A Buzz in the Meadow: The Natural History of a French Farm by Dave Goulson

A celebration of biology and the joy of discovery–and a reminder to tread lightly.

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Dave Goulson follows A Sting in the Tale, about his years studying bumblebees, with A Buzz in the Meadow: The Natural History of a French Farm. In 2003, Goulson purchased a 33-acre property with a decaying farmhouse and barn, and turned it into a private nature reserve; here he describes the multitude of wildlife he shares those acres with. His goal is to celebrate the wonder of the natural world–especially insects, which make up roughly two-thirds of known life on Earth.

Goulson charmingly depicts the mating practices of dance flies and the many butterfly species he sees on his daily run, and elucidates the habits of the famously cannibalistic female mantis with added knowledge gained through his own studies. A Buzz in the Meadow is both a descriptive work and a call to arms, a reminder that all species are precious and necessary, even the tiny ones. Goulson repeatedly states that conservationists should look beyond large and charismatic creatures like whales and tigers; he perhaps overstates that “the extinction of the giant panda… would not have any knock-on consequences. There would perhaps be a tiny bit more bamboo in a forest in China,” but his point is well taken–that insects make up the majority of life and play an outsized role in the interconnectivity of biological systems worldwide. Goulson’s tone is personal, even humorously self-effacing, but clearly expert. A Buzz in the Meadow accessibly presents natural science and gracefully offers an earnest wake-up call to conservation.


This review originally ran in the April 28, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 dormice.

Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova

Family dynamics after a diagnosis of Huntington’s disease, exquisitely portrayed with poignancy and tenderness.

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In her fourth novel, Inside the O’Briens, Lisa Genova (Still Alice) introduces a traditional Irish Catholic family who have to cope with a neurological disease.

Over several years, Joe O’Brien, a proud, hardworking Boston cop, has been increasingly irritable and quick to anger, and has trouble concentrating on his paperwork. He starts stumbling and dropping things; there are murmurs of drink or drugs. When they finally see a doctor, the O’Briens learn about Huntington’s disease, an inherited neurodegenerative disease that over the course of 10 to 20 years will rob Joe of his ability to move, speak and eat on his own. It’s been causing his short temper and confusion. And there’s a 50-50 chance that each of his children has it.

Each of these young adults has a decision to make: they can be tested for the gene marker that predicts Huntington’s or they can live with uncertainty. The eldest has been trying to conceive; a baby would be at risk, too.

Sympathetic, absorbing, multifaceted characters compel the reader’s compassion. While Genova’s background in neuroscience allows her to portray medical issues accurately, the heart of the O’Briens’ story is human: how each member of the family copes with the news of Joe’s pending mortality; whether each child chooses to be tested; how knowing or not knowing guides how they live their lives. Their insular Irish Catholic community is likewise evoked with sensitivity and precision.

Poignant and painful, warm and redemptive, Inside the O’Briens displays Genova’s established strengths in bringing neuroscience to the lay reader, and portraying the power of love.


This review originally ran in the April 14, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 sippy cups.

Teaser Tuesdays: A Buzz in the Meadow by Dave Goulson

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

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My teaser today from A Buzz in the Meadow: The Natural History of a French Farm is actually a footnote, outside the main text; but I felt it was too profound not to share.

Sadly, funding for taxonomic work such as describing new species has shrivelled in recent decades, so such specialists are now hard to find. Soon there may be no experts left in many fields, so there will be no one to go to for help if you suspect you have discovered a species new to science.

It’s a sad world.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth by Lee Jackson

The muck of historic London, replete with colorful characters and wisdom for the modern age.

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The Victorian era, 1837–1901, saw extreme filth and considerable change in the British capital. Lee Jackson (Walking Dickens’ London; A Dictionary of Victorian London) turns his gaze toward this grime with Dirty Old London and divides his study by category of filth, not chronology. Chapters cover the ashes and cinders of domestic coal fires; “mud” in the streets (horse dung); “night soil” (domestic human excrement); sewers and drains; human remains buried close to one another; unwashed bodies and filthy homes; public toilets; and air pollution, largely from industrial and domestic coal smoke. He touches on major figures in sanitation and reform, such as Edwin Chadwick, who championed the idea that disease is traceable to environmental elements, and Joseph Bazalgette, credited with establishing London’s sewer system. Themes include the challenges of regulation, the tension between centralization and local control and the limits of contemporary science–germ theory hadn’t yet been widely accepted, and the notions of miasma and humors persisted.

While the subject of Dirty Old London is often, unavoidably, off-putting, it is also endlessly intriguing. Jackson is frank and matter-of-fact and occasionally entertaining, although his overall tone is more academic than playful. His research is reliable, with plentiful endnotes. He affirms that “this book is not about casting blame on the Victorians for their failure to manage the dirt of their great capital.” Rather, Jackson hopes that the Victorians’ filth can offer a lesson to the modern world that still struggles with how to handle its own waste.


This review originally ran in the December 19, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 drains.

Sex on Earth: A Celebration of Animal Reproduction by Jules Howard

The sexual habits and workings of the animal kingdom described in decidedly entertaining fashion.

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Jules Howard is a well-established zoologist, but you wouldn’t know it from the self-deprecatingly droll tone he takes in his first book, Sex on Earth: A Celebration of Animal Reproduction. The subtitle is slightly misleading; far beyond simple reproduction, Howard is intrigued by sex in all its forms and purposes. Inspired by captive pandas saddled with a reputation for sexual failure (unfairly, he thinks), he pursues diverse and myriad questions. He is specifically interested in getting beyond issues of who has the largest penis (the blue whale, if you must know) or exhibits the most outrageous behaviors–matters he finds, frankly, slightly pornographic–and instead examining the everyday as well as the eccentric. The heartwarming monogamous habits of the jackdaw, the incredible asexual abilities of the rotifer, homosexuality in penguins and iguana masturbation are just the beginning. And while the outlandish is indeed presented, Sex on Earth likewise narrates basic mechanics and relates them to evolution and animal life in the face of human impact.

Howard approaches his many expert consultants with a wide-eyed respect bordering on awe, and this is just one of the charming personality quirks that win his readers’ hearts. A comic (and overwhelmingly British) tone borders on the silly, but Howard’s science is solid and the overall effect is positively winning. In Howard’s capable hands, the sex habits of diverse creatures such as dinosaurs, hedgehogs and caddisflies are engrossing (not gross), and the language is accessible. His debut achieves a fine balance to which all popular-science writing should aspire.


This review originally ran in the November 25, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 9 macaques.

Older, Faster, Stronger: What Women Runners Can Teach Us All About Living Younger, Longer by Margaret Webb

An amiable and instructive memoir about achieving and maintaining competitive fitness at any age.

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Margaret Webb (Apples to Oysters) was a successful young athlete and an active adult, but never suspected she might be a marathoner. Staring down her 50th birthday, she became curious about what she could accomplish. She knew there were competitive women runners several decades her senior; could she join their ranks? Older, Faster, Stronger covers what Webb calls her “super-fit year.” And as her subtitle states, the lessons she shares are valuable for men and women of all ages, in any sport.

With the luxury of being able to devote her time and energy primarily to training, Webb engages expert nutritionists, personal trainers, coaches, sports psychologists, aging specialists, physiologists and laboratory researchers. She has her maximal oxygen consumption tested (twice); adds cross-training, gym time and track workouts to her running schedule; travels; and brunches with world champion septua-, octo- and nonagenarian women. She sets goals: to qualify for the Boston Marathon under the fastest women’s standard (the qualifying time for 18-to-34-year-old women) and to be competitive in the half-marathon at the World Masters Games.

Webb is meticulous in applying her results stringently to her own life and documenting them for her readers. Her research appears thorough, although the more fastidious reader may be frustrated by the absence of citations. Older, Faster, Stronger is packed with statistics and studies, but is well explained, so the reader will find the science easily digestible. Athletes of any sex, age and discipline can benefit from–and be entertained by–Webb’s approachable investigation of becoming faster and stronger into advance age.


This review originally ran in the October 10, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 minutes.

Planet of the Bugs: Evolution and the Rise of Insects by Scott Richard Shaw

An impassioned view of insect evolution and the awesome implications of bugs for all life on earth.

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Scott Richard Shaw has been collecting bugs since he was four. Now a professor of entomology at the University of Wyoming, he shares his passion for these creatures and their cosmological significance in Planet of the Bugs.

The scope of this work is immense. Shaw begins with the Cambrian period, more than half a billion years ago, by examining the sea-dwelling arthropods that first developed body armor and mobility, and then follows them through prehistory and into the modern day. He argues for the predominance of insects, as they are Earth’s most diverse and adaptive animals and thus the best survivors over time. The dinosaurs were impressive, and we like to emphasize the importance of our own human species in earth’s history–he criticizes this human-centrism throughout–but Shaw makes an excellent case that insects “literally rule the planet.”

Planet of the Bugs is packed with intriguing trivia. Parasitic flies feed in turn on the blood of vampire bats; caddisflies are “nature’s most adept architect,” building portable, protective cases for themselves using the natural materials around them; the griffinflies of the Carboniferous period (which looked something like huge versions of the modern dragonfly) had wingspans of two to three feet; female sawflies and wasps choose the sex of their offspring.

Shaw boggles the reader with his enthusiasm and expertise, and reveals a playful side. Among his many encyclopedic turns, he waxes philosophical and indulges in metaphor and even humor, resulting in a surprisingly accessible and entertaining read. A love of bugs is not required.


This review originally ran in the September 23, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 old wings.
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