Oct 20, 2008

Carnivorous Nights by Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdson

The thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, was the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial until it presumably became extinct in 1936. I say "presumably" because even though no thylacines have been known to exist in close to eight decades, sightings continue to be reported. But no evidence of the tiger’s presence is ever found.

Authors Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdson became interested in the thylacine because of taxidermy on display at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. They then decided to travel to Tasmania to interview eyewitnesses, conservationists, researches, local politicians, etc. And who knows, maybe catch a glimpse of the tiger themselves.

They don’t find the Tasmanian tiger, but they do find a threatened and unique ecosystem, full of fascinating and bizarre animals such as the Tasmanian giant freshwater crayfish, the echidna, the platypus, the potoroo, the bandicoot, the eastern quoll, the wombat, or the famous Tasmanian devil. All of these, due to things like deforestation and the destruction of their habitats plus the introduction of non-native animals like foxes or cats, could very soon be sharing the thylacine’s fate.

Thylacines at the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, 1910

The structure of Carnivorous Nights is more or less reminiscent of that of Last Change to See. It’s partially about endangered animals and environmental policies (or the lack thereof) and partially about travelling to exotic locations and discovering new cultures, and it makes wide use of humour.

Unfortunately, while I found Last Change to See hilarious and serious and brilliant all at the same time, the humour in Carnivorous Nights made me cringe. And since the same (or very similar) jokes are used again and again, I found myself cringing a lot. After a certain point I had to force myself to pick the book up again and finish it. It was that bad. Take a look at this, for example:
A twenty-five pound Tasmanian devil, he said, has the chomping power of a hundred-pound dog.
We considered the box-office potential of Jaws V—starring a Tasmanian devil instead of a shark.
As we slunk back to our room, we considered that perhaps love unleashes the fiercest beast of all. We had a sense we had just witnessed the emergence of a new species. In the morning, we vowed to announce our discovery to the world: Pradasuccuba amiphagi. Translation: The boyfriend-eating devil who wears Prada.
This last bit made me want to scream “Somebody PLEASE make it stop”. But considering how many times the word “hilarious” is used in the blurbs at the back of the book, some people obviously do find it funny. But this sort of humour doesn’t work for me at all.

Eastern Quoll

What made the book painful to read after a while wasn’t just the bad jokes. It was the fact that the authors and the other, er, characters seriously began to annoy me. First of all, the book is narrated in the first person plural, which made me imagine a two-headed creature walking through the bush in Tasmania. This mysterious “we” always speaks and thinks and swallows and feels dizzy from the heat or whatever in the plural, which was a little weird.

The other members of “Team Thylacine” are Alexis, the author of the book's (unimpressive, if you ask me) illustrations, his girlfriend Dorothy, and some guy named Chris who nobody seems to know very well. Alexis in particular drove me crazy. He sounds spoiled, unpleasant and angsty, but apparently because he’s An Artist we’re supposed to find him Eccentric and Fascinating. And for some mysterious reason, we’re expected to be interested in his relationship with Dorothy and his pot addiction. Unfortunately for me I wasn’t, and a considerable amount of attention is given to these topics.


I realize that the authors were trying to make the book more engaging by introducing these personal stories, but for me it just didn’t work. At first they bored me, and later they just irritated me. More animals, please, and less descriptions of Alexis and Dorothy making out. (It’s funny how the authors mention that their public displays of affection bother them, and yet feel compelled to share them with the world in their book.)

In Tasmania, “Team Tylachine” meets several people who for some reason or another are interested in the tiger. They range from people who are convinced that the tiger is extinct or people who hope it might still be out there, to people who believe that the authorities in the Parks and Wildlife Service know that the tiger is still around but are trying to hide the fact for some sinister reason of their own.


It wouldn’t be fair to accuse the authors of actually taking one position or the other, but they do seem do favour the more hopeful (or conspiratory) stance. And the way they do this struck me as a bit sensationalist. I understand being hopeful. I understand really, really wishing that the tiger was still out there. I understand why the sightings attract media attention – they are exciting, they make for good stories.

But I can’t help but feel that there’s something a little irresponsible to this whole thing. People just don’t want to face the fact that a beautiful and unique animal was deliberately destroyed. The thylacine became extinct largely because a bounty was put on its head. Settlers felt that the tigers were attacking their flocks, and they wanted them gone.

Some of the people interviewed believe that no serious effort was ever made to find the few remaining tigers. They think they could be found if appropriate (and expensive) technology, like heat sensing devices, was employed. I agree that if there are some remaining thylacines out there, it would be fantastic to find them. But I understand why people are reluctant to invest so much in what could turn out to be a wild goose chase. Wouldn’t it be better to use that same money to protect species that we know are still out there? Shouldn’t we look at the thylacine as an example and try our best to prevent history from repeating itself?


But of course, while that may sensible, it’s not as exciting as trying to find a mythic animal with heat-sensing devices. That’s the thing, really. The thylacine has become a myth. So even if every corner of Tasmania was searched using the latest technology, there would still be some who would maintain that the tiger is still around. Myths don’t just go away. And while I love myths, I don’t think that certain decisions should be based on them. Towards the end of the book, the authors interview someone who shares this position. But he seems to be in the minority.

This is a fascinating subject matter, and I wish I had been able to enjoy Carnivorous Nights more. The bits I enjoyed I enjoyed a lot. Unfortunately, the bits I didn’t, I really, really didn’t, and there were more of those. Reading this book felt a little like taking a trip to a wonderful place with a group of people who really annoy you. You still enjoy yourself, but you keep thinking that you’d be having much more fun if you were in better company.

The last known thylacine, filmed in 1933:

Other Blog Reviews:

Dog Ear Diary


  1. Hi Ana, thank-you for the picture, I never saw or knew those excisted. I know about the Tasmanian Devil, they are awesome, so strong, if this species was anything like the Tasmanian Devil they must have been feared.

    I took the latest book by Michael Chabon, should have looked closer, it is a kind of ranting he does against all kinds of writing, I stopped reading. Will check out one of his novels/comics. (the cover is very deceptive!

  2. Hi Madeleine! Yes, Tasmanian devils are fascinating critters as well. According to reports, the thylacine was actually pretty shy around humans. They were predators, though, so they'd attack sheep, chickens, etc. That's too bad about Michael Chabon. I've read two of his novels - Kavalier & Clay and Summerland - and I enjoyed those a lot.

  3. I loved all those photos you shared. Sorry you were disappointed in the book. I do remember getting tired of the humor, finding the "we" thing very strange and eventually glossing over much of the personal side stories- but the travelouge of Tasmania and description of its wildlife was enough to keep me reading. I liked the artwork in the book, but didn't at all care for the artist's paintings which were all I could find online. O well.

  4. I'm sorry you were disappointed in the book, Nymeth. If only this book is written in another direction it'd be so much better! Thanks for the pictures (especially on the Eastern Quoll & Playtipus). :)

  5. What a lovely review. When i saw such a long review i thought you must have really loved the book. Sorry you didn't :)
    Lovely pictures. Inspite of your not so good review, i think i might actually like this book.

  6. Pictures! Lots of pictures! I really like all of them. Some are intriguing. Thanks for sharing them and also your thoughts on the book. I chuckled at the remark you made about being on a nice trip but it could be better with better company...

    I have a blog award for you here.

  7. Such a shame! It sounds like it could have been a really great book, and done a lot of good. But it sounds as if they almost tried to make sure it wasn't. Just from those couple of passages you shared, and from the other things you said, I can tell I would have the same reaction. So sad, because it sounds like a book I would love if done right.

  8. I want to tell you that picture of the wombat freaked me out!

    Also, I got " A Fine and Private Place" in the mail the other day. I had no idea you lived in Portugal! I have some family in the Azores and near Lisbon.

  9. We were doing a road trip down Tasmanian a few years back and we wondered if we would spot a Tasmanian Tiger. Almost feels like waiting for a yeti sighting.

    Totally off-tangent thought. Sorry ;p

  10. Jeane: I really wish I had enjoyed it more! But I'm glad to have read it anyway because of all the things I learned about Tasmania and its wildlife. The subject matter really was fascinating.

    Melody: I really think it would. I should look for a book on this topic by another author. And isn't the Eastern Quoll adorable?

    violetcrush: I wanted to enjoy so badly, but I just couldn't. But anyway, I do think you should pick it up! The things about the book that didn't work for me could very well work for other readers. I hope you have more luck with it than I did!

    Alice: Going over to see the award now. Thank you :D

    Debi: It really was a shame. But the book got me interested in Tasmania, and that's always a good thing!

    Serena: lol! The wombat looks bizarre, but also sort of cute in its own way, I think :P I'm glad the book arrived safely and I hope you enjoy it! I was born in Lisbon and lived there for the first decade of my life, but these days I'm up north. And I have never been to the Azores, but everyone tells me it's beautiful! One of these days I'll have to take a vacation there.

    Dark Orpheus: That point is actually made it in the book by someone - Tasmanian tiger sightings have become quite similar to Yeti sightings. How cool that you went to Tasmania! It sounds like such a cool place.

  11. I think that is the first time I have ever seen a picture of a wombat! Thanks for sharing! :)

  12. Interesting pictures! I remember seeing this over at Jeane's and wondering about it. I have to snicker a little at the thought of you being annoyed--you always seem so patient (and yes I realize that we control how we are conveyed a little with this medium). The thought of a two headed narrator does seem a little infuriating...especially when that's not the case. Sorry you didn't like it that well--but thanks for posting the interesting pictures!

  13. Laura, you're welcome! They are so unique looking. Most Australian animals seem to be, actually. I really enjoyed learning more about them.

    Trish, I'm glad you liked the pictures! I tend to be patient with books, more so than with actual people :P I wonder how much this being non-fiction contributed to my irritation.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.