December 21, 2015

Book: Eels – An Exploration by James Prosek

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 11:37 am

imageThe title, the cover… Everything about this book promises to be exciting. It looks like it is a work of nonfiction, one of scientific explanation about the creatures that we all want to know. I definitely expected the excitement on the lines of those in The Electric Universe or A Short History of Nearly Everything.   It is definitely non fiction, but it is a very different book from those two.


Fascination with eels started a long time ago for James and the enthusiasm shows, initially. So your hopes are up.


The fascinating thing about no one having ever caught a pregnant eel though everyone knows that they spawn is good. So are the stories about how freshwater eels go deep into the ocean to produce offsprings. Your hopes stay up.


Then, like a bad documentary, it gets boring. Eel trapping described in needless detail and slows the whole book down. Jake, the trapper rhapsodises about how he catches eels.

If you think it is the exhilerating description to carry you along in its enthusiasm, you are in for a huge disappointment. Stilted prose and the author wandering off the subject for many pages makes this a fairly boring book.


Have you seen some wildlife documentaries where, perhaps since they do not have enough footage on the animals, fill in boring details on the crew, who they are, how they prepared for the shoot, where they waited etc making it a documentary mainly about a bunch of people with a little animal footage thrown in to justify the title about wildlife? This books smells like that. It feels as though James, lacking enough to say about eels even in this slim book, filled it with travels, the places he went to, the people he met, what their belief systems were, why they do what they do etc. All tangentially relevant to the subject matter, I grant you, but not the real subject matter that you would be after, lured in by the title and the cover design.


After learning all about Jack the trapper, you meet Stella, the Maori eel researcher in New Zeland, and her group. You travel with them to various places and learn about various things. It is all about as interesting as watching a plant grow. More and more about how the insensitive Englishman in his arrogance destroyed the basic culture and livelihood of the indigenous people irrevocably by building dams and producing clean energy. There are some interesting new pieces about how the pakehas (white foreigners) deliberately set out to destroy eels as they were a threat to their transplanted trout that they brought into New Zeland’s pristine environment to “give them a familiar feeling” and allow their fishing far from their shores (England). They also introduced many other animal species, changing the ecosystem of the country for good. All interesting information but nothing to do with the lifestyle of Eels or their unique characteristics, which is what I thought the book should be about. The old adage about “Never judge a book by its cover” was never truer than when considering this book to read.


Even the local colour added sucks. The descriptions are like – ‘he got up to get more sugar for the tea’ and later ‘he said, stirring the sugar in the tea with a small spoon’ and you dread things  that thankfully never come – ‘he took a sip of his tea’ and ‘he took another sip of his tea. Now the tea level had reduced’. ‘He noticed that the small spoon was in the tea so he took it out’  And so on.


The one interesting thing that comes out is the fact that pigs are called “Captain Cookers” in New Zealand since they were brought in by Captain Cook and his team!

More everyday story and more gripes about how modernity is a curse for the ancient ways of living, from other places and detailed explanation of how to reach his remote home. Yawn.


And when he caught a fish, he thinks it could be taniwha and sees if it has red eyes! Then he is forced to kill an eel and feels now one with Maori culture from then on but also guilty for the eel. Come on! And the book goes into repeat narration of  how trout was introduced by Europeans into New Zealand several  times in the book.


The discussion with Jonathan Yang, who came to US and talks to the author about Eels, has difficulty with English and his conversations are written in the stereotypical Asian language of a person who has limited English. Instead of bringing a sense of reality into the conversation, it just sounds very condescending. In fact, either abject inferiority complex (when it comes to Maoris and how the author is one of a race of people who caused all that trouble to them) or condescension drips from the story and description all the way through the book. Here is a sample of the latter. Jonathan says “”He find many big eels..  make it very easy to ship [eels]” or “Only Taiwan people eat this eel. In China no eat. Wife make soup… make husband strong” or “If you make book about eels, you must go Pohnpei”.  Does that sound as condescending to you as it does to me?


Gets worse, he goes meets a Japanese scientist and talks about rubbish that has only peripheral interest to eels.  Then back to the manual dam where Ray builds it by hand every year, spending almost all year doing it, refusing to use any machines and failing to catch eels most of the year. He catches all the eels he can and yet rails against overfishing that is depleting the population. Hmmmm… And wherever he goes he eats eels all year long, all the time.


Goes to Pohnpe, and has some boring interactions with people again.


What is even more astonishing is this. The author collects stories on eels. Most of them are folksy in nature and very disjointed and he describes them in great detail when he collects these. But, when he goes to another gathering in the same country and asked to narrate what he found out, he starts writing the same story in detail again and I was completely taken aback, wondering if I have to read the same thing again in another page of the story. But after two paragraphs of agonizing repetition, he simply states that he told the other stories and mentions them. It is all about the everyday life of various cultures, which would be interesting if that is what you were looking for in a book but in a book that purports to talk about eels, it is irritating. Even in a book about cultures, the details he brings in of how they made tea and how the old man asked him to buy alcohol and he obliged and how he went and saw many officials in some government set up will make people want to throw the book across the room, I guess.. I definitely resisted the temptation to do just that, many times.
Let us say 2/10

– – Krishna


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