A natural history of bloodsuckers that shines in gory glory.

DARK BANQUET

BLOOD AND THE CURIOUS LIVES OF BLOOD-FEEDING CREATURES

Schutt (Biology/C.W. Post Coll.) enthusiastically surveys the world of sanguivores and hematophages.

That’s “blood eaters” to the layperson, and if the vampire species doesn’t get you, then the leeches and chiggers and bedbugs and mites and ticks likely will—not unto death, perhaps, but very much unto distraction. And if it’s the candiru that swims its way up your urethra, there to lodge its spines and gorge away, then best of luck in your struggle. Schutt explains the history and metabolism of these unpleasant critters, including their fossil and cultural records. He details the nasty group of diseases they transmit: bubonic plague, rabies, scrub typhus, tick vectors. Almost worse than these real ailments is delusional parasitosis, “a condition in which the victim believes that tiny biting or bloodsucking creatures are crawling over his or her body.” Though the author enjoys extolling these sensational aspects, at the same time he painlessly—rather like vampire bats, whose nip is rarely felt—introduces scientific material such as ontogeny, phylogeny and heterochrony. He takes critical detours when necessary (“So what is blood, exactly?”) and displays a pleasingly corny sense of humor: “Leeches had always given me the creeps. In fact they were right up there with clowns and televangelists.” Schutt even manages to make a case for their existence as food sources, pollinators and insectivores, not to mention the beneficent use contemporary medicine makes of leeches. Then he dangles a few additional bloodthirsty beasts, including hookworms, assassin bugs and the vampire finch that feeds on the blue-footed booby. Bloodthirsty readers may well find their appetite whetted for more.

A natural history of bloodsuckers that shines in gory glory.

Pub Date: Oct. 14, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-307-38112-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Harmony

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2008

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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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