SAHARA

A NATURAL HISTORY

A thoughtful history of, and popular guide to, the great African desert. (Maps, photos throughout)

A fully versed and admiring portrait of the Sahara, by travel-writer de Villiers (Water, 2000, etc.) and Hirtle (with de Villiers, Into Africa, not reviewed).

The authors explain that the Great Emptiness really isn’t empty: not only is it full of sand and wind and stone, but it’s also “full of creatures frequently deadly, full of refugees in secretive mountain fastnesses, full of traders and traffickers and travelers and trickery.” The writers break down their exploration of the region in two: place and people. As a place, they write in an evocative geography, the Sahara is three million square miles of ergs, regs, and inselbergs; of dunes that hop, that are blood red, that can run for 40 miles and climb 1,000 feet; is home to blind fish and crocodiles, vipers, kraits, and adders, lizards and gazelles, and maybe djinns; boasts mountains that are both sanctuaries and weather-makers; and has water, lots of ancient water buried deep. There’s also a fair share of humans and their histories, from Neolithic rock painters through the Garamanites, Berbers and Beni Hilal, the Fulani theocracies, Moor, Chaamba, Tuareg, and Tubu. And there are their towns, cities, and empires—Agadez, Timbuktu, Kano, the kingdoms of Old Ghana, Mali, Kanem-Bornu—and the caravan routes that linked them all to the interior, where salt, gold, and slaves were plucked and transported. De Villiers and Hirtle are careful to preserve the poetry of the desert—both the indigenous representations and the narratives provided by early Arab and European travelers—while at the same time making the place real for those to whom it is mostly a land of pure image: a sandy waste, a barren waterless sea.

A thoughtful history of, and popular guide to, the great African desert. (Maps, photos throughout)

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2002

ISBN: 0-8027-1372-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Walker

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2002

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

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

THE BOOK OF EELS

OUR ENDURING FASCINATION WITH THE MOST MYSTERIOUS CREATURE IN THE NATURAL WORLD

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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