The latest monograph in the winning Animal series—truly natural histories, each title a wide-ranging look at a single creature, replete with splendid illustrations—is perhaps the finest yet. Like its predecessors, this volume alternately informs, delights, moves, and astonishes. Success here owes as much to author as to subject. The former, a cultural and environmental historian, acquits herself admirably, distilling fact from fiction, employing supple and incisive prose, and trailing casual acumen in her measured wake. On the latter count, well, few animals have seen their appearance (horned, armored), reputation (fearsome, violent), and temperament (shy, solitary) more cartoonishly conflated. Though its endangered status, shrinking habitat, and coveted horn (widely used in Asian medicine) have brought it some measure of modern sympathy and acclaim, the rhinoceros remains among the most misunderstood of beasts (and mistaken, on a genuinely mythical level: it was long considered a unicorn). Sketched by Dürer, demonized by Pliny, prized by Hemingway, and ridiculed by Barnum, it is only now being considered in toto, by Enright.
In the Kitchen
On the cusp of realizing his dreams—opening his own restaurant (haute cuisine, perfectly executed) and proposing to his remarkably attractive girlfriend—the executive chef of a London hotel finds himself running way, way off the rails. Ambitiously, as in her first novel, the widely acclaimed Brick Lane, Ali embeds her main character’s personal crisis in the swirl of multicultural London; the hotel’s kitchen is staffed with recent immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa, India, and Eastern Europe, their histories dark, mysterious, and distinctly un-British. Juxtaposed against the mosaic population of this still-booming service industry are the English in the dying northern mill town of the chef’s childhood, pushed up and over, if not out, 30 years ago by an influx of Pakistanis. In one of the novel’s most moving scenes, two old mill workers, one English and one Pakistani, obviously have far more in common, and more sympathy, with each other than either has with his own grandchildren.
Devout and unforgiving, inexhaustible and chronically unwell, the farsighted and exacting Florence Nightingale famously gnawed her way through the barriers that kept genteel Victorian women trapped “in a meaningless round of trivial occupations” in order to promote her vision of a modern public health-care system. Both driven (her selected writings will fill a projected 16 volumes) and driving (she could be said to have worked two of her loyal supporters to death), she always put her cause first, with remarkable results. As Bostridge notes, to Nightingale, “earthly friendships” were merely “a hindrance on the path to true righteousness.” All this we knew from Lytton Strachey’s biting and elegant 1918 portrait in Eminent Victorians, a book that’s famously debunking; Strachey had a keen eye for Nightingale’s acerbity and a relish for describing it, but also plainly admired her achievements and her courage. Bostridge, author of a biography of Vera Brittain, doesn’t fundamentally alter that picture but, by virtue of his prodigious research, enormously enriches it with the nuance and detail that fill in the nooks and crannies of a real, and enormously complicated, personality. Absorbing, superbly written, and authoritative, this is a terrific biography of a woman to whom we owe a great deal, but would perhaps never want to meet.