Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals by Richard Conniff

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Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals by Richard Conniff

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: Twenty-three of Richard Conniff's best articles reprinted from National Geographic Magazine and the like. A fascinating glimpse of some of the most peculiar creatures on the planet.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: August 2010
Publisher: W W Norton and Co
ISBN: 978-0393304572

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This isn't quite the book it seems. From the subtitle, I inferred a memoir or autobiography. Instead Richard Conniff has chosen twenty-three of his journal articles to reprint from a clutch of prestigious magazines, including National Geographic and Smithsonian. Taken together, they illustrate his wide range of interests in the animal world. While this glimpse of some of the most peculiar creatures on the planet makes for fascinating reading, it's definitely not a book to be galloped through in a single sitting.

The joy of this book is that Richard Conniff reports the less glamorous, uncuddly end: animals, insects and fish largely ignored by the general public. He delves into the natural history of each of his subjects, discusses their viability as a species, encounters their strange habits and generally celebrates their unique contributions to the ecosystem. This often includes the behaviour of attendant research scientists. On the whole, though, the book focusses on the creatures in, well, microscopic detail. The synthesis of background research and field observations is admirably slick and the writing has an easy, conversational tone that marks out an expert journalist. My only criticism is the lack of an index.

I'd not even heard of some of the species before. A chapter devoted to jelly fish in Monterey Bay, California gives not so much as a whisper of Portugese Man O'War (the extent of my prior knowledge). And then all those ants! Did you know that one entomologist in Texas spends his spare time in a busy career evaluating the pain from insect stings to create the Justin Schmidt Pain Index? Or how termites infest a house in New Orleans without ever revealing their presence?

Oh, and piranhas turn out to be less invasive than their fearsome reputation suggests.

I really enjoyed the articles on hummingbirds, wild dogs and lemurs (which just goes to show that the author isn't stuck on insects in his own American backyard). My favourite piece, though, is the search for the migoi, (or yeti) in central Bhutan, which is a strong yarn with plenty of interesting (human) characters. Come to think of it, there's a distinct absence of living creatures in that last chapter ...

I know little more about the author from reading this book, so I haven't classed it in autobiography. Perhaps when he finishes his frenetic working life as a globe-trotting reporter, we can persuade the enigmatic Richard Conniff to turn the microscope onto his own life.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending this book.

Suggestions for further reading

If I sound slightly disappointed, it's because I do love a good autobiography. For instance, Twenty Chickens for a Saddle by Robyn Scott is a cracking good read about growing up in Africa. Robyn has the same knack as this author of describing a strange environment so that the reader really feels at home in it.

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Buy Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals by Richard Conniff at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals by Richard Conniff at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals by Richard Conniff at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals by Richard Conniff at Amazon.com.

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