Top-notch nature writing in service of a magnificent, vulnerable creature.

OWLS OF THE EASTERN ICE

A QUEST TO FIND AND SAVE THE WORLD'S LARGEST OWL

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

ISBN: 978-0-374-22848-4

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Feb. 9, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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Whether you call this a personal story or nature writing, it’s poignant, thoughtful and moving—and likely to become a...

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H IS FOR HAWK

An inspired, beautiful and absorbing account of a woman battling grief—with a goshawk.

Following the sudden death of her father, Macdonald (History and Philosophy/Cambridge Univ.; Falcon, 2006, etc.) tried staving off deep depression with a unique form of personal therapy: the purchase and training of an English goshawk, which she named Mabel. Although a trained falconer, the author chose a raptor both unfamiliar and unpredictable, a creature of mad confidence that became a means of working against madness. “The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life,” she writes. As a devotee of birds of prey since girlhood, Macdonald knew the legends and the literature, particularly the cautionary example of The Once and Future King author T.H. White, whose 1951 book The Goshawk details his own painful battle to master his title subject. Macdonald dramatically parallels her own story with White’s, achieving a remarkable imaginative sympathy with the writer, a lonely, tormented homosexual fighting his own sadomasochistic demons. Even as she was learning from White’s mistakes, she found herself very much in his shoes, watching her life fall apart as the painfully slow bonding process with Mabel took over. Just how much do animals and humans have in common? The more Macdonald got to know her, the more Mabel confounded her notions about what the species was supposed to represent. Is a hawk a symbol of might or independence, or is that just our attempt to remake the animal world in our own image? Writing with breathless urgency that only rarely skirts the melodramatic, Macdonald broadens her scope well beyond herself to focus on the antagonism between people and the environment.

Whether you call this a personal story or nature writing, it’s poignant, thoughtful and moving—and likely to become a classic in either genre.

Pub Date: March 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0802123411

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2014

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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LAB GIRL

Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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