With brio and dash, Patton (Dreamland, 1998, etc.) charts the long strange trip of the little bug that became a grand...

A peppy, perspicacious cultural history of the Volkswagen.

It was the people’s car: simple, durable, easy to repair, with a shape appealing to the child in all of us. It was also loaded with Hitler’s ideological baggage—when it rolled off the production lines, it was called the Strength through Joy Auto—but it managed to shed those unsavory associations through the witty and guileless advertising of the firm Doyle Dane Bernbach, of Levy’s rye-bread fame (that it was a Jewish company went a long way toward distancing the car from its evil memories). As the car’s populism melded with the evolving zeitgeist, DDB tapped into it. Small was beautiful, and the cool anti-car struck at the pomposities of status symbols, epitomizing the countercultural revolt against the mainstream ethos of consumption, the culture of the new and improved product, and planned obsolescence. Zeitgeists change, but the bug didn’t. Status and personal expression returned; Ralph Nader pointed out the vehicle’s dangers; Japanese cars, with the beetle’s strengths of low price and dependability, washed ashore. Sales dropped and the design went into mothballs, yet the beetle’s shape and personality were as iconic as the Coke bottle, and it wasn’t long before a new beetle arrived, this time without the innocence. Designers might have tried to “channel the soul of the beetle,” but there was no doubt that this was an “upscale lifestyle vehicle,” a product of visual positioning, brand management, and chic fin-de-siècle retro packaging—manipulation, in a word—far from the bohemian and trustworthy. The new car plays on emotions and archetypes yet, unlike its ancestor, is neither a technological nor social innovation. If Woody Allen found it in a cave 200 years from now, it wouldn’t start right up.

With brio and dash, Patton (Dreamland, 1998, etc.) charts the long strange trip of the little bug that became a grand cultural totem.

Pub Date: Sept. 25, 2002

ISBN: 0-7432-0242-2

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2002



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


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

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 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

Close Quickview