Evocative and well-written, a delight for nature and travel buffs.

THE WILD PLACES

Award-wining Macfarlane (Mountains of the Mind, 2003) celebrates Great Britain’s remaining wilderness.

Setting out from his home in Cambridge to explore the forests, mountains and rivers of his native land, the author was inspired by the Scottish explorer and mountain climber W.H. Murray (1913–96). The Glasgow-born Murray sustained himself during three years in World War II prison camps by writing about beloved wild places on sheets of toilet paper that eventually became the book Mountaineering in Scotland. Following Murray’s admonition that “secret things awaited inquiry,” Macfarlane explored varied areas. He visited the remote and serene island of Ynys Enlli in North Wales, once home to generations of Christian monks and still a refuge for hundreds of species of migrating birds. He trod the deeply worn holloways, or sunken roads, cut into the Dorset countryside by cartwheels and hooves over the centuries. He investigated the Burren region of northern County Clare, Ireland, a landscape of limestone graced with both hardy plants and funerary monuments dating back thousands of years. A keen observer and accomplished writer, Macfarlane does a splendid job of conveying the look and feel of these wild places and draws on wide reading in science and literature to anchor them in nature and the imagination. He encountered the “disinterest” of a mountain, Ben Hope, on a cold winter night; loch-filled valleys forming sanctuaries where time was expressed in shades and textures; and the “wilding quality” of darkness in the Cumbrian mountains. “Wildness weaved with the human world,” he came to realize, “rather than existing only in cleaved-off areas.” For all the loss of nature in densely populated Britain, it remained resurgent and irrepressible in the most unexpected places. “The sheer force of ongoing organic existence,” Macfarlane writes, can be found on a tiny woodland at the city’s edge or on a mountaintop.

Evocative and well-written, a delight for nature and travel buffs.

Pub Date: June 24, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-14-311393-5

Page Count: 340

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2008

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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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