Monday, November 2, 2015


"Had I been told as a child in the 1950s that my life would one day run parallel with that of a penguin - that for a time, at least, it would be him and me against the world - I would have taken it in my stride. After all, my mother had kept three alligators at the house in Esher until they grew too big and too dangerous for that genteel town, when keepers from the Chessington Zoo had come and removed them."

I recently found myself in a severe book rut, the likes of which I can't remember having suffered before. I had DNF'd three straight audiobooks (and only hate-finished the fourth because I just had to see if it was as aggravating as I thought it was - answer, yes) and wasn't having much better luck with tree- or e-books. To be fair, life in general has been nothing but a wheelbarrow full of upheaval lately. I needed something special to snap me out of my malaise.

I'm a sucker for a well-told animal rescue story, so I hitched my happy-reading wagon to Tom Michell's The Penguin Lessons: What I Learned from a Remarkable Bird. Boy did this brief but utterly charming memoir help me waddle right out of my literary doldrums.

In the mid-1970s, Michell, then 23, left his native England for a position at an Argentinian boarding school. On a weekend jaunt to Uruguay, he came across the horrific results of an oil spill: hundreds of dead, beached penguins. When one mighty penguin showed signs of life, Michell felt he had no choice but to rescue the plucky fellow, who he (quite hilariously) cleaned up, smuggled back to Argentina, and ultimately christened Juan Salvado.

If you're given to anthropomorphizing, you'll love this book. If you're not, I dare you to read this gem and not come away with a different feeling and understanding about the minds and emotions of animals. Juan Salvado is a sheer delight - to Michell, his students, his cleaning lady, school staff, and, I'm betting, most readers. At turns warm and laugh-out-loud funny (I literally did "lol" at Michell's efforts to clean the bird in a posh Uruguayan apartment), I was entranced from beginning to end.

The Penguin Lessons also provides interesting insight into Argentina and its people in the 1970s. It was a difficult time, politically, socially, and environmentally ("terrorism was rife; murder and kidnappings were everyday events"), and any dip into those territories runs the risk of becoming preachy or, well, political. I thought Michell walked that line perfectly. The information added necessary flavor and background information without overpowering the story Michell set out to tell. "Juan Salvador was a penguin who charmed and delighted everyone who knew him in those dark and dangerous days."

I recently read another animal rescue story that dealt with "lessons learned" from the animal and it turned out to be nothing but an excuse to quote Bible scripture. So I've become a bit wary of that tag line. Nothing to fear here. We all have things to learn from listening to animals, and this story stays true to the themes of rescue, friendship, and compassion.

A slim volume at just 240 pages, with chapter headings alone worth the read (i.e, "7 Upstairs Downstairs. In which Juan Salvado takes up residence and hosts a house-warming party"), this would be a great holiday gift for the animal lovers in your life. I know it's on my list.

STREET SENSE: Michell has hit this one out of the park. A funny and heartwarming story that lives up to Michell's quest to live a grand adventure in his twenties. Highly recommended.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  All of a sudden I was hoping against hope that the penguin would survive because, as of that instant, he had a name and his name was Juan Salvador Penguino, and with his name came a surge of hope and the beginning of a bond that would last a lifetime. That was the moment at which he became my penguin, and whatever the future held, we'd face it together.

COVER NERD SAYS: C'mon. A PENGUIN WEARING A SCARF. If you can resist that, I'm not sure I know who you are. I love the art work on this cover and although I haven't yet seen it in person it looks as though it may even be letterpress. A+ stuff worthy of the innards.

No comments:

About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


  © Blogger templates Newspaper by 2008

Back to TOP