Nicolaus Mills at The New York Observer:
At a time when Rudyard Kipling was thought to be the greatest authority on India and the British empire, Twain, a vehement foe of imperialism, provides a compelling alternative view. Twain is not naïve about India, but he is open to appreciating it. “So far as I am able to judge, nothing has been left undone, either by man or Nature, to make India the most extraordinary country that the sun visits on his round,” he writes in Following the Equator.
It’s a view that separates Twain from most of his Western peers when it comes to describing “thugs,” a term derived from Hindi that the British popularized in the early 19th century when they thought to get rid of the Indian gangs known as thugs that were responsible for widespread murders and robberies.
The assault on the thugs of India came in a campaign that peaked in the 1830s and 1840s, and in Following the Equator Twain relies heavily on the 1840 government report of W. H. Sleeman of the Indian Service, who is credited with eradicating the thug gangs of India.
Joan Acocella at The New Yorker:
Writers aiming to tell us about human life have often done so under cover of telling us about animals. Animals are fun—they have feathers and fangs, they live in trees and holes—and they seem to us simpler than we are, so that, by using them, we can make our points cleaner and faster. With Madame Bovary, you pretty much have to say who her parents were. With SpongeBob, you don’t, and this keeps the story moving. Most important, the use of animals to stand in for human beings creates a fertile ambiguity. We know that the author is not proposing a one-for-one equivalence between human and nonhuman life, but some kinship is certainly being suggested. Think of Swift’s Houyhnhnms, trotting down the road, their withers shining in the sun, saying sober, passionless things to Gulliver. How beautiful they are, and how creepy. Animal narratives have allowed writers with lessons on their mind to make art rather than just lessons.
Such tales are no doubt as old as animal paintings on cave walls. The earliest evidence we have of them is the beast fable, a form that is said to have come down to us by way of Aesop, a Greek storyteller who was born a slave in the sixth century B.C. Actually, no solid evidence exists that there ever was an Aesop, any more than there was a Homer. As with the Iliad and the Odyssey, we are talking about manuscripts that date from a period much later than the supposed author’s, and were probably assembled from a number of different fragments.
Joshua Foer in National Geographic:
Head trainer Teri Turner Bolton looks out at two young adult male dolphins, Hector and Han, whose beaks, or rostra, are poking above the water as they eagerly await a command. The bottlenose dolphins at the Roatán Institute for Marine Sciences (RIMS), a resort and research institution on an island off the coast of Honduras, are old pros at dolphin performance art. They’ve been trained to corkscrew through the air on command, skate backward across the surface of the water while standing upright on their tails, and wave their pectoral fins at the tourists who arrive several times a week on cruise ships.
But the scientists at RIMS are more interested in how the dolphins think than in what they can do. When given the hand signal to “innovate,” Hector and Han know to dip below the surface and blow a bubble, or vault out of the water, or dive down to the ocean floor, or perform any of the dozen or so other maneuvers in their repertoire—but not to repeat anything they’ve already done during that session. Incredibly, they usually understand that they’re supposed to keep trying some new behavior each session.
Bolton presses her palms together over her head, the signal to innovate, and then puts her fists together, the sign for “tandem.” With those two gestures, she has instructed the dolphins to show her a behavior she hasn’t seen during this session and to do it in unison.