Fantastical, atmospherically moody and Poe-like in its laudanum-fueled dreaminess.

PREPARING THE GHOST

AN ESSAY CONCERNING THE GIANT SQUID AND ITS FIRST PHOTOGRAPHER

An investigation of our first encounters with the giant squid, a creature “more bizarre than anything appearing in Star Wars.”

Poet and creative writing teacher Frank (The Morrow Plants: Poems, 2013, etc.) moves like a wraith around the myth, superstition and spirit of the giant squid—and not as a single-subject exploration but through the conjured memory of Moses Harvey, a preacher in Newfoundland during the mid-1800s. Harvey had heard stories of the beast—a kraken, a devil-fish that lived up to its name—and one morning in 1874, he was able to lay eyes on one. It was washed ashore, dead, but damn if he wasn’t going to commune with the creature up close and personal. He paid some men to carry the squid to his tub—“Nothing says domestication like a giant squid strung over a clawfoot bathtub”—before he said farewell and shipped it off to Yale for safekeeping. Surrounding the event is a great embroidery of story: “I am mythmaking, I suppose,” writes Frank, and he does it with transporting authority. Readers walk through the cold, pins-and-needles rain that falls forever in Newfoundland and perambulate the town as Frank walked it in modern times. The author concocts the background out of whole cloth, an imagined scenario. Though there are facts enough to keep it real, there are also moments in which there is a strong sense of the unconscious at work. “Somewhere, in the recesses of these recessive versions of our dominant truths,” writes Frank, “behind a daisy chain of lanterns and Darwin’s theories drunk and conga-lining, Rudolph Valentino was blond.” This track eventually wends its way back to myth and Newfoundland.

Fantastical, atmospherically moody and Poe-like in its laudanum-fueled dreaminess.

Pub Date: July 7, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-87140-283-7

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: May 21, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2014

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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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Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

THE BOOK OF EELS

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

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: March 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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