The second book on my Science Books Challenge reading list is Robert Twigger's "The Extinction Club" (NY: William Morrow, 2001). My husband had read and enjoyed the author's book about trekking after jungle reptiles in "Big Snake" and I looked forward to diving into this book about the rare Chinese Milu or Pere David deer.
The Milu (Elapharus davidianus) are a native Chinese deer which were only allowed to be kept and hunted by the imperial court. A Basque missionary and amateur naturalist, Pere David, wrote about the deer and smuggled some butchered deer parts back to the West in a French diplomatic pouch (quel odeur!), paving the way for part of the herd to be imported back to various private hunting grounds and sanctuaries back in Europe when the Chinese empire was carved up after the Boxer Rebellion.
Though the book was not the natural history adventure I expected, Twigger's writing is witty and easy to dive into. Just like the Milu, with their camel necks, stag horns, donkey tails and reindeer feet, this book is an amalgam of parts: part philosophical musings on big questions like the meaning of extinction, part history (the carving up of the Chinese empire by Western powers is sad and fascinating), part memoir about writerly angst and only a very small part of information about the subject deer.
Twigger uses a diverting brand of creative non-fiction to juggle these disparate themes and most of the time it works well and reads easily. Other times, it is confusing, as when he invents a maniacal retired Army Major who has the means to cause the extinction of fragile species of fish by pouring chemicals into remote lakes. I thought this fellow was a real person until rereading several passages over again. Then I began to question whether other characters and scenes in the book were real or imagined, so ultimately I have to say that while I was highly entertained by the book, I can't say that I am more informed about Chinese-European history or the saga of the Milu after reading this book. Or was I?