THE FEEJEE MERMAID by Jan Bondeson

THE FEEJEE MERMAID

and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History
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KIRKUS REVIEW

Bondeson (A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities, 1997) is back with another mind-blowing collection of scientific anomalies and mysteries. Presented here are ten investigations into natural history at its most odd and occasionally macabre: barnacle geese purported to grow from trees, lambs born of plants in the wilds of Tartary, toads-in-the-hole blinking back the sunlight after being unlocked from centuries encased in solid stone. Bondeson has chosen his subjects not just for their outrageous qualities, but for their staying power over the years and the wealth of primary sources he could tap in shaping his stories, which read like spry narrative histories. What is perhaps most bizarre is the sheer number of animals that served as objects of fixation in 17th—19th-century Europe: drumming hares, vaulting apes, counting horses, dancing dogs, starling cardsharps. Bondeson gives plausible explanations where he can—he often has to give many explanations, for his subjects keep reappearing in new guises—though he never forces his hand, and many of the solutions were found at the time of the animal’s fame. Mermaids, for example, be they “Feejee” or otherwise, are shown to have been a quilt of odd parts: head of orangutan and baboon, tail of salmon, with quill and horn accessories. That rain of frogs and fish may well have been the fallout of a waterspout, while the philosopher pigs—adepts at math and telling time, they were considered proof of the transmigration of souls—probably responded to hand signals. Bondeson wedges all manner of other stranger-than-life items into his tales: “an ambassador who forgot to remove his hat when meeting a Russian prince was punished by having the hat nailed to his skull by the palace guard.” Bondeson doesn’t seek important truths behind the grotesqueries, nor trenchant social criticisms. If he educates, it’s as a broadly inquisitive and keen naturalist; that he amuses is not a point for debate. (63 b&w photos, 8 illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: May 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-8014-3609-5
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Cornell Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 1999




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