EIGHT LITTLE PIGGIES

REFLECTIONS IN NATURAL HISTORY

Who could resist a title like that—and, knowing the author, who wouldn't surmise that Gould (Bully for Brontosaurus, 1991, etc.) is again up to his old trick of demonstrating that five fingers and five toes are not the primordial/canonical mammalian standard. Thanks to the discovery of species of ancient tetrapods (four- legged terrestrial vertebrates) living upwards of 350 million years ago, we now have evidence of seven- and eight-toed critters. So Gould sounds forth on a favorite theme of diversity and experimentation early in the course of evolution, with bushy branches off the tetrapod trunk and not ascent up a ladder that ends in humanity. And that's just the title essay, one of 31 Gould has distilled here from his monthly column in Natural History. He offers a reader's guide up front, explaining his clusterings of essays, advising that he has at last addressed the issue of species-destruction by human interventions (in poignant essays on the passenger pigeons and species of snails, which are to Gould what beetles were to Darwin), and, finally, telling dear reader which are his favorites—and why. Of the latter, he likes his people pieces and those essays in which the fossil evidence itself is used to illuminate the thinking of scientists within a cultural milieu. Gould points out that scientific discovery is never an act of pure reason nor totally culturally relative, but a marriage of the two. Elsewhere, there are wonderful essays on setting the record straight (Eugene Dubois and Java man); anatomy (how jaw bones became ear bones); essays with baseball references, on Darwin, on the brain, on evolution.... In sum, essays that reveal Gould in midlife, as passionate and articulate as ever, but older and wiser. Gould says the columns will continue through January 2001—for which readers everywhere should be grateful. (Drawings.)

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1993

ISBN: 0-393-03416-X

Page Count: 507

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1992

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Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.

HORIZON

Distinguished natural history writer and explorer Lopez (Outside, 2014, etc.) builds a winning memoir around books, voyages, and biological and anthropological observations.

“Traveling, despite the technological innovations that have brought cultural homogenization to much of the world, helps the curious and attentive itinerant understand how deep the notion goes that one place is never actually like another.” So writes the author, who has made a long career of visiting remote venues such as Antarctica, Greenland, and the lesser known of the Galápagos Islands. From these travels he has extracted truths about the world, such as the fact that places differ as widely as the people who live in them. Even when traveling with scientists from his own culture, Lopez finds differences of perception. On an Arctic island called Skraeling, for instance, he observes that if he and the biologists he is walking with were to encounter a grizzly feeding on a caribou, he would focus on the bear, the scientists on the whole gestalt of bear, caribou, environment; if a native of the place were along, the story would deepen beyond the immediate event, for those who possess Indigenous ways of knowledge, “unlike me…felt no immediate need to resolve it into meaning.” The author’s chapter on talismans—objects taken from his travels, such as “a fist-size piece of raven-black dolerite”—is among the best things he has written. But there are plentiful gems throughout the looping narrative, its episodes constructed from adventures over eight decades: trying to work out a bit of science as a teenager while huddled under the Ponte Vecchio after just having seen Botticelli’s Venus; admiring a swimmer as a septuagenarian while remembering the John Steinbeck whom he’d met as a schoolboy; gazing into the surf over many years’ worth of trips to Cape Foulweather, an Oregon headland named by Capt. James Cook, of whom he writes, achingly, “we no longer seem to be sailing in a time of fixed stars, of accurate chronometers, and of reliable routes.”

Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.

Pub Date: March 20, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-394-58582-6

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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LAB GIRL

Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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