An artful, detailed account of the tuna, and an entreaty that this not be its swan song.



Smooth-flowing distillation of scholarship about “the world’s best-loved fish.”

Ellis (Singing Whales and Flying Squid: The Discovery of Marine Life, 2006, etc.) has an authorial voice that’s easy on the ear and unpresumptuously authoritative. He takes readers through the many varieties of tuna: albacore, longtail, bigeye, blackfin, yellowfin, skipjack (not really a tuna, but the chicken-of-the-sea that fills many a light-meat tuna can) and the great, paradigmatic bluefin. Ranging as widely as the fish itself, Ellis covers tuna’s history as an item of catch (it was once scorned, ground up for its oil and for cat food), its lure for such sport fishermen as Zane Grey, its migratory patterns, metabolism and eyesight. He delves into the strangely fascinating canning process: Caught, frozen, thawed, gilled and gutted, the tuna is then frozen again, cut, precooked, cooled, skinned, canned, cooked again. The bluefin captures most of Ellis’s attention. Capable of living 30 years, speeding along at 55 miles per hour, weighing in at 1,500 pounds, this delicious, lordly fish is full of health-giving omega-3 fatty acids…and just a soupcon of mercury. It has provoked “the modern-day equivalent of the Dutch tulipmania” in high-end Japanese restaurants, where a two-ounce slice can command $75. But the bluefin is becoming rare due to overfishing. Its economic value is so high that its fate in the wild is nearly a foregone conclusion. That value may encourage tuna ranching, which could help protect brood stock but brings its own nest of troubles: interbreeding, parasites, disease, effluent pollution and gross inefficiency. (Twenty pounds of wild-fish feed produce one pound of tuna meat.) The future, Ellis suggests, lies in conservation, but he fears no one is listening to the convincing doomsday scenarios sketched by environmental groups.

An artful, detailed account of the tuna, and an entreaty that this not be its swan song.

Pub Date: July 17, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-307-26715-3

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2008

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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

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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

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