An illuminating natural history and warning for the future.

EUROPE

A NATURAL HISTORY

A noted paleontologist traces Europe’s land, flora, and fauna over 100 million years.

Australian explorer and conservationist Flannery (Atmosphere of Hope: Searching for Solutions to the Climate Crisis, 2015, etc.), chief councilor of the Australian Climate Council, offers a fascinating geological and natural history of Europe, from its origins as a tropical arc of islands to the present, as the world faces the challenges of rapidly rising temperatures. European biodiversity, writes the author, has been “destroyed and re-made three times over as celestial and tectonic forces shaped the land.” He depicts in colorful detail the variety of wildlife inhabiting the islands along with dinosaurs, including primitive mammals, and strange creatures, such as pythonlike snakes, terrestrial crocodiles with serrated teeth, and “large side-necked turtles.” Today, the midwife toad—a species in which the male gathers up and protects the eggs—represents Europe’s oldest vertebrate family, a survivor of 100 million years of geological catastrophe, including the devastating asteroid crash that precipitated a nuclear winter and, some scientists argue, caused the extinction of dinosaurs. Besides revealing many examples of bizarre animal life—the blind salamander that spends its entire life in caves, for example, and the perissodactyl, an animal with a horselike head and gorillalike body and limbs with huge claws—Flannery traces the migration of fauna between Africa and Europe. About 12 million years ago, he asserts, “the faunas of Kenya and Germany became almost indistinguishable.” Among the fauna were the earliest hominids, which appeared in Europe at least 1 million years earlier than in Africa, although genetic analysis confirms that the genus Homo did evolve in Africa, later migrating to Europe. Around 38,000 years ago, Europe became colonized by a “hybrid human-Neanderthal population.” Today, Flannery concedes that a healthy population of carnivores, larger herbivores, and scavengers is making Europe “a wild and environmentally exciting place,” but he cautions that efforts at “rewilding” need to be carried out with responsible scientific oversight and that indisputable global warming has real impact.

An illuminating natural history and warning for the future.

Pub Date: Feb. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2916-1

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

Review Posted Online: Oct. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2018

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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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