It's easy to dismiss taxidermy as a kitschy or morbid sideline, the realm of trophy fish and jackalopes or an anachronistic throwback to the dusty diorama. Yet theirs is a world of intrepid hunter-explorers, eccentric naturalists, and gifted museum artisans, all devoted to the paradoxical pursuit of creating the illusion of life.
Into this subculture of insanely passionate animal lovers ventures journalist Melissa Milgrom, whose journey stretches from the anachronistic family workshop of the last chief taxidermist for the American Museum of Natural History to the studio where an English sculptor, granddaughter of a surrealist artist, preserves the animals for Damien Hirst's most disturbing artworks. She wanders through Mr. Potter's Museum of Curiosities in the final days of its existence to watch dealers vie for preserved Victorian oddities, and visits the Smithsonian's offsite lab, where taxidermists transform zoo skins into vivacious beasts. She tags along with a Canadian bear trapper and former Roy Orbison impersonator--the three-time World Taxidermy Champion--as he resurrects an extinct Irish elk using DNA studies and Paleolithic cave art for reference; she even ultimately picks up a scalpel and stuffs her own squirrel. Transformed from a curious onlooker to an empathetic participant, Milgrom takes us deep into the world of taxidermy and reveals its uncanny appeal.
"Starred Review. Milgroms initial uneasy curiosity blossoms into genuine appreciation for a true art form, an enthusiasm the author imparts with style in this substantial study." - Publishers Weekly
"While this reviewer would have liked a little more detail on how taxidermists work, Milgrom's lively account will appeal to readers who enjoyed Mary Roach's quirky science books" - Library Journal
"Who knew a book about dead animals could be so lively? This is a wonderful look at a quirky, passionate, sometimes fanatical subculture." - A.J. Jacobs, author of The Know It All, The Year of Living Biblically and The Guinea Pig Diaries
"A delightful, illuminating journey through a passionate subculture that prizes the natural world (even if nature's inhabitants are dead when taxidermists work their magic on them)." - Shelf Awareness
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Rated of 5
Terye B. (Scotts Valley, CA)
By the skin of their teeth
It's enjoyable reading and learning about a topic you haven't read about before. That's what I thought as I started this book. The book would have been better suited being told in some sort of linear fashion. I enjoyed the first chapter quite a bit, but the continuous back and forth of time periods, of museum and convention and personal interviews was jarring and repetitious. Throughout the book the author hints that she will attempt taxidermy herself, under the tutelage of seasoned professional. When the event finally comes (toward the end of the book) I had become bored and my interest in the beauty and science of the profession was waning. While i enjoyed the facts that were presented, I would have preferred a more familiar tone, and I would have loved to see pictures of the displays she discussed. I go away with an appreciation of the craft of taxidermy, and wished that i could also appreciate the authors craft of writing.
Rated of 5
Lola T. (Broken Arrow, OK)
Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy
I grew up in the Midwest where hunting and fishing were not only acceptable but imperative activities, if you were to be admitted into many circles. So the subject matter of taxidermy wasn't one that was going to be a turn-off, in fact, I was looking forward to reading it, thinking that maybe, just maybe, Still Life would be that genius gift for the men in my life. I wish I could be gushing in my praise of the book, but that is not the case. Although the actual writing of the book was well-done, I just had to struggle to get through the book. There just wasn't that "pull" that a reader feels to want to read the next page and then the next. I guess the whole premise of a writer taking time off to follow taxidermists around just lacked that spark. She wrote well, but nothing enticed me to go ahead and read the next chapter. The book might appeal to taxidermists and perhaps natural scientists, but beyond that I can't see book clubs or very many people reading this book just for the pleasure of it.
Rated of 5
Donna W. (Hamilton, NJ)
This is an interesting look at the historical significance of taxidermy, and one woman's journey trying to master, not only the craft but the art. As the masters try to preserve not only the physical presence but also the essence of their subjects, she comes to appreciate their struggle.
This would be an interesting read for a student looking for a good essay topic for English.
Rated of 5
Sande O. (Rochester, NY)
I have always found taxidermy fascinating. A little strange perhaps, but interesting. I spent 8 years in grad school at the University of Wyoming so I get the "trophy" aspect of "stuffing" animals, and I remember the museum dioramas from childhood and I've read about Victorian's fascination with personal collections is species. That being said, what motivates modern day taxidermists? Are there many left? Are they all like Norman Bates from Psycho?
Armed with these questions and a healthy curiosity, I was drawn to Melissa Milgrom's book on the subject. What I got were a lot of answers, but much more.
The author covers the gamut of these artists/technicians and along the way gives the reader insight into the field, the science, the history, the eccentricities and the politics that make up this field. There is a lot more to preserving animals than one might suppose and Milgrom takes the time to become a participant in the process as well as an observer. If you like to venture outside your comfort zone once in while, give this a try. Altogether Still Life is a riveting read.
Rated of 5
Fred S. (san diego, CA)
I thought it was a great book. It brought back my own memories of the sights and smells of the shop which I hung out in when a boy.
Rated of 5
Sharon W. (Two Rivers, WI)
This was a very interesting book and a learning experience. The book was about Taxidermy. I knew what taxidermy was but never realized how much went in to it. This is an art. The people involved in taxidermy take it very serious. They even have contests.
If you are up for a learning experience, I would definitely recommend this book.
Melissa Milgrom has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Travel and Leisure, and Metropolis, among other publications. She has also produced radio segments for Public Radio International's Studio 360. She holds a master's degree in American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and lives in New York City. She can be found online at melissamilgrom.com
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