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  • I Read About Rats.

    I borrowed the book RATS: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants from my friend Terri a while back, mainly because of this excellent Peter Sis cover.

    yep. rats.

    The cover suggests a lot at once, and it looked like it would be a fascinating read. It’s not, really. There are some interesting facts strewn throughout, and I always like the history of an area like Manhattan, but author Robert Sullivan didn’t really seem that invested in his subject. He tries to appear so, but it’s not convincing. He picks an alley to observe local rats for a year but not much revelatory comes of it- he gets a little better at spotting them. By his own admission a homeless man he meets in another lot has a lot more insight into how they behave and recognize different groups of the rodents interacting, which Sullivan never does. Understandably, he doesn’t spend all the quality time in the alley that Derrick does, but I wish Derrick could have cowrote the book (he eventually gets threatening and Sullivan buggers off).

    The historical digressions are expertly researched and written, but feel like padding, something to shore up the fact that there isn’t much to say about rats beyond fifty pages, and it gets repetitive. He keeps searching for a profound insight from a pest control expert or local activists, but never gets much beyond “you sure can’t get rid of rats” and “the only thing that can really be done is to get rid of garbage.” Putting “Observations” in the title is probably to play down any notion of finding a narrative beyond the idea that he planned to spend a year on the book and had to complete it.

    I’ve seen good things about his other books, so I’m wondering if the real problem isn’t the fact that 9-11 happened right in the middle of his research period (he broke off his alley-sitting for a while), and maybe that made the project feel insignificant to him in the way it affected so many people, especially New Yorkers, at the time. Good writers who pull a real story out of their subject tend to be consumed with the matter, and surely it’s hard to stay devoted to rats in the face of such an event.

    It could also just be me. May have not been the kind of thing I was wanting to take in right now. I got to the point where I realized “I’ve just read a hundred and thirty pages about rats.” and could only skim the rest. It was well done enough that I didn’t hurl it across the room as I’ve mentioned I’m prone to do with a book that isn’t working out. Maybe the real problem is the cover set expectations too high. Peter Sis is also responsible for the famous Amadeus movie poster, among many other works. His website will accuse you of not having Flash.


    Comment from Martin Thomas
    Time: January 29, 2009, 5:06 am

    There’s a rat in mi kitchen, what am I gonna do?

    Comment from kjchen
    Time: January 29, 2009, 5:51 am

    Rats are so last year. I’m looking forward to the sequel about observations on the history of oxen.

    Comment from Parker
    Time: January 29, 2009, 6:36 am

    Martin, we had a rat (just one, thank Nimh) about a month ago. The old school oversized rat trap worked fine. You’ve got to put them up against a wall, because they hug the walls.

    Oxen: How To Pass The Time On A Steam Train.

    Comment from Martin Thomas
    Time: January 29, 2009, 12:38 pm

    I’m gonna fix that rat, thats what I’m gonna do!