Book Review: The Soul of All Living Creatures

Time for another Blogging for Books review! It’s been a while…I requested this one back in August, then promptly forgot about it. Oops.

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Goodreads Description

Based on the author’s twenty-five years of experience as a veterinarian and veterinary behaviorist, The Soul of All Living Creatures delves into the inner lives of animals – from whales, wolves, and leopards to mice, dogs, and cats – and explores the relationships we forge with them.
 
As an emergency room clinician four years out of veterinary school, Dr. Vint Virga had a life-changing experience: he witnessed the power of simple human contact and compassion to affect the recovery of a dog struggling to survive after being hit by a car.  Observing firsthand the remarkably strong connection between humans and animals inspired him to explore the world from the viewpoint of animals and taught him to respect the kinship that connects us.

With The Soul of All Living Creatures, Virga draws from his decades in veterinary practice to reveal how, by striving to perceive the world as animals do, we can enrich our own appreciation of life, enhance our character, nurture our relationships, improve our communication with others, reorder our values, and deepen our grasp of spirituality.  Virga discerningly illuminates basic traits shared by both humans and animals and makes animal behavior meaningful, relevant, and easy to understand.  Insightful and eloquent, The Soul of All Living Creatures offers an intimate journey into the lives of our fellow creatures and a thought-provoking promise of what we can learn from spending time with them.

 

Review

I wanted to love this book. I really, truly did. By now, you know (or should know) how much I love anything animal-related. There are very few animal books that I don’t love. This, unfortunately, is one of them.

Vint Virga is a vet-turned-animal-behaviorist. His book is subtitled, “What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human,” and he attempts to show how animals share basic traits with humans. Each chapter focuses on one of these traits, ranging from connection to mindfulness to adaptability. It’s an interesting idea, but poorly executed.

The first complaint I have is the writing. It’s laborious. And come on…I know I get a little overzealous on the commas. This guy has me beat by a long shot. Run-on sentences, commas after commas after commas…it’s probably like reading my blog, only with bigger words. And he gets paid. He kinda comes off a little “holier than thou” in some places. (I really hope I don’t do that….)

There’s a lot of rambling, and the chapters aren’t organized very well. Half of the chapters start with an animal anecdote, and the other half start with discussion of the trait. Many of them have parables or folktales that, while interesting, don’t have much to do with the animals or the traits Virga is trying to depict. Sometimes I’d read a couple of pages, and think…ok, that’s interesting…and then as soon as I got into it, Virga would go off on some other tangent and I’d be totally lost.

And the typos…come on, Crown Publishing! This is the second book you’ve sent me with typos. Hire a new editor! Preferably one who reads the entire book, since they get much worse the farther along. Hell, hire me. I’ll find the typos.

My second issue is with the traits themselves. I strongly believe Dr. Virga needs to look at a dictionary, because his definitions of things like sensitivity and connection and responsiveness do not A) match mine, or B) match the examples he’s trying to use to illustrate them. Case in point…the mindfulness chapter uses a dog with OCD as its example. HUH? Or how about the listless leopard who won’t eat, won’t play, and sits in a tree all day years after her mate died. That’s not integrity, that’s depression. The same chapter talks about a pair of kittens. Boredom. Also not integrity. The only thing even remotely close to integrity in the entire chapter is Virga’s comment, “A zoo without a steady flow of visitors cannot survive for long.Yet, focusing on patrons before the needs of animals betray’s a zoo’s essential purpose.”

Here’s the thing…I think this book is poorly marketed. My guess is that most people reading this book are looking for animal anecdotes, with just a little “humanizing” thrown in. In reality, it’s the opposite. Lots of humanizing, with very little animal stuff. That’s probably responsible for a lot of the dissatisfaction surrounding this book. It’s clear (especially in the later chapters) that Virga tried to use these animals’ behaviors to illustrate the human traits, but each example is so far-fetched and complicated that it’s hard to see. I got the sense that he picked 10 human traits, and then just sort of guessed at which animal stories embodied them. It’s like he was trying to fit things together that just don’t work.

Which brings me to my third complaint, one that most reviewers have shared. WHAT HAPPENED TO THE ANIMALS???? In over half of the chapters, you have no idea. Virga mentions them, mentions their odd behavior, and then….nothing. You don’t know what happened to them, why they’re important, or what the hell he’s trying to get you to understand. The best example I can give you of this is when he’s relating having to perform surgeries on shelter dogs in vet school. This is in the responsiveness chapter, and I have no clue why Virga mentions it. Honestly, it comes off a bit sensationalized, which I don’t think was the intent. The anecdote serves little purpose, other than making me angry and upset for the way things used to be done. Obviously, I’ve missed his message….which is rule #1 in communication. Create a clear message.

Some of the answers I could find for myself, which I appreciated. I wanted to know more about the 52 Hertz Whale. I looked him up, and (thankfully) he’s real. What’s even more exciting is that Adrian Grenier, star of Entourage, is going to produce a documentary about him. It’ll be out next year. Here’s an article about it: http://www.takepart.com/article/2014/05/21/lonely-whale-finally-has-entourage-adrien-grenier-produce-whale-docu

I also looked up one of the folktales mentioned in the book. It’s called The Tiger’s Whisker, and it’s a Korean folktale about a woman who wants her husband to love her again. She goes to a wizard/wise man looking for a potion, and he tells her to bring him a tiger’s whisker. So she finds a tiger, and takes it meat every night until eventually it lets her get close enough to snag a whisker. She takes the whisker to the wizard, and he tells her she had everything she needed all along (i.e., patience and compassion). End of folktale. It’s a touching tale, really, but it upset me greatly because she’s been feeding this tiger for months and now all of a sudden she’s not going to show up. Poor Tiger. Hungry and friendless. (And yes, I realize this has nothing to do with Vint Virga, other than I never would have known about it if he hadn’t put it in his book.)

I’d have loved this book had it been a whole bunch of animal anecdotes. He’s a behaviorist, he should have had plenty of material. I suppose he was trying to do something different, and that’s why he chose not to include the stories…but I wish he had. Me, and about 200 other animal lovers who just didn’t feel like this book hit the mark.

All of that said, I’ve given this book a 3-star rating. I know, I know. You’re asking why on earth I’d give it a 3 when I clearly have issues with it. And I do, believe me. But, I did enjoy some of it…there are a few brilliant moments in an otherwise lackluster book that make it worth reading. The 52 hertz whale, for one. The chapter on forgiveness, for another. These moments are what made it bearable.

I received this book free from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.