Savage, serious, hilarious, passionate, loving, and lyrical.



With wicked irony and wacky humor, essayist and novelist Williams (The Quick and the Dead, 2000, etc.) assails hunters, land developers, and scientists who experiment on animals.

These 19 pieces (modified from previous incarnations) display Williams’s mastery of a vast arsenal of literary weapons. Most potent of all is her wit. The opening essay, a tour de force written in the second person, skewers ordinary Americans who drift along with scarcely a thought about the consequences of their waste and their cruelty to other animals: “You don’t want to think about it! It’s all so uncool.” In another piece about Africa’s rapidly declining animal populations, she comments, “They’re still out there, in Africa, offering people the experience of their existence. Isn’t that nice?” Included here too are a controversial anti-hunting piece, whose original publication in Esquire occasioned many angry replies, and a funny rant about the humorless determination of American women, especially infertile women, to have babies—the author’s sly digression about Cabbage Patch dolls is worth the purchase price all by itself. Williams employs stealth weapons as well as heavy artillery. The account of her attempt to keep one acre of Florida in a natural state is as wistful as it is belligerent, and in a mere page and a half she deftly fillets John James Audubon, who killed for amusement far more birds than he ever painted. Perhaps the most gripping piece of all, “Hawk” begins with a lovely meditation about Glenn Gould, then segues seamlessly into a narrative about her loyal and loving German shepherd, which one day attacked without warning and nearly killed her. Williams, who has effectively arranged the volume with longer pieces separated by very short ones, concludes with “Why I Write,” an exquisite essay of illuminating paradoxes—e.g., “A writer loves the dark, loves it, but is always fumbling around in the light.”

Savage, serious, hilarious, passionate, loving, and lyrical.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2001

ISBN: 1-58574-187-6

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Lyons Press

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2001

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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

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

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

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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