The National Geographic channel meets memoir in this brief, compelling examination of what animals can teach us about...
With plenty of heart, acclaimed naturalist Montgomery (The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, 2015, etc.) makes the convincing case that all animals—great and small—can teach us compassion.
Ever since her parents gave her a Scottie puppy, the author’s fascination with the animal world has been insuppressible, and she made that obsession into a career writing about animals in more than 20 books. Montgomery’s latest, however, is not merely an examination of one species, as in The Soul of an Octopus and other books. Here, the author looks at 13 of the most important animals in her life and how they changed her. There’s the aforementioned Scottie, Molly, and three other beloved dogs, but there’s also a pack of emus, a tarantula, and an octopus named Octavia. Each animal receives its own praiseful chapter. For instance, Clarabelle the tarantula is treated with wonder: “Most spiders, after injecting prey with paralyzing venom, pump fluid from their stomach into the victim to liquefy the meal, then suck it dry and toss the skin away. Tarantulas do it differently. Clarabelle ground up her food with teeth behind her fangs.” Montgomery consistently depicts nature scenes with awe, and she occasionally borders on a preachy tone—but not often, and she also reveals certain details about her personal life, including her rocky relationship with her parents. In “The Christmas Weasel,” Montgomery compares her difficult mother to an ermine. As she watched the furry white animal (its fur “seemed to glow, like the garment of an angel”) after it attacked one of her hens, the author couldn’t help but think of her mother’s own ferocity: how she overcame poverty, learned to fly, got a job at the FBI, and married an Army officer. “Her achievement,” writes the author, “was a feat as staggering as an ermine taking down a hen.”The National Geographic channel meets memoir in this brief, compelling examination of what animals can teach us about ourselves.
Pub Date: Sept. 25, 2018
Page Count: 208
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Review Posted Online: May 27, 2018
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2018
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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
Page Count: 224
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online: Jan. 1, 2020
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020
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by Helen Fremont ‧ RELEASE DATE: Feb. 11, 2020
A vivid sequel that strains credulity.
Fremont (After Long Silence, 1999) continues—and alters—her story of how memories of the Holocaust affected her family.
At the age of 44, the author learned that her father had disowned her, declaring her “predeceased”—or dead in his eyes—in his will. It was his final insult: Her parents had stopped speaking to her after she’d published After Long Silence, which exposed them as Jewish Holocaust survivors who had posed as Catholics in Europe and America in order to hide multilayered secrets. Here, Fremont delves further into her tortured family dynamics and shows how the rift developed. One thread centers on her life after her harrowing childhood: her education at Wellesley and Boston University, the loss of her virginity to a college boyfriend before accepting her lesbianism, her stint with the Peace Corps in Lesotho, and her decades of work as a lawyer in Boston. Another strand involves her fraught relationship with her sister, Lara, and how their difficulties relate to their father, a doctor embittered after years in the Siberian gulag; and their mother, deeply enmeshed with her own sister, Zosia, who had married an Italian count and stayed in Rome to raise a child. Fremont tells these stories with novelistic flair, ending with a surprising theory about why her parents hid their Judaism. Yet she often appears insensitive to the serious problems she says Lara once faced, including suicidal depression. “The whole point of suicide, I thought, was to succeed at it,” she writes. “My sister’s completion rate was pathetic.” Key facts also differ from those in her earlier work. After Long Silence says, for example, that the author grew up “in a small city in the Midwest” while she writes here that she grew up in “upstate New York,” changes Fremont says she made for “consistency” in the new book but that muddy its narrative waters. The discrepancies may not bother readers seeking psychological insights rather than factual accuracy, but others will wonder if this book should have been labeled a fictionalized autobiography rather than a memoir.A vivid sequel that strains credulity.
Pub Date: Feb. 11, 2020
Page Count: 352
Publisher: Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online: Oct. 20, 2019
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019
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