Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris

Christopher Kemp. Univ. of Chicago, $22.50 (232p) ISBN 978-0-226-43036-2
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 $30 per gram, ambergris $20; second, a lucky ambergris hunter might find “something worth $50,000” 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. (May)
Reviewed on: 04/02/2012
Release date: 05/01/2012
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 303 pages - 978-0-7322-9191-4
Open Ebook - 212 pages - 978-0-226-43037-9
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