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.

book beginnings on Friday: Older, Faster, Stronger by Margaret Webb

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

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I am well pleased with this current read, and want to share.

A year ago, at age 50, I set out on a journey to run my way into a younger self. Just as Henry David Thoreau set off for the wilds of Walden Pond to enter a solitary relationship with nature and understand how to live well, I wanted to enter a deeper relationship with my body and understand how to train it well.

These first two lines tell you what the book is about. This lucky woman spends a year studying on how to be the best marathon runner she can be, with all sorts of science & experts to back her up, and shares with her reader what she has learned. Stay tuned; I like it.

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

Teaser Tuesdays: Planet of the Bugs: Evolution and the Rise of Insects by Scott Richard Shaw; and Texas State Things

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

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Yes, we just teasered this one last week. I’m sorry, I couldn’t help it. (This is just a segue to talk about the great state of Texas, anyway.)

Several times I have run across the concept, in this book, of a state fossil. For example,

The state fossil of Maine, Pertica quadrifaria (an Early Devonian land plant), provides a nice place to start. This is a rare and distinctive state fossil, compared to others that we’ve discussed so far.

Others discussed so far include the state fossils of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania (two different trilobites).

I had never encountered the idea of a state fossil before; how interesting! Of course the first thing I did was go looking for Texas’s state fossil. According to The Paleontology Portal:

Texas does not have a state fossil, but it does have a state dinosaur, as well as a fossil for its state stone (petrified palm wood). Pleurocoelus was a large herbivorous sauropod dinosaur that lived during the Early Cretaceous (~ 140-110 million years ago).

Which just sent me searching further. And what did I learn! We all know about the state flower (Texas bluebonnet), state tree (pecan), state mammal (small) (the armadillo), and state motto (“Friendship”). But who knew we had an official state cooking implement (the Dutch oven)?? or a state tartan (Texas Bluebonnet tartan)?? And a state molecule, no less! I wonder how many other states have a state native pepper as well as a state pepper (other). And on and on. Yes, I used Wikipedia. And I am fascinated.

Thank you, Planet of the Bugs, for this side-venture.

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

Teaser Tuesdays: Planet of the Bugs by Scott Richard Shaw

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

bugs

I am choosing my teaser sentences today off the very first page of the charmingly titled Planet of the Bugs (although it is not quite a book beginning, since these are not the first lines). What wonderful examples of evocative, lovely writing, though; I couldn’t help but share.

As the songs of frogs, katydids, crickets, and cicadas emanated from the forest, my boots sloshed along the pathway. Typical of San Ramon, it had been raining all day, the trail oozed treacherously slick with slippery mud, and water was everywhere. On mushroom caps sprouting from a rotting log by the trail, silvery droplets rolled to the edge, clung briefly shimmering – then fell away. The sounds of water were all around, bubbling and gurgling over mossy rocks in the river, chattering in nameless streams and rivulets. A light mist was still falling, and the emerald vegetation, dappled in a hundred shades of green, was dripping and glistening with raindrops.

Doesn’t that just make you want to dive right in – bugs or no bugs?

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

The Big, Bad Book of Botany: The World’s Most Fascinating Flora by Michael Largo

A quirky illustrated reference guide to the oddities of the plant world and botanical history.

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Broccoli as we know it today comes to us as a product of early bioengineering (by the Etruscans around 800 B.C.). Eve’s forbidden fruit may have been not an apple, but a fig. In Aztec culture, virgins were not permitted to look upon the lusty avocado fruit on the tree. The blister bush contains chemicals that interact with human skin and then combust upon exposure to sunlight. In Greek mythology, the artichoke was created when Zeus became angry with his mistress and transformed her into the thistle as punishment. Bamboo blooms only every 65 or 120 years, and when it does, rat populations explode. Nutmeg has mild hallucinogenic properties.

From Absinthe to Żubrówka (“widely known as the plant that makes the best Polish vodka”), The Big, Bad Book of Botany is not your standard reference book. It is far from comprehensive; Michael Largo (The Big, Bad Book of Beasts) instead hopes to entertain and educate by focusing on plants with odd characteristics and their history and roles in different cultures, including medicinal uses both current and bygone. Entries are alphabetically ordered (although some take a little hunting: oleander is filed under B for “Be-Still Tree”), and accompanied by some 150 illustrations by the artists of the Tropical Botanic Artists collective. Some entries include tips on gardening or on avoiding poisoning.

Simply written with an eye for humor and cocktail-party-friendly trivia, this botanical exploration can serve as a coffee-table piece or conversation starter. Just don’t mix up your yew with your yerba.


This review originally ran in the August 5, 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: 5 petioles.
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