A splendid, vivid contribution to the literature of nature.

BEING A BEAST

ADVENTURES ACROSS THE SPECIES DIVIDE

In which an English author, tired of the high street, takes to the fens and burrows to learn how animals live.

What does an otter do? One imagines a life of lolling in a sparkling tidal pool, nibbling on salmon. Is there more to it? Indeed, writes Oxford ethicist and veterinarian Foster. For one thing, there’s a matter of negotiating rivers down to the sea, “Ruskin on acid; all hanging greenery; soft focus from the spray—it’s too much.” Clearly, this isn’t your grandmother’s Ring of Bright Water but instead a daringly imaginative project to see the world from the viewpoints of various animals that wouldn’t be out of place in The Wind in the Willows: badger, otter, swift, fox, red deer. Their world is fraught with danger, not least because of the too-insistent, too-impingent presence of our kind. The project is daring precisely because it courts the two sins of nature writing, anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism, the latter describing the world as it appears to humans, “perhaps commercially shrewd,” Foster grumps, but “rather dull,” and the former depicting the animal world as being a mirror of the human. It is not: Foster, in inhabiting that world, attempts to get at its essential alien nature, whether routing through badger tunnels whose geography is determined by where the bones of badgers past and passed-away lie or racing against dogs in the guise of a vulpine: “Apart from swifts, foxes were the most obviously alive things I knew.” There’s not an ounce of sentimentality in any of it, but instead good science and hard-nosed thought. Furthermore, Foster has the gift of poetry, and he closes with a meditation on what knowing about the animal orders and the natural world can mean to humans: “If we live in a wood,” he writes, “we acquire the accents of the trees.”

A splendid, vivid contribution to the literature of nature.

Pub Date: June 21, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-62779-633-0

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Metropolitan/Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: April 19, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2016

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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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