpiper. $7.99.
These two reissues – of a serious book from 2009 and a super-silly one from 2008 – provide great opportunities to revisit and re-enjoy some wonderful writing and unusual viewpoints. Saving the Ghost of the Mountain is extraordinary for one reason in particular. Notice that the subtitle refers to an expedition among snow leopards. Yes, among – but not with them. These famously elusive animals were nowhere to be seen when the scientists profiled in this “Scientists in the Field” volume trekked through Mongolia looking for them. Oh yes, there was evidence that there were snow leopards around – and Sy Montgomery discusses tracking, scat and other ways of knowing that the big cats were somewhere out there, while Nic Bishop’s fine photos display what the expedition did find. The book is full of facts about snow leopards, too – and, for that matter, about other animals (a picture of a woman milking a yak is a highlight; there is a page about wild horses called takhi; there are a closeup of a desert hedgehog, and a photo of a herder driving his goats; and so on). There are indeed photos of snow leopards – just not ones taken during this expedition. Bishop says he was not disappointed to be unable to photograph or even see one, because the animals thus retain their mystery. And Montgomery explains her own challenges during the trip, including her insistence on adhering to her vegetarian diet in a land where, she admits, “vegetarianism makes no sense” (the Mongolians seemed remarkably accepting of her insistence on her very Western, esoteric approach to food – a testimony to their kindness and generosity). Most of the book is about the methods of hunting for snow leopards while driving around Mongolia in a “twelve-seat Russian-made Furgon – a van with a jeeplike chassis and two big gas tanks.” There are many delays, few roads and a great deal of dust (a significant challenge for Bishop). There are also some remarkable beauties, including the brightly colored doors of the one-room house called a ger, which can be taken apart quickly and moved from place to place (one page even explains how to put one up). Saving the Ghost of the Mountain is a fascinating story of an expedition deemed a success even without locating the animals the scientists are studying. “Being a snow leopard researcher doesn’t seem so glamorous anymore,” writes Montgomery at one point. “Tom [McCarthy, conservation director of the Seattle-based Snow Leopard Trust] has come to Mongolia to sniff for pee and search for poop.” Yet there is glamor of a sort in this failed-but-not-quite-failed quest – and a chance for young readers to understand a little more about snow leopards and about the scientists who search for and seek to protect an animal that they may never get to see in its natural habitat.
The natural habitat of Frankenstein is Humor Country, at least in the case of Adam Rex’s Frankenstein Takes the Cake. This is a monster-themed, wedding-oriented book featuring, among other things, a series of bad parodies of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” Rex’s sense of humor is so warped that it practically turns in on itself, like an M.C. Escher drawing. From the inside front cover, in which various monsters confuse you, the reader, with Frankenstein’s creation, to the back cover, on which Poe’s famed raven says there’s nothing to see but the bar code, this is a book so far out there that it’s practically back here. Wherever “here” is. It’s the story of the wedding plans of Frankenstein’s monster and his bride, the complaints of the bride’s mother (“do you know how much it cost to get you boxed, embalmed, and buried?”), an announcement from the caterer, the flower girl’s scene (and she does make a scene), the vows written by the bride, and much more. “Much more” includes some of the Headless Horseman’s blog entries, little Medusa’s new glasses, a wonderful “Peanuts” parody featuring Dracula Jr., and…well, even more. The writing rolls in marvelous cadences: “Don’t say ‘steak’ to the vampires – they won’t understand./ They’ll just look for a sharp piece of wood in your hand.” The drawings are superb: funny and scary (but not too scary) and exaggerated and hilarious – oh, there are barely enough superlatives to cover all the delights of this entirely bizarre and completely wonderful bit of weirdness. Buy it for your family and choose your own enthusiastic adjectives. And remember to watch out for the days when “in disguise the dead arise/ to sell us magazines./ In ties and slacks/ they hand out tracts/ as fine, upstanding teens.”