Friday, January 24, 2014

The Red Hourglass by Gordon Grice

As a middle school librarian, former high school English teacher, and now mother of a boy, I've been fortunate enough to gain some insight into what sort of reading material is likely to capture the attention of an average young dude. 

One tried and true boy book bait, in my experience, is gross stuff. 

Oh, and sex. (Age dependent, of course.)

Those two criteria makes Gordon Grice’s The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators a likely candidate. The clear, accessible, and often hilarious writing makes it a shoo-in. 

Grice comes across less like a nature writer and more like some dude who is obsessed with creepy and dangerous animals and loves to tell anyone and everyone allllll about them. His love for all things we'd rather not encounter while barefoot brings them to vivid life on the page. While reading this book I found myself laughing out loud, squirming, wincing, exclaiming in surprise and turning to Google for confirmation, and -- more than once -- reading excerpts out loud over the protests of my friends and family who don't find spiders and snakes to be pleasant conversation fodder.

I mean, seriously, you have to share nuggets like this:
There was a beige-painted wood banister along the landing, and a piece of it had grabbed the moth and was chewing its head off. As I looked closer, the carnivorous piece of banister adjusted its grip slightly, and I recognized it as a praying mantis.... She held the moth, wings down, before her face and turned to stare at me. She looked like a person wiping her face with a napkin.
Ew. Am I right? Great stuff!

The Red Hourglass consists of seven stand-alone chapters, each focusing on a different critter. The first and best is about the black widow; others explore rattlesnakes, other spiders, and mantids. Grice detours from the usual grody suspects with chapters about pigs and canines, shaking up one's preconceived notions about how warm and fuzzy these predators actually are while slipping in some intriguing discussion about the symbiotic relationship between man and "domesticated" beasts. Each chapter shines a light into the cobwebby shadows of these animals' worlds, lovingly describing their predatory skills, their brutal mating habits, and their relationship with humankind. It's shocking, it's funny, and it is seriously gross.

This book did everything I love in narrative nonfiction. It was tremendously entertaining; I had a hard time putting it down. It taught me cool new things without ever feeling forced or boring; it changed the way I thought about several different animals, including humans and our place in the world. And, significantly, it made me look around eagerly for someone to share it with.

While I believe plenty of middle school-aged kids would take enormous joy in reading The Red Hourglass, it is probably better suited for slightly older readers. A recurring theme in the lives of these predators is what Grice charmingly refers to as "sexual cannibalism," and he doesn't shy away from describing this macabre practice. There's a reference to a myth about a fanged vagina, and the paragraphs about pig breeding ultimately made up my mind about not including this book in our middle school's library. (Excerpts, though, would be awesome informational texts for a science class!) I would enthusiastically recommend it to older teens, and to any adult who is more fascinated than repulsed by creepy-crawlies.

Arachnophobes and ophidiophobes should probably steer clear.

Cross-posted at Did You Have Juice?

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