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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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.


Distinguished natural history writer and explorer Lopez (Outside, 2014, etc.) builds a winning memoir around books, voyages, and biological and anthropological observations.

“Traveling, despite the technological innovations that have brought cultural homogenization to much of the world, helps the curious and attentive itinerant understand how deep the notion goes that one place is never actually like another.” So writes the author, who has made a long career of visiting remote venues such as Antarctica, Greenland, and the lesser known of the Galápagos Islands. From these travels he has extracted truths about the world, such as the fact that places differ as widely as the people who live in them. Even when traveling with scientists from his own culture, Lopez finds differences of perception. On an Arctic island called Skraeling, for instance, he observes that if he and the biologists he is walking with were to encounter a grizzly feeding on a caribou, he would focus on the bear, the scientists on the whole gestalt of bear, caribou, environment; if a native of the place were along, the story would deepen beyond the immediate event, for those who possess Indigenous ways of knowledge, “unlike me…felt no immediate need to resolve it into meaning.” The author’s chapter on talismans—objects taken from his travels, such as “a fist-size piece of raven-black dolerite”—is among the best things he has written. But there are plentiful gems throughout the looping narrative, its episodes constructed from adventures over eight decades: trying to work out a bit of science as a teenager while huddled under the Ponte Vecchio after just having seen Botticelli’s Venus; admiring a swimmer as a septuagenarian while remembering the John Steinbeck whom he’d met as a schoolboy; gazing into the surf over many years’ worth of trips to Cape Foulweather, an Oregon headland named by Capt. James Cook, of whom he writes, achingly, “we no longer seem to be sailing in a time of fixed stars, of accurate chronometers, and of reliable routes.”

Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.

Pub Date: March 20, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-394-58582-6

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

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