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.
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"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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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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