A pleasure for the budding naturalist in the family—or fans of Gerald Durrell and other animals.



Charming forays into the world of natural history and the ways of animal behavior.

“Much of zoology is little more than educated guesswork,” writes Cooke (A Little Bit of Sloth, 2013), a London-based filmmaker and former student of biologist Richard Dawkins. Thus, even in the recent past, well-meaning people could aver that eels spontaneously generate out of mud and hyenas change sexes at will, and we imagine today that animals lack consciousness or emotion. All of this, writes the author, traces back to our “habit of viewing the animal kingdom through our own, rather narrow, existence.” Is the sloth lazy? Through that narrow lens, yes, but the sloth moves at a speed that evolution has suggested is most appropriate to it. Does the beaver gnaw off its testicles and hurl them at would-be attackers, stunning them so that it can escape? We laugh at the thought; however, as Cooke’s lighthearted but scientifically rigorous exploration reveals, there is a biological basis for the myth, and it is instructive as to the nature of the “cognitive toolbox” the beaver employs. The cognitive and biological toolboxes of the animal kingdom are overstuffed and full of surprises—e.g., one reason we find vultures to be unpleasant is that they practice urohidrosis, “a scientific euphemism for crapping on your legs to keep cool.” That’s the kind of behavior that can get a bird a dodgy reputation, but the resulting ammoniac tang bespeaks a solution to a problem that definitely needed one. Along the way, Cooke touches on theories about bird migration (Aristotle conjectured that some species might transmute into others and thus disappear seasonally), the habit of some animals of dipping into fermented fruit for a little recreation, and our misguided efforts at species-driven animal conservation rather than the preservation of whole habitats.

A pleasure for the budding naturalist in the family—or fans of Gerald Durrell and other animals.

Pub Date: April 17, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-465-09464-6

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: Feb. 20, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 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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