Seeking to be ``free to explore the universe within,'' free- lance writer Modzelewski (Sports Illustrated, Outside, etc.) spent 18 months on an islet near Vancouver Island. Modzelewski's sojourn on Swanson Island was inspired in part by his admiration for Zen masters and mountain men such as Jeremiah Johnson. He sought hardships away from people, cities, ski resorts, and college, because ``sometimes you have to lower your standard of living to reach a higher level.'' The owner of the island is Will Malloff, a ``mechanical wizard and woodworker extraordinaire'' as well as a ``healer'' who goes off alone to the woods in an attempt to heal his own lung cancer. Malloff is a fascinating characteronly not as the pure mountain man/mystic of Modzelewski's fantasy, but as a realistic bridge between modern ``civilization'' and romantic notions of getting ``back to nature.'' Some of his working tools, axes and scythes, a few found, others made or purchased, are to Modzelewski ``objets d`art''; it's no accident, Modzelewski notes, that the older tools work best, doing ``minimum damage to the earth and keeping you strong in the process.'' The author's contacts with wildlife belie his underdeveloped, perhaps naive belief in a mystical universe: an injured bald eagle he rescued and nursed, died. When, around the same time, a feather fell from the sky, he ``accepted it as sacred.'' He delivers a sound, informative natural history of cetaceans, but when a killer whale surfaced, near his skiff, ``I touched the whale; she touched me; and what passed between us changed me forever.'' One can only wonder if it was as good for the whale, too. Modzelewski's scenes of salmon fishing, profiles of local characters, observations on a giant octopus, explorations of other islands are solidly wrought. A kind of New Age natural history, hokey but engrossing. (Illustrationsnot seen.)

Pub Date: May 22, 1991

ISBN: 0-06-016533-2

Page Count: 208

Publisher: HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1991

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

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. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

Did you like this book?

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: March 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

Did you like this book?