The title and subtitle “City Beasts” “Fourteen Stories of Uninvited Wildlife” is for the most part a marketing ploy. The author, Mark Kurlansky, writes fiction and non-fiction with an emphasis on food, culture and history. He wrote “Salt: A History of the World” and “Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World.” A number of the stories within this collection show his knowledge about food, and the Basque and Latin American cultures. Some are drawn from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven”. The bird has cameo and principal appearances in a number of stories, even when the principal animal character is a wolf, a coyote, or a leopard.
The title notwithstanding, animals are not subject of most of the stories. Often there are no beasts within a city. They may be within their habitat. It is the humans who are uninvited. Animals are mostly an element within these stories, not the principal focus of the stories. The title is more of a marketing ploy, in my opinion.
The exception is the first story “Odd Birds in New York”. Here the subject are two birds who have escaped from the Bronx Zoo: a quetzal and a scarlet ibis. These captive creatures are disoriented. They find it hard to communicate with the pigeons and to find food that is natural to their diet. For me the story did not work and I was tempted to not read further. This would have been a mistake because there are a number of excellent stories. You need to ignore the title.
I would suggest starting with the penultimate story, “Mexico City: In the Capital” as the better stories are at the back of the book. Secondarily it involves a coyote. It is takes place in the Basuero, the garbage dumps of Mexico City. This is a savage tale of migrant human survival against humanity, a coyote and ravens. Fortunately, the last story “San Sebastián: Begoña and the Bear” is a tall tale. It comically captures human frailty in the context of Basque cuisine and terrorism. The question is whether a female brown bear, presumed to be extinct in the Pyrenees, is a lone predator of prized chorizo from black and white Basque pigs or the elusive ETA terrorist Begoña who no one has ever seen.
Snakes and a leopard are intertwined in the Voodoo Haitian myth of Damballah. It is captured in “Haiti: The Leopard of Ti Morne Joli”. The protagonist is Izzy. Jewish, but believing in all things Haitian, he embarks on a relief effort to Haiti that unknowingly contains contraband. The French female trader keeps a cage leopard which she feeds steaks, while native Haitians go hungry. The leopard represents the leopard who voodoo spirits caged to prevent its return to Africa. It escapes and the myth is that the leopard became the first Haitian.
The “Idaho Locavores” trilogy of stories have the feel of Jack London stories. It pits environmentalists against the herders who want to kill the sawtooth wolf in the Sun Valley area.
A retro allegory of crows, ravens and political patronage in Fidel’s Cuba is “Havana: A Murder of Crows”. The ravens have their say about which restaurant will attract the U.S. dollar.
“The Gloucester Whale Cod” is a testament to sustainability of a rare whale cod caught and ultimately released by a fisherman who ignores the economic needs of a dying fish industry in Gloucester.
The author had written a book “The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macorís”. His story “Dominican Republic: Twice Bitten in San Pedro” borrows from it. This is a story about a tarantula that haunts a cursed field. A young fisherman turned baseball star needs to earn a signing bonus to support his fishing family. On the field he hears the screams of formerly mistreated sugar workers in the form of a tarantula when he fields ground balls.
If you are Orthodox Jew and cannot get a Get (divorce), then the next best thing is to find an alligator that eats macaroons. “Miami: The Alligator Teeth of an Unknown God” is a tale of hypocrisy. It is not allegorical. As the author says, it is not the Talmud; it is just a story.
Mark Kurlansky is a capable writer whose stories are informative. His strength is non-fiction, particularly about food and cultural history. This collection of stories is entertaining, covering the spectrum from comical to gruesome. It is worth reading.