As popular natural histories go, Alexander's is a yeoman's work, with enough telling details to give the elephant a justly...



An entertaining albeit at times overengrossed portrait—cultural, physiological, historical—of the elephant.

Since she can remember, Alexander (Happy Days, 1995) has been hooked on elephants. This then is her tribute to the great pachyderms, an Everyman's natural history that throws them in very winning light: ``They have essential nobility, serenity, sagacity, loyalty and playfulness, a simple goodness, a lack of animosity . . . they convey a sense of perfect beings.'' In an effort to embed this sentiment in the reader's mind, Alexander pursues both anecdotal and scientific tacks. The anecdotal material is delivered with a suave assurance. There is the mythic and nearmythic—the elephant dream of the Buddha's mother, the mammoths of Paleolithic cave art, and Hannibal's driving the beasts over the Alps (even if ``it is not clear what [Hannibal's] object was in bringing the elephants with him'')—and there are the plentiful zoo and circus stories, many of which are exemplars in displaying humans as the elephants' worst enemy (among the grotesqueries: tickets were sold to attend the electrocutions of rogue circus elephants). When Alexander hits scientific ground, she is less sure about what to include, so she tosses in everything. Her coverage of the zoological and conservation work of the DouglasHamiltons is intriguing, as is the research work of Cynthia Moss and Katy Payne. But when it comes to temperature inversions enhancing sound propagation, transrectal ultrasound probes, the importance of knowing that elephants have four salivary glands, and the like, the focus reaches critical mass and burns its connection with the intended lay readership. Her message of the elephants' peril—a result of poaching and habitat loss for both the Asian and African species—hits home hard, perhaps the most important element of the book.

As popular natural histories go, Alexander's is a yeoman's work, with enough telling details to give the elephant a justly unique, mesmeric image. (16-page photo insert, not seen)

Pub Date: May 1, 2000

ISBN: 0-679-45660-0

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2000

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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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The book is not entirely negative; final chapters indicate roads of reversal, before it is too late!


It should come as no surprise that the gifted author of The Sea Around Us and its successors can take another branch of science—that phase of biology indicated by the term ecology—and bring it so sharply into focus that any intelligent layman can understand what she is talking about.

Understand, yes, and shudder, for she has drawn a living portrait of what is happening to this balance nature has decreed in the science of life—and what man is doing (and has done) to destroy it and create a science of death. Death to our birds, to fish, to wild creatures of the woods—and, to a degree as yet undetermined, to man himself. World War II hastened the program by releasing lethal chemicals for destruction of insects that threatened man’s health and comfort, vegetation that needed quick disposal. The war against insects had been under way before, but the methods were relatively harmless to other than the insects under attack; the products non-chemical, sometimes even introduction of other insects, enemies of the ones under attack. But with chemicals—increasingly stronger, more potent, more varied, more dangerous—new chain reactions have set in. And ironically, the insects are winning the war, setting up immunities, and re-emerging, their natural enemies destroyed. The peril does not stop here. Waters, even to the underground water tables, are contaminated; soils are poisoned. The birds consume the poisons in their insect and earthworm diet; the cattle, in their fodder; the fish, in the waters and the food those waters provide. And humans? They drink the milk, eat the vegetables, the fish, the poultry. There is enough evidence to point to the far-reaching effects; but this is only the beginning,—in cancer, in liver disorders, in radiation perils…This is the horrifying story. It needed to be told—and by a scientist with a rare gift of communication and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Already the articles taken from the book for publication in The New Yorker are being widely discussed. Book-of-the-Month distribution in October will spread the message yet more widely.

The book is not entirely negative; final chapters indicate roads of reversal, before it is too late!  

Pub Date: Sept. 27, 1962

ISBN: 061825305X

Page Count: 378

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1962

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