The stories are plain engrossing—in their elucidation, their breadth of examples, and their barely contained sense of awe...

WINTER WORLD

THE INGENUITY OF ANIMAL SURVIVAL

An array of ways to beat the cold when central heating isn’t an option, from National Book Award nominee Heinrich (Racing the Antelope, 2001, etc.).

The cleverness of evolutionary design is everywhere on display in this look at how animals cope with winter. Like the good teacher he must be at the University of Vermont, Heinrich takes pains to be clear, laying a groundwork of information for what follows. He starts at the molecular level, explaining the properties of water and the difference between heat and temperature, then providing an outline of various life-maintenance techniques used by creatures from insects to bears—methods that include aestivation and brumation, freezing point depression, antifreeze, ice-nucleation sites, thermal hyteresis, and supercooling, all allowing these organisms to survive the “regularly occurring famine” that winter brings on its heels. Heinrich’s description of snow’s thermal qualities makes it understandable that a broad range of animals use it for insulation, but what he clearly delights in are the startling discoveries resulting from fieldwork undertaken by both himself and others. We learn about the differing bill morphologies of birds, about the spring peepers and chorus frogs that freeze solid after suffusing their cells with glucose, the arctic ground squirrels that heat up from their torpor to get a little REM sleep, and the chronobiology of flying squirrels as they set their internal clocks without external cues. There’s the role of camouflage, as in the weasel turning white, and the unique architecture of birds’ nests (“the more different or exotic the nest appearances there are for different species, the less any one would stand out to predators”), not to mention the many insects, whose “success is derived from exploiting individual specificity.” Heinrich relates each creature’s method as a story, slowly revealing its canny, outrageous, or dumbfounding aspects—letting the reader sit back and marvel.

The stories are plain engrossing—in their elucidation, their breadth of examples, and their barely contained sense of awe and admiration. (Drawings throughout)

Pub Date: Jan. 10, 2003

ISBN: 0-06-019744-7

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2002

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

THE BOOK OF EELS

OUR ENDURING FASCINATION WITH THE MOST MYSTERIOUS CREATURE IN THE NATURAL WORLD

An account of the mysterious life of eels that also serves as a meditation on consciousness, faith, time, light and darkness, and life and death.

In addition to an intriguing natural history, Swedish journalist Svensson includes a highly personal account of his relationship with his father. The author alternates eel-focused chapters with those about his father, a man obsessed with fishing for this elusive creature. “I can’t recall us ever talking about anything other than eels and how to best catch them, down there by the stream,” he writes. “I can’t remember us speaking at all….Because we were in…a place whose nature was best enjoyed in silence.” Throughout, Svensson, whose beat is not biology but art and culture, fills his account with people: Aristotle, who thought eels emerged live from mud, “like a slithering, enigmatic miracle”; Freud, who as a teenage biologist spent months in Trieste, Italy, peering through a microscope searching vainly for eel testes; Johannes Schmidt, who for two decades tracked thousands of eels, looking for their breeding grounds. After recounting the details of the eel life cycle, the author turns to the eel in literature—e.g., in the Bible, Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea Wind, and Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum—and history. He notes that the Puritans would likely not have survived without eels, and he explores Sweden’s “eel coast” (what it once was and how it has changed), how eel fishing became embroiled in the Northern Irish conflict, and the importance of eel fishing to the Basque separatist movement. The apparent return to life of a dead eel leads Svensson to a consideration of faith and the inherent message of miracles. He warns that if we are to save this fascinating creature from extinction, we must continue to study it. His book is a highly readable place to begin learning.

Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-296881-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: March 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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