Gratifyingly fluent for so erudite a study. The shark is elevated from creature of melodrama to elemental citizen of the...

A popular yet scholarly tour through the world of sharks, by a husband-and-wife team of veteran researchers (McMillan: Oceans: Life in the Deep, not reviewed, etc.).

“Sharks routinely remind us how much there still is to know about them,” warn the authors. Of the great white shark, for example, the one that haunts us the most, almost nothing is known about how many of them there are, how they reproduce, or the extent of their range. But at the same time Musick and McMillan are also merely being modest, for they do have plenty of information to impart, starting with the fact that sharks are an evolutionary success story par excellence, with identifiable species dating back some 540 million years. The pair chart the shark’s progress through the eons, and although the going can get a bit rough for the untrained (“The route to a neoselachian body was the distillation of key physical traits as cladodont features had given way to hybodont ones”), the two are quick to inject oxygen into the proceedings with entertaining descriptions of the many shark species. Besides our old friend the great white and other familiar types—hammerheads, tigers, blues—there are also the weasels and the wobbegongs, the catsharks and the houndsharks, the porbeagles, bonnetheads, and wingheads, even an angel shark. Musick and McMillan make digestible the workings of thermoregulation, negative buoyancy, drag reduction; they explain what is known of the shark’s senses, mating and nurturing activities, and even include research on shark cells. Importantly, they clarify that overfishing imperils the breed, and they lay bare what is known about attacks on humans, both those that are a part of simple feeding behavior and those that may be hostile responses to perceived threats.

Gratifyingly fluent for so erudite a study. The shark is elevated from creature of melodrama to elemental citizen of the marine habitat.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2002

ISBN: 0-8050-7093-1

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2002




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



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

ISBN: 978-0-06-296881-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Feb. 29, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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