From ants to whales, these inviting nonfiction books offer eye-opening perspectives on animals.
In Fathoms: The World in the Whale, Rebecca Giggs considers the background and mythology of the mighty whale. Tracking the creature across centuries through a spellbinding survey of history, science and art, Giggs evaluates the whale’s enduring importance and shows how its relationship to the environment has altered over time. With stops in Australia and Japan, Giggs’ fluid account will captivate readers, and questions related to species’ extinction and environmental degradation will spark inspired dialogue among book clubbers.
Beloved naturalist Edward O. Wilson became intrigued by ants as a boy in Mobile, Alabama. That interest developed into a lifelong preoccupation, and in Tales From the Ant World, he shares personal anecdotes and scientific insights related to the insect. From the fire ant to the uncommon New Caledonian bull ant, Wilson looks at 25 different species. His book is packed with fascinating ant-inspired trivia and research stories, and Wilson’s always absorbing voice makes potentially dry subjects such as biodiversity, the world’s ecosystems and scientific methodology endlessly fascinating.
Patrik Svensson’s The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination With the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World sheds new light on an elusive animal. Although research studies related to the eel are plentiful, scientists still know very little about the fish. For example, eels have never been observed giving birth or mating, and they inexplicably swim back to the ocean near the end of their life, even though they spend the majority of their time in fresh water. Svensson chronicles the eel’s remarkable existence through a synthesis of history, science and memoir. Readers will find plenty to talk about in his compelling narrative, such as evolution and the limits of scientific research.
Jennifer Ackerman investigates avian traits in The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think. Providing a fresh take on our fine-feathered friends, Ackerman analyzes recent scientific research into bird habits related to communication, reproduction and feeding practices. She takes a multifaceted approach to her subject, creating a narrative that will cause many readers to revise their perceptions of birds as simple creatures. Book clubs can dig into rich topics such as animal cognition and species development.
From ants to whales, these inviting nonfiction books offer eye-opening perspectives on animals.
Sit down, pull up a chair (or pick a spot under your favorite tree) and smile as Rick Bragg spins his mesmerizing tales of life down South with characteristically wry humor and wisdom. A paean to his terrible good dog, Speck, The Speckled Beauty: A Dog and His People offers a knowing and humane meditation on the devotion of a man to his dog and a dog to his man.
Bragg first found Speck among a pack of strays eating trash in the middle of the road; when he approached the pack, the other dogs scattered, but Speck lingered, and so Bragg took him in. Speck’s mismatched eyes—a light brown left eye and an almost solid blue-black right eye—“did not ruin his face; they just made him look like the pirate he is.” Bragg wasn’t looking for a dog when he found Speck, and even if he had been, this isn’t the one he might have expected. “I had in mind a fat dog,” he writes, “a gentle plodder that only slobbered an acceptable amount and would not chase a car even if the trunk was packed with pork chops.”
Yet, this dog—who chases cars, drinks from the toilet and rounds up jackasses—has a story, and Bragg tells it with all the “exaggeration and adjustment” of a rattling good storyteller. Bragg weaves his own stories of health challenges and his brother’s cancer diagnosis throughout Speck’s journey, as the two take care of each other in the wilds of rural Alabama. Bragg concludes that Speck “just wants some people of his own, and some snacks, because a dog gets used to things like that. . . . And, when the weather turns bad, he wants someone to come let him in, when the thunder shakes the mountain, when the lightning flash reveals that he was just a dog all this time.”
The Speckled Beauty takes its place beside Willie Morris’ My Dog Skip, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ animal narratives and William Faulkner’s dog stories—as well as all those short tales of devoted dogs in Field & Stream—confirming once more Bragg’s enduring artfulness and cracking good ability to spin memorable, affectionate tales.
The Speckled Beauty confirms Rick Bragg’s enduring artfulness and cracking good ability to spin memorable, affectionate tales.
“Well, for heaven’s sake, Susie,” Susan Orlean’s mother once told her. “You and your animals.”
Orlean has garnered well-earned acclaim writing about a slew of unlikely subjects, including orchid lovers, libraries, Saturday nights and more. However, she writes, “somehow or other, in whatever kind of life I happened to be leading, animals have always been my style. They have been a part of my life even when I didn’t have any animals, and when I did have them, they always seemed to elbow their way onto center stage.”
Regardless of whether you’re an animal lover, On Animals is a fabulously fun collection of essays, most of which first appeared in The New Yorker, where Orlean is a staff writer. “Lady and the Tiger,” for instance, tells the story of Joan Byron-Marasek, who collected tigers on her Jackson, New Jersey, property—well before Netflix’s “Tiger King.” Tiger hoarding, it seems, is a thing, and Byron-Marasek had lost track of exactly how many she owned when a Bengal tiger weighing more than 400 pounds was seen walking through the nearby suburbs.
Orlean is such a virtuoso of unexpected joys and delights that she can make even the story of a lost dog read like a thriller, as she does with the unlikely dognapping tale of a border collie in Atlanta. When writing about a champion boxer named Biff in “Show Dog,” her trademark humor shines through right from the start: “If I were a bitch, I’d be in love with Biff Truesdale. Biff is perfect. He’s friendly, good-looking, rich, famous, and in excellent physical condition. He almost never drools.”
In “Lion Whisperer,” Orlean profiles South African Kevin Richardson, who bonds with lions as cubs, cuddling and cultivating relationships through their adulthood, at which point they seem to accept him “on some special terms, as if he were an odd, furless, human-shaped member of their pride.” The essay blossoms into an especially intriguing tale with serious ethical concerns, which seasoned journalist Orlean duly explores. Her style seems meandering at times, but each essay always returns to its glorious point, even when following an aside about, in this case, a man who befriended a housefly named Freddie.
Whether she’s encountering a donkey laden with four televisions in Morocco, or extolling the global appeal of pandas, Orlean’s high-octane enthusiasm never wanes. After all, this is a woman who admits, “One day, I went to CVS to buy shampoo and came home with four guinea fowl thanks to a ‘For Sale’ sign I passed as I was driving home.” Likewise, Orlean’s readers will find themselves completely diverted by On Animals’ irresistible menagerie.
Susan Orlean is such a virtuoso of unexpected joys and delights that she can make even the story of a lost dog read like a thriller.
Animals do the darndest things—just ask bestselling author Mary Roach. After writing about the science behind human cadavers (Stiff), space travel (Packing for Mars) and life as a soldier (Grunt), she turns her attention to criminals in the wild in Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law.
This book is such a rich stew of anecdotes and lore that it’s best savored slowly, bit by bit. Roach doles out surprising true tales from her around-the-world survey of human-wildlife relations, such as the story of a woman who returned home to find a leopard in her bed watching TV, or one about bear bandits in Pitkin County, Colorado, who tend to prefer premium brands of ice cream like Häagen-Dazs over brands like Western Family, which they apparently won’t touch. Her exploits are accompanied by numerous, sometimes lengthy footnotes, such as a particularly intriguing one about the scientific difficulties of studying monkey ejaculate.
Roach also tackles deeply serious topics in Fuzz, such as the death and destruction caused by certain wandering elephants, or bears whose DNA needs to be traced in order to track down one who killed a person. But no matter the situation, Roach approaches it with contagious enthusiasm, gifting readers with sentences like this one about a tourist lodge in India: “I love this kind of place, love the surreal decay of it, love the clerk who does not know where breakfast is served or even if breakfast is served, love everything, really, except the rat turds on my balcony.”
As Roach marvels at this wild world, she brings home the fact that, as one expert put it, “When it comes to wildlife issues, seems like we’ve created a lot of our own problems.” Roach is never one to proselytize, however, jokingly calling herself “Little Miss Coexistence” as she challenges herself not to set a trap for that roof rat pattering on her deck. Nonetheless, Fuzz will open readers’ eyes to a myriad of animal rights issues, and possibly change their attitudes about how to approach them. When it comes to handling pesky rodents and birds, for instance, Roach concludes, “Perhaps the model should be shoplifting. Supermarkets and chain stores don’t poison shoplifters; they come up with better ways to outsmart them.”
Bestselling author Mary Roach’s enthusiasm is contagious as she doles out surprising true tales from her around-the-world survey of human-wildlife relations.
Wandering through Aspen, Colorado, at 3:30 a.m., Mary Roach turned into a dark alley and encountered a burly intruder: a full-grown black bear happily gorging himself on restaurant waste. Roach knew full well that the bear could be dangerous. She also knew that the bear shouldn’t grow accustomed to being close to humans because it could lead to bolder, more aggressive behavior in the future. Nonetheless, she pleaded with her companion from the National Wildlife Research Center, “Can we go just a little bit closer? Just a foot closer?”
As she chats by phone from her home in the Bay Area, Roach vividly recalls that impulse to forget everything she knew about responsible wildlife encounters. “None of that was in my head,” she says. “It was just, ‘I want to get closer.’ . . . People almost seem to have an inborn affinity for animals—particularly big, furry, kind of cute ones. People are drawn to them. They want to feed them. And there begins the problem.”
That Aspen garbage gangster is just one of a variety of furry fugitives Roach writes about in Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, her fascinating and often hilarious investigation into what happens when creatures commit crimes ranging from murder and manslaughter to robbery, jaywalking, home invasion and trespassing. Ever since her 2003 debut, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Roach has been taking readers on a series of surprising explorations—from space travel to the afterlife. Like Susan Orlean, Roach has a knack for taking a deep, deep dive into unexpected and sometimes even mundane subjects (the alimentary canal, for instance, in Gulp) and unearthing a narrative feast of freaky fun facts and captivating characters.
Roach started honing her keen observation skills early, as an elementary school student in Norwich, Vermont, where she and a friend sometimes ventured out at night to peek into people’s windows. (Decades later, her mother was absolutely horrified when Roach fessed up to these outings.) “We weren’t Peeping Toms, obviously,” she says. “We weren’t looking for naked women or men. We just liked to look in.”
And that, Roach says, is the curiosity factor that sparks her writing. “My motivating sentiment is ‘What’s going on in there? This is a world I don’t know. Maybe it’s interesting.’”
She also mentions another childhood adventure that may have signaled an early predilection for wildlife research. She and her friend called it “The Potted Meat Project,” in which the two pals would hang or bury potted meat sandwiches in the woods in Etna, New Hampshire, “playing naturalists. Then we’d go and take notes and look for tracks,” Roach says. When they returned, the food was gone and there were some tracks, but “we didn’t follow up. We were in fifth or sixth grade, and we had the attention span of a gnat.”
“My motivating sentiment is ‘What’s going on in there? This is a world I don’t know. Maybe it’s interesting.’”
Writing Fuzz involved much more follow-through as Roach trekked with man-eating leopards in the Indian Himalayas, investigated gull vandals at the Vatican the night before Easter Mass and tracked mountain lions in California. Thankfully, she finished these travels before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. “It would have been a disaster,” she says, imagining what might have been. “Yes, you can talk to scientists on Zoom, but that doesn’t work for me. I need something I can tag along for and see as it unfolds. That’s so much more interesting for my readers, and for me, honestly. I really love that part of what I do: the research, and the being there.”
Because of this commitment, Roach encountered intense, unforgettable new worlds as she researched Fuzz. In northern India, she came within 100 yards of a leopard wearing a radio collar—but, much to her disappointment, she never saw the animal, who was on the other side of a river. “I would’ve loved to be in the classic National Geographic scenario, surrounded by these creatures, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way,” she says. In another part of India, she armed herself with bananas because she wanted to know “what it was like to be mugged by monkeys,” which is a widespread problem in many areas. “I was nervous,” she admits. “They’re not large animals, but they can get aggressive. I was standing with a bag of like six bananas, so I was asking for it.” The monkeys were speedy snatchers, as it turned out, so they left Roach unscathed.
Reading one of Roach’s books is always a breezy, informative treat, but a lot of behind-the-scenes effort goes into their creation, given Roach’s trademark immersive approach. The creation of this book, especially, involved hurdles from the start. In fact, Roach initially contemplated covering a completely different topic: natural disasters and the science of rescue, first aid, prevention and preparation. Eventually, however, she realized that she wouldn’t be allowed to tag along with first responders during those crucial early moments of a disaster.
“Yes, you can talk to scientists on Zoom, but that doesn’t work for me. I need something I can tag along for and see as it unfolds.”
After that, Roach turned her attention to tiger penises. (Yep, you read that right.) She’s fascinated by forensics, whether humans or animals are involved, and an expert taught her how to tell counterfeit tiger penises from real ones, which are valued in some cultures for their supposed powers of virility. “I can fill you in if you want to know,” she says with a laugh. “I’ve got all of these bizarre photographs of dried mammal genitalia on my phone.” However, once again, she couldn’t further develop this subject because she couldn’t legally visit crime scenes, which often involved poachers.
Roach then had a eureka moment: “What if we turned it around, and the animals were the perpetrators rather than the victims?” Before long she was in Reno, Nevada, attending a five-day training session for wildlife officers tasked with investigating animal attacks. (She refers to these professionals in chapter one of Fuzzas “maul cops.”) Roach was gloriously in her element, hearing tales of bears discovered in the back seat of a car eating popcorn and a cougar wrongfully accused of murder. (The murderer was actually a human, armed with an ice pick, who years later bragged about the crime.) During one training session, Roach and the other participants headed out to examine simulated crime scenes in the woods so they could guess what had happened. As with any crime scene, DNA is often key, but with animal attacks, clues are often contaminated by scavenger animals who arrive after a death. Roach relished such forensic details, jotting down remarks like, “Bears are more bite bite bite bite. . . . It’s a big mess.”
“You spend three or four days with those people, and you get the sense that, my God, animals are attacking everyone all the time,” Roach says. “But . . . it’s actually super rare. Animal attacks just tend to get so much media attention when they happen. It eclipses anything else happening in the news, even human murders.”
“Whenever these animals are coming in contact with humans more frequently, it doesn’t go well for the animals.”
In addition to killer animals, Roach’s book includes one chapter on poisonous beans, as well as one on “danger trees”—falling trees or limbs that sometimes kill bystanders. When one such tree was being blown up for safety reasons in British Columbia, Canada, Roach got to be a “guest detonator.” “That was awesome,” she says. “I enjoy large explosions.”
With all of this deadly data, has writing Fuzz changed how Roach feels about outdoor adventures?
Roach explains that when she hikes in California, she sometimes sees signs warning of mountain lions and coyotes in the area. “My first reaction is that I’d love to encounter one,” she says. “I don’t have a fear of any of them. But at the same time, it saddens me, because whenever these animals are coming in contact with humans more frequently, it doesn’t go well for the animals.”
Science writer Mary Roach shares some highlights from her worldwide travels to collect stories of marauding monkeys, bandit bears and other fuzzy fugitives.
Road trip sagas can be unforgettable, whether it’s Jack Kerouac crossing the country in On the Road or Cheryl Strayed hitting the trail in Wild. That’s definitely the case with Annie Wilkins, a 63-year-old widow from Maine who made a bold decision when life handed her way too many lemons. In 1954, she suddenly found herself with no money, home or family, and her doctor had just told her she had only two years to live.
Determined not to become a charity case, Wilkins remembered that her mother had always dreamed of saddling a horse and heading to California to see the Pacific Ocean. So, improbable as this sounds, that’s what Wilkins decided to do—never mind the fact that she had no horse and hadn’t even sat on one in at least 30 years. Elizabeth Letts tells Wilkins’ amazing story in The Ride of Her Life: The True Story of a Woman, Her Horse, and Their Last-Chance Journey Across America, drawing on Wilkins’ extensive diaries, postcards and more.
Wilkins is an extraordinary woman with an abundance of grit and wit—imagine Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, or Frances McDormand’s character in Nomadland. She managed to buy a horse named Tarzan and set out with her beloved mutt, Depeche Toi—French for “hurry up,” which is something this unusual trio certainly couldn’t do. Wilkins wore layers of men’s clothing, had no map or flashlight, and only kept about 32 bucks in her pocket. Undaunted, she wrote in her diary, “I go forth as a tramp of fate among strangers.”
Wilkins was repeatedly hospitalized and encountered all sorts of weather and hardships, but she never gave up. Sometimes she slept in stables with Tarzan, and she often spent nights in jail cells—a somewhat common occurrence for thrifty travelers at the time. However, she also became famous as reporters shared her story, and many communities and households began to excitedly await her arrival. They showed her endless hospitality, putting her up in their homes and sometimes in fancy hotels. As Letts writes, “That was when Annie realized she wasn’t just riding for herself—she could carry other people’s hopes and dreams along with her.”
This is a feel-good story in every way, and Letts keeps the momentum lively, sprinkling in interesting historical tidbits that enrich the drama. The Ride of Her Life is an altogether quirky, inspiring journey that’s not to be missed.
This is a feel-good story in every way, and Elizabeth Letts keeps the momentum lively, sprinkling in interesting historical tidbits that enrich the drama.
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A young indigenous girl learns the importance of water from her elders, then unites with her community and its supporters to defend it in Carole Lindstrom and Michaela Goade’s inspiring new picture book, We Are Water Protectors.
Author Maggie Tokuda-Hall (The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea) and illustrator Lisa Sterle discuss their first graphic novel collaboration, Squad, a story in which teenage girls are never quite what they seem.