A cautiously hopeful and well-researched tribute to an animal easy for most humans to love.



A Rhode Island–based science writer explores the recovery from possible extinction of what may be “the cutest animal on earth.”

These animals, writes McLeish (Narwhals: Arctic Whales in a Melting World, 2015, etc.), don't just look cuddly and have a delightful ability to use tools; they also help maintain the marine environment where they live. After their numbers were severely cut by fur trading, the crucial kelp forests where the otters hunted suffered significant damage by sea urchins, the otters’ preferred food. With the otters back again, the kelp ecosystems flourished. Sea otters are a well-studied species, and the author devotes chapters to time spent with researchers along the Pacific coast from Alaska to California. He sailed out with spotters to count otters, and, in “the most precious fifteen minutes of my year,” he observed a rescued otter pup being groomed by an aquarium worker. He attended “necropsies” intended to reveal why otters have died and was appalled to learn how many females are killed during mating. McLeish also considers, though doesn't adopt, the viewpoints of those who consider sea otters “the rats of the sea.” Native Americans in Alaska, as well as other fishermen along the northern Pacific coast, are frustrated by the fact that animals left to range by the Marine Mammal Protection Act are devouring the same invertebrates the fishermen would like to harvest and sell. McLeish smoothly integrates background about the animals into his narrative, and he works in details about the history of their interaction with humans over the past few decades. Some of those attempts to save the otters, such as the introduction of surrogate mothers, have succeeded; others, such as relocation, haven't been as successful. The author also explains the complications of the relationships among the various protected marine mammals: in some places, the main enemy of the otters is the killer whale.

A cautiously hopeful and well-researched tribute to an animal easy for most humans to love.

Pub Date: March 20, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-63217-137-5

Page Count: 264

Publisher: Sasquatch

Review Posted Online: Dec. 24, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 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

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.



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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