An interesting, important subject drowned by digression and unconvincing interpretation.

SWALLOW

FOREIGN BODIES, THEIR INGESTION, INSPIRATION, AND THE CURIOUS DOCTOR WHO EXTRACTED THEM

Cappello (English and Creative Writing/Univ. of Rhode Island; Called Back: My Reply to Cancer, My Return to Life, 2009, etc.) meditates on swallowing and an important American doctor.

In the early 20th century, Dr. Chevalier Jackson pioneered a life-saving method of removing foreign bodies—safety pins, buttons, toy opera glasses, etc.—from the respiratory or upper gastrointestinal tracts. His collection of rescued foreign bodies inspired the author to write this book, in part a biography about him, his patients and the special aura imbued in an object that’s been lodged inside of a person. She writes in literary, often beautiful prose and organizes the narrative around episodes from Jackson’s life and notable patient cases represented by specific foreign bodies. These provide jumping-off points for musings on race, class, sword swallowing and many other topics. These digressions are often only tenuously relevant and give rise to numerous seemingly profound statements that ultimately lack meaning—e.g., “To swallow hardware is to swallow the entrails of machinery.” Even when pertinent, Cappello’s asides are less interesting than Jackson, his patients and the foreign bodies. Frequent recourse to psychoanalytic and Freudian interpretation—for instance, calling the larynxes that Jackson painted “vaginas”—fails to illuminate and in fact distracts from the main narrative. These faults obscure the interesting story that lies tantalizingly behind them, which is a shame, since Jackson is a significant figure in the history of medicine and deserves to be better known.

An interesting, important subject drowned by digression and unconvincing interpretation.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-59558-395-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: The New Press

Review Posted Online: Sept. 2, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2010

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

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

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. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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