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Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergrisby Christopher Kemp
Synopses & Reviews
“Preternaturally hardened whale dung” is not the first image that comes to mind when we think of perfume, otherwise a symbol of glamour and allure. But the key ingredient that makes the sophisticated scent linger on the skin is precisely this bizarre digestive by-product—ambergris. Despite being one of the worlds most expensive substances (its value is nearly that of gold and has at times in history been triple it), ambergris is also one of the worlds least known. But with this unusual and highly alluring book, Christopher Kemp promises to change that by uncovering the unique history of ambergris.
A rare secretion produced only by sperm whales, which have a fondness for squid but an inability to digest their beaks, ambergris is expelled at sea and floats on ocean currents for years, slowly transforming, before it sometimes washes ashore looking like a nondescript waxy pebble. It can appear almost anywhere but is found so rarely, it might as well appear nowhere. Kemps journey begins with an encounter on a New Zealand beach with a giant lump of faux ambergris—determined after much excitement to nothing more exotic than lard—that inspires a comprehensive quest to seek out ambergris and its story. He takes us from the wild, rocky New Zealand coastline to Stewart Island, a remote, windswept island in the southern seas, to Boston and Cape Cod, and back again. Along the way, he tracks down the secretive collectors and traders who populate the clandestine modern-day ambergris trade.
Floating Gold is an entertaining and lively history that covers not only these precious gray lumps and those who covet them, but presents a highly informative account of the natural history of whales, squid, ocean ecology, and even a history of the perfume industry. Kemps obsessive curiosity is infectious, and eager readers will feel as though they have stumbled upon a precious bounty of this intriguing substance.
"Kemp, a molecular biologist, travels far from his intellectual roots to explore the recondite world of ambergris — the odd-smelling regurgitation of sperm whales that has been a component of fragrances — its collectors, buyers, and sellers. There are two remarkable facts about ambergris: first is its value — gold is now worth per gram, ambergris ; second, a lucky ambergris hunter might find 'something worth ,000' on any windswept beach from New Zealand to Cape Cod. Kemp weaves fascinating facts about sperm whales (bulls weigh 50 tons and consume up to a ton of food a day), ambergris's central role in creating the world's perfumes, and personal reflections about his quest for ambergris into a pleasing, easy-flowing story. Much of the book recounts spectacular past and recent finds of ambergris and the secretive individuals who search for the elusive substance. They're so secretive that one collector reportedly walked backward to 'disguise the direction he was traveling.' And Kemp's descriptions of the close-mouthed ambergris traders provide a satisfying glimpse into a little-known parallel universe in which readers vicariously share the thrill of the hunt and dreams of fortune that drive the ambergris obsessed. 12 color and 21 b&w illus. Agent: Russell Galen, Scovil, Galen, Ghosh Literary Agency." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Christopher Kemp is a molecular biologist who currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with his wife and two sons. He has worked as a columnist for Cincinnati CityBeat, and his science writing has appeared on Salon.
Table of Contents
Prologue: Wellington, 2008
1 On Long Beach
2 There Is a Piece at Rome as Big as a Mans Head
3 The Beach Mafia
4 It Looked like Roquefort and It Smelled like Limburger
5 A Molecule Here and a Molecule There
6 Close Encounters of the Ambergris Kind
7 The Hopefuls
8 On the Road
9 Gone A-Whaling
10 A Meeting
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History and Social Science » World History » General