Few of us have ventured on or beneath the high seas, but in the age of Cousteau documentaries and elaborate public aquariums, German...

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“The Ocean at Home: An Illustrated History of the Aquarium”
by Bernd Brunner
Princeton Architectural Press, 143 pp., $24.95

Few of us have ventured on or beneath the high seas, but in the age of Cousteau documentaries and elaborate public aquariums, German author Bernd Brunner observes in “The Ocean at Home: An Illustrated History of the Aquarium,” we take for granted our relatively sophisticated knowledge of marine life. Brunner’s slim, informative study details how private and public aquariums developed over the last 150 years.

In the middle of the 19th century, the vast oceans of the earth were still as mysterious as outer space, places inhabited by frightful sea creatures and equally bizarre plants. While collecting and keeping fish in bowls dated back two millennia, the idea of observing marine life in glass tanks wasn’t popularized until the 1850s, when Englishman Philip Henry Gosse studied and wrote about this miniature sea world he called an “aquarium.”

About the same time, a home-aquarium craze swept through England, where it became a staple conversation piece for the Victorian parlor. Not only was it a microcosm of “nature in the city,” the aquarium also provided “moving pictures” that “not only stimulated the mind but also simulated a journey.”

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The initial challenge for amateur “aquarists” was how to keep fish and other marine life alive for more than a few days. The solutions, Brunner shows through his research and many illustrations, reflect the ingenuity and know-how of the Industrial Age, and the keen interest in animal science sparked by Charles Darwin and others.

Paralleling the home-aquarium movement, large public aquariums opened in Europe and the United States to huge crowds. Even the legendary P.T. Barnum got into the act in 1856 when he included an aquarium in his American Museum in New York City. Other urban aquariums in Washington, D.C., Paris, Berlin and Brighton featured ornate grottoes and rock formations, and dramatic ceilings of glass.

Without too much effort or added paper — the book is just 143 pages, including credits — the author could have brought us to the present with the marvels of modern aquariums (one of which is in this city). But Brunner does plenty to arouse interest and appreciation of this history in his well-paced and surprisingly pleasing book.

Reviewed by David Takami, Special to The Seattle Times

“Scooter”
by Mick Foley
Knopf, 302 pp., $23.95

Saddled with the unfortunate name Scooter, dysfunctional parents and a gimp leg, the title character struggles to survive in the Bronx in the 1960s and ’70s in this raw and rambling coming-of-age story built around the holy game of baseball.

Like the boy named Sue in the Johnny Cash song, Scooter fights and spits his way through a hostile world. Mick Foley, a former professional wrestler and the author of “Tietam Brown,” heavy-handedly shifts the narrative back and forth from a Bronx history lesson to a sentimental baseball retrospective to a sins-of-the-fathers morality tale.

“We all end up paying for our sins,” Scooter’s grandfather says. “The only question’s when.” About a hundred pages later, Scooter’s father tells him, “Everyone pays for their sins, son, the only question’s when.” This sentiment is repeated throughout.

There’s a whole lot of sinning and suffering and payback in these pages. Though this second novel lacks the vulgar energy and startlingly original voice of “Tietam Brown,” it has the same crudely satisfying way of paying off setups. For example, you know the cocky pitcher who beans Scooter and humiliates his mentally handicapped sister is going to pay for it, one way or another. The only question is how, and Foley does occasionally surprise the reader in this.

A three-time World Wrestling Entertainment champion, Foley knows what the crowd wants and mostly delivers. However, reality and nuance are often sacrificed in the interest of high stakes and cartoonish battle lines.

That said, I have to admit that in the end, when Foley lets emotional complexity constrain him, I wanted him to crank the volume back up and let the book be what it wants to be: a blood-stained arena where everyone pays for their sins.

Reviewed by Mark Lindquist, Special to The Seattle Times