An articulate yet debatable and uneven survey of the endlessly beguiling female form.



The biology, culture, and vanities perennially orbiting the female body.

Motivated by specific behavioral and cultural observations, British zoologist and veterinary surgeon Bainbridge (Clinical Veterinary Anatomy/Cambridge Univ.; Middle Age: A Natural History, 2012) shares insightful musings on the nature and genesis of female physical dissatisfaction. He divides his exploration into three sections (The Body, The Mind, The World), each supporting different aspects of an argument stating that while the female body is unique, important, and precious, it is also guided and goaded by influential cultural and societal scrutiny. Flush with fascinating statistical data, the book’s introductory chapters spotlight the author’s animal biology background. In mapping human anatomy, Bainbridge examines the sexual dimorphisms of male and female torsos and the anthropological origins and evolutionary heritage of a woman’s curvaceous adipose tissue. Men emerge as key figures in determining what constitutes superficial attractiveness in the opposite sex, and they often contribute to an unmanageable fixation on body image for many women. Less effective and redundant is a section explaining the nature of appetite and size between the sexes and of the historic female “control systems” that make dieting willpower so elusive. Bainbridge focuses too heavily on the evolutionary theories of eating disorders and the “cult of thinness” rather than validating contemporary beliefs related to the complex mechanics of the human brain or to modern society and culture, which, to him, seem “disturbing.” Ultimately, the author concedes that regardless of clinical and social attempts to counter the trend and where exactly blame should be placed for perpetuating pathological female self-surveillance, women’s obsessions with their bodies will endure, even as they are “continually told that it is becoming too large, too small, too exploited.”

An articulate yet debatable and uneven survey of the endlessly beguiling female form.

Pub Date: Nov. 7, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-4683-1202-7

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Overlook

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2015

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A quirky wonder of a book.



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. 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 4, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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