Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Thanking the Monkey: A book review

I read a lot of books. But sadly I have a very poor memory for details. Ask me the names of the characters from a book I read a few months ago, heck even last month, its likely I can't tell you. But I love to read. So I do it almost compulsively. I power through books in days but always manage to have a healthy stack of "in the future" books waiting for me. I tend to get stuck on certain topics or specific writers and amass a collection of work to tackle as soon as the current book is finished. My current stack is on the topic of animal rights combined with vegan lifestyle and diet. I've got books from the library waiting, books I bought at the bookstore, and books I ordered from Amazon. I'm set for the next few weeks.

I picked up this book, Thanking the Monday, the other day at the library because one of Ryan's friends at work is interested in learning about vegetarianism and animal cruelty and as Ryan put it "I figured you would have some books to recommend since you know more about this stuff than I even do at this point. I've created a monster." While he may be right that he's created a "monster" as I get more and more into the cruelty free lifestyle and my list of "to read asap" books gets higher and higher - I realized I had no books to recommend that I personally had read other than Skinny Bitch (which was interesting and while it was recommended to me by a dude, I couldn't really see one of Ryan's dude friends going out and buying it).

So I went to the library and searched the animal rights section and came upon Thanking the Monkey: Rethinking The Way We Treat Animals. I came home and immediately started reading the book and now 3 days later I am pretty much ready to hand this book out to anyone and everyone for Christmas. Realistically I can't afford that, and also I don't want to push the issue on people who just aren't ready - but what I will do, and am currently doing, is give this book as much endorsement as possible.

Here is why I thought this book was great: To many people veganism is scary, extreme, and somewhat elitist. Karen Dawn presents a different perspective. A more realistic perspective. Instead of bashing us over the head with her intended purpose from the word go (which is absolutely to convince readers that a vegan lifestyle is not only the morally correct choice but also the healthiest diet option) she begins her book by tackling the broadest topic involved: animal rights. Animal whats? Rights....oh right...they don't have any. At least not the animals who contribute to what you eat, wear, or put on your skin or use in your household. Dawn starts her look at the world of animal cruelty by addressing the questions vegetarians and vegans face on a regular basis from others. Questions like: why do you work so hard for animal rights when there is so much human suffering in the world? Shouldn't that come first? Or: Don't animal rights activists prefer animals to people? She addresses these common questions and tries to put the misconceptions to rest by fully explaining what we mean by the term animal rights and why its so important to be the voice of beings that can't contribute their own voice.

Next she moves to a topic we can all show some interest in: pets. She addresses topics in this chapter such as: what exactly is in your pets food, the practices of animal shelters, keeping wild animals as pets, debunking the myth that fish are unintelligent (really interesting studies she quotes), animals as part of a family unit (and how the government doesn't consider them so, leaving them open to abandonment when disasters like Katrina happen and survivors are forbidden to bring animals to shelters) breeding and the ethical questions that come along with that like tail docking, selective breeding that is detrimental to the breed (think the smashed faces of pugs, adorable, but absolutely detrimental to the species) and puppy mills.

From here she moves into animals in the entertainment industry. From circuses (the elephant stories are heartbreaking and amazing) to zoos to the animals that perform and die making the movies we pay so much (too much man, theaters are so expensive these days. When I was young.....ok I'll stop) to see. This section get me thinking about animal rights and animal cruelty in a way I had never even considered. So wait... the animals that play in the movies sometimes die making it? And if they don't die they can be sold to laboratories or slaughterhouses? What kinda thanks is that for a part well learned?

The rest of the book gets into the things you pretty much expect. The issues with fur, leather, wool, and silk. The absolutely inhumane way we raise and slaughter animals. And the pointless tests we run on animals to proves things like: consuming alcohol and smoking cigarettes while pregnant can damage fetuses.....did you really need to test thousands of animals to prove something we already have lots and lots and lots of concrete human evidence on? These three sections of the book: fashion, diet, and testing presented me with a lot of squirmy information. I remember shirking away from PETA volunteers and their gruesome brochures or looking the other way when those terrible commercials about abused animals would come on the tv. These sections, while reaffirming my choice to go cruelty free, brought back those familiar queasy emotions I always tried so hard to avoid. It was a tough read. Ryan would come home from work the last few days, take one look at my face, and say "you making yourself sad again?" But some of it was completely new information for me. Completely heartbreaking but necessary for me to ingest, process, and hopefully one day share with others who are curious about how we treat animals.

This book is gruesome. Really gruesome. She spares no details. But she also acknowledges the fact that we don't want to sit through a book that makes us feel terrible the entire time. She tries to lighten the mood (while still being absolutely serious mind you) by using ironic titles for sections like: Confining Nemo, Going Clubbing, Finger Lickin Bad For You, The Right to Arm Bears? and All the Worlds a Cage. She also includes loads of cartoons pulled from newspapers, quotes and photos from vegan and vegetarian celebrities, and artwork on pretty much every page. Another thing that hooked me with this book is that she pulls her information from real, recognizable stories. This isn't a book full of finger wagging and "lets just do the right thing because its what I believe is the right thing" kinda talk. Every topic she puts forward in the book is supported by studies, news reports, newspaper articles or interviews. She cites newspapers like the New York Times, Reader's Digest, the Los Angeles Times, and surprisingly several publications geared towards farmers and hunters. In her last chapter she also explains how having a real relationship with our media can have a surprising impact. Letters to the editor, calls to radio stations, and praise for stories well reported and represented can mean future stories and follow-up stories that might otherwise be canceled due to networks fear that the information is too sensitive or gruesome for the American public.

At the end of the book you will leave with your head swimming full of information. Both heartening and disheartening. You will be itching to tell people things you learned, like: Did you know that bees have the second most complex language of any species (ours is most complex of course). Or: Did you know that male chicks born on hatching farms are considered practically worthless and most of them are ground into pet food? Im probably driving Ryan crazy doing all this "fun fact" sharing.

For those of you who are already vegetarians or vegans, go ahead and pat yourself on the back or give yourself a gold star and just feel warm and fuzzy after reading this, knowing that although millions of animals are out there suffer, YOU aren't contributing and hopefully you are even working against it. You'll come away from this book with a bit more knowledge and a few more facts to share with curious non-veg friends and family, while simultaneously reaffirming your life choice.

For those of you who are still eating the carnivorous Western diet most of us were raised on: After you've spent a good half an hour rocking yourself back and forth, tightly rolled into a ball, in the corner of your house that gets you furthest away from the bacon staring you down from the fridge, while clutching your fuzzy little cat or your yappy little dog to your chest, promising that HE wont ever be abandoned or abused or sold to a lab for testing or fed ground up baby male chicks....well, once you've recovered from that. Let me welcome you to the club. If you really read this book all the way through you should be fully on your way towards an animal friendly lifestyle. You wont regret your choice.

Dawn chooses to close out the book by letting her readers in on a little secret. She's a vegan - but she sometimes bends the rules when she feels its acceptable. She gives the example of going out to dinner with non-vegan friends and ordering the veggie burger, even if it may contain traces of eggs or dairy, to show her friends that making kinder choices isn't as impossible as it seems, and to show the restaurant that there are in fact customers who will choose the veggie burger over the beef burger. She reminds her readers that lifestyle is a personal choice. If what you feel you can contribute is not wearing leather, not visiting zoos and cutting out eggs from your diet, well great. You ARE making a difference. If you want to cut all animal products from your life and adopt a dog. Awesome! The point is: being animal friendly doesn't need to be scary or extreme or elitist. Anyone can do it and we are all free to choose at what level we commit ourselves to the cause.

In closing: I heartily recommend this book.


Karen Dawn said...

Lacey, I just stumbled on your review, and posted it on Facebook, with the greatest of thanks for a review that is not only a rave, but is also beautifully penned, and that totally gets everything I was trying to do with Thanking the Monkey. Thank you!
Karen Dawn

Lacey said...

I can hardly type Im so starstruck right now. It's so ironic that last week I had never heard of you (don't take that the wrong way! Im still new to the veg world) and now here you are commenting on my blog! It was absolutely my pleasure to write about your book. It had a profound impact on me (as proof by me writing a review I suppose) and I wanted others to have the same opportunity.

forisma said...

Thanks a lot for your review, I've just ordered the book via ebay!

Lacey said...

Yay! Thanks for reading!