The National Geographic channel meets memoir in this brief, compelling examination of what animals can teach us about...

HOW TO BE A GOOD CREATURE

A MEMOIR IN THIRTEEN ANIMALS

With plenty of heart, acclaimed naturalist Montgomery (The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, 2015, etc.) makes the convincing case that all animals—great and small—can teach us compassion.

Ever since her parents gave her a Scottie puppy, the author’s fascination with the animal world has been insuppressible, and she made that obsession into a career writing about animals in more than 20 books. Montgomery’s latest, however, is not merely an examination of one species, as in The Soul of an Octopus and other books. Here, the author looks at 13 of the most important animals in her life and how they changed her. There’s the aforementioned Scottie, Molly, and three other beloved dogs, but there’s also a pack of emus, a tarantula, and an octopus named Octavia. Each animal receives its own praiseful chapter. For instance, Clarabelle the tarantula is treated with wonder: “Most spiders, after injecting prey with paralyzing venom, pump fluid from their stomach into the victim to liquefy the meal, then suck it dry and toss the skin away. Tarantulas do it differently. Clarabelle ground up her food with teeth behind her fangs.” Montgomery consistently depicts nature scenes with awe, and she occasionally borders on a preachy tone—but not often, and she also reveals certain details about her personal life, including her rocky relationship with her parents. In “The Christmas Weasel,” Montgomery compares her difficult mother to an ermine. As she watched the furry white animal (its fur “seemed to glow, like the garment of an angel”) after it attacked one of her hens, the author couldn’t help but think of her mother’s own ferocity: how she overcame poverty, learned to fly, got a job at the FBI, and married an Army officer. “Her achievement,” writes the author, “was a feat as staggering as an ermine taking down a hen.”

The National Geographic channel meets memoir in this brief, compelling examination of what animals can teach us about ourselves.

Pub Date: Sept. 25, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-544-93832-8

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 28, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 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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AN INVISIBLE THREAD

THE TRUE STORY OF AN 11-YEAR-OLD PANHANDLER, A BUSY SALES EXECUTIVE, AND AN UNLIKELY MEETING WITH DESTINY

A straightforward tale of kindness and paying it forward in 1980s New York.

When advertising executive Schroff answered a child’s request for spare change by inviting him for lunch, she did not expect the encounter to grow into a friendship that would endure into his adulthood. The author recounts how she and Maurice, a promising boy from a drug-addicted family, learned to trust each other. Schroff acknowledges risks—including the possibility of her actions being misconstrued and the tension of crossing socio-economic divides—but does not dwell on the complexities of homelessness or the philosophical problems of altruism. She does not question whether public recognition is beneficial, or whether it is sufficient for the recipient to realize the extent of what has been done. With the assistance of People human-interest writer Tresniowski (Tiger Virtues, 2005, etc.), Schroff adheres to a personal narrative that traces her troubled relationship with her father, her meetings with Maurice and his background, all while avoiding direct parallels, noting that their childhoods differed in severity even if they shared similar emotional voids. With feel-good dramatizations, the story seldom transcends the message that reaching out makes a difference. It is framed in simple terms, from attributing the first meeting to “two people with complicated pasts and fragile dreams” that were “somehow meant to be friends” to the conclusion that love is a driving force. Admirably, Schroff notes that she did not seek a role as a “substitute parent,” and she does not judge Maurice’s mother for her lifestyle. That both main figures experience a few setbacks yet eventually survive is never in question; the story fittingly concludes with an epilogue by Maurice. For readers seeking an uplifting reminder that small gestures matter.

 

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-4516-4251-3

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Howard Books/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: July 26, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2011

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