One doesn’t have to be a bird enthusiast to relish this book, but it would be the most perfect gift for anyone who is.

THE MOST PERFECT THING

INSIDE (AND OUTSIDE) A BIRD'S EGG

A thrilling voyage through what most of us think of as an ordinary item sold at the supermarket.

Birkhead (Animal Behavior and History of Science/Univ. of Sheffield; Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird, 2012, etc.), an expert in the reproductive biology of birds, takes readers on an outside-to-inside journey through an egg. Before launching his trip, the erudite and entertaining British author introduces egg collecting, a now-forbidden pastime that began in the 17th century with wealthy amateurs filling private cabinets with beautiful eggshells, many of them plundered from guillemot nests on the cliffs of Skomer of South Wales. Turning to eggs themselves, Birkhead tells how the outside is formed and what lovely shapes and beautiful colors shells can make. Each chapter moves inward, focusing next on the protective albumin and then the huge, food-filled yolk. Finally, the author provides a chapter on the laying of the egg, its incubation, and the hatching of the chick. This is no basic biology text, however. Birkhead, an accomplished popular science writer, is also an authority on the history of science. The journey through the egg is full of side trips into earlier times and related stories. It seems that even Aristotle and William Harvey found eggs puzzling, and although researchers today, equipped with scanning electron microscopes, have revealed many of the egg’s mysteries, the remaining gaps in knowledge are significant. What makes this book such a pleasure is not just the author’s breadth of knowledge—he has researched guillemots for more than 40 years—but his unbridled enthusiasm and the clarity of his explanations. The black-and-white illustrations are simple and clear, and the backmatter includes a helpful glossary for general readers as well as extensive notes, a bibliography, and a list of birds mentioned in the text.

One doesn’t have to be a bird enthusiast to relish this book, but it would be the most perfect gift for anyone who is.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-63286-369-0

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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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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