by Jonathan C. Slaght ‧ RELEASE DATE: Aug. 4, 2020
Top-notch nature writing in service of a magnificent, vulnerable creature.
An American scientist chronicles his travels through remote Russian landscapes to study the elusive and endangered Blakiston’s fish owl.
From the very first pages, Slaght, the Russia and Northeast Asian Coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society, grips readers with vivid language and tight storytelling. His many months trekking through the icy wilderness to find and track rare fish owls—the largest owl on Earth—inform a narrative that blends field research, personal journey, and adventure writing. Part of the book’s success lies in the author’s ability to present the stakes and draw out the tension therein, making what could be a dry tale of bird-watching a compelling story of the necessity of conservation. In this case, the stakes include the owls' disappearing habitat but also Slaght’s livelihood. “Fieldwork is often regular repetition of challenging or unpleasant activities,” writes the author, “an application of persistent pressure to a question until the answer finally emerges.” In the bitter cold terrain of eastern Russia, it’s that much more difficult. Throughout the book, Slaght lives up to his rugged-conservationist persona as he writes of helter-skelter snowmobile trips circumnavigating rushing rivers of ice, vodka-soaked encounters with village locals, and solitary, achingly beautiful nights observing the majestic owls firsthand. He is an engaging writer who imbues each scene with an intimate sense of place. “The nights dragged on,” he writes, “a deep winter stillness perforated by occasional firecracker-like pops: ice expanding in tree cracks as air temperatures plummeted after sunset. The adult female fish owl was like a ghost. We heard her vocalize with her mate almost every night, but she appeared onscreen only once, when she hit our snare but pulled the knot free before we reached her.” The cast of characters he brings to life—both human and avian—illuminates the delicate symbiosis of the natural world and sheds a welcome light on the remarkable creatures that are too little known.Top-notch nature writing in service of a magnificent, vulnerable creature.
Pub Date: Aug. 4, 2020
Page Count: 368
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online: Feb. 8, 2020
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020
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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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