by Holly Menino ‧ RELEASE DATE: April 10, 2012
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
Page Count: 288
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2012
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2012
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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
Page Count: 224
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online: Jan. 1, 2020
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020
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Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.
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
Page Count: 256
Review Posted Online: Feb. 29, 2020
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020
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