Suffering from a concussion and hearing loss in the aftermath of a serious fall from her horse, Smithsonian and National Geographic contributor Menino (Mr. Darwin's Fox and My Coyote, 2008, etc.) was drawn to explore the fragility of perception.

Reminded of a jazz workshop during which an improvisational singer was forced to compete with the loud sounds of a mockingbird, the author decided to track down the latest research on the vocal communication of a range of animals, from the croak of the lowly frog to bird songs and elephant calls. She hoped to find answers to “two big questions about the bird and human singer…Why sing? and What does the song mean?” She traveled to Panama, where behavioral ecologists were studying frog signals in an effort to determine how female frogs pick mates. Menino explains that a female's apparently simple response is deceptive; it “is actually an elaborately wrought transaction involving the endocrine system, larynx and tympanic membranes, nerves, and brain.” In Puerto Rico, the author connected with researchers studying duets sung by birds. Bird songs appear to have many different functions, from attracting a mate to territorial defense. While males do most of the singing, as in human music, bird songs contain alternating, repetitive phrases and patterns. The male takes the lead and the female responds. However, writes Menino, the parallel with jazz improvisation stops here. If the female's response is not right, the male will attack her. The duets appear to function as recognition signals and a kind of “social glue.” This is borne out in the complex social and vocal interactions of dolphins, elephants and primates, as well as in the role of music and language in human society. A charming meditation on the world of sound.  


Pub Date: April 10, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-312-58757-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Jan. 24, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2012

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The Johnstown Flood was one of the greatest natural disasters of all time (actually manmade, since it was precipitated by a wealthy country club dam which had long been the source of justified misgivings). This then is a routine rundown of the catastrophe of May 31st, 1889, the biggest news story since Lincoln's murder in which thousands died. The most interesting incidental: a baby floated unharmed in its cradle for eighty miles.... Perhaps of local interest-but it lacks the Lord-ly touch.

Pub Date: March 18, 1968

ISBN: 0671207148

Page Count: 312

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Oct. 12, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1968

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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. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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