Well-written and superbly reported.

THE OYSTER WAR

THE TRUE STORY OF A SMALL FARM, BIG POLITICS, AND THE FUTURE OF WILDERNESS IN AMERICA

An absorbing account of the clash between environmentalists and oyster farmers in the coastal towns north of San Francisco.

In her debut, Brennan, a contributor to the Believer, the Rumpus, and other publications, describes a lengthy political and ecological battle involving the National Park Service, wilderness advocates, and the agricultural community in the Point Reyes National Seashore, a park preserve in Marin County, California. The “oyster war,” which won national media attention, pitted passionate supporters of the wild against equally vociferous champions of organic farming and resulted in the closing of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, which had been raising oysters in a pristine estuary. Brennan, who grew up in the area and worked for the Point Reyes Light, offers a well-crafted narrative exploring every aspect of the controversy, from the contentious issue of whether the oyster farm was polluting the estuary (scientific and investigatory reports had uncertain findings) to the unusual array of individuals taking part (including Richard Nixon adviser John Ehrlichman and Senator Dianne Feinstein). The author recounts the history of oystering in America; the mixed uses of the biologically rich Northern California seashore by farmers, hikers, and campers; and how the 1976 Point Reyes Wilderness Act protected the area. When the Park Service refused to renew the oyster company’s lease to operate within the park—ostensibly to restore the area to its wilderness condition—legal battles ensued. Brennan interweaves the stories of oyster pirates, cattle ranchers, Native Americans, scientists, and species ranging from exotic deer to harbor seals. She confronts the ambiguities of the conflicting arguments and motives of the key players, leaving readers to share her wonder at the “false dichotomy” between wild and cultivated landscapes. The oyster war, she writes, was “a story about loss…whether it be the loss of nature or the loss of a way of being in the world that feels sane, where men and women pull sustenance out of the lands and water.”

Well-written and superbly reported.

Pub Date: Aug. 11, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-61902-527-1

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Counterpoint

Review Posted Online: May 14, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2015

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

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.

THE BOOK OF EELS

OUR ENDURING FASCINATION WITH THE MOST MYSTERIOUS CREATURE IN THE NATURAL WORLD

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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