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Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish

3.84  ·  Rating Details ·  559 Ratings  ·  83 Reviews

They spawn in the middle of the ocean but spend their adult lives in freshwater. They can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and even cross over land. They are revered as guardians and monster-seducers by New Zealand's Maori, yet are often viewed with disgust in the West. They are a multibillion-dollar business in the Asian food market. They are often mistaken fo

Paperback, 304 pages
Published October 11th 2011 by Harper Perennial (first published September 21st 2010)
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Will Byrnes
Yeah I know, there are two reactions to the notion of eels. First there is fear when one thinks of large, oceanic moray eels popping up out of some hidden coral niche to snatch a chunk out of your leg as you swim by. Second is “eeewww.” This is for the slippery guys who inhabit rivers, streams and extreme restaurants. Get over it.

James Prosek - from NPR

James Prosek’s Eels is a fascinating look at an unappreciated creature. Did you know that scads of eels migrate from freshwater streams and riv
Florence (Lefty) MacIntosh
Dec 07, 2013 Florence (Lefty) MacIntosh rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Florence (Lefty) by: Will Byrnes
Raised in Ontario, Canada as a kid I hated swimming. Mom never learned, she preferred to stay safely on shore and shout out dire warnings about snapping turtles & eels. At least the snappers swam on the surface, I'd see them coming but the eels? Horrible, slimy creatures of the night that slithered unseen in the dark murky water. I still shudder! It opens with “The eel is not an easy fish to like”
No kidding… Read it hoping I’d get over my fear, finished it creeped out as ever - and utter
Jan 04, 2013 Eric_W rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I love books like this. Take some obscure or mundane topic or subject and dissect it to the nth degree. I doubt if anyone reading this really has a fondness for those slippery, slimy creatures, and yet it turns out they are singularly fascinating. “The freshwater eel, of the genus Anguilla, evolved more than fifty million years ago, giving rise to fifteen separate species. Most migratory fish, such as salmon and shad, are anadromous, spawning in freshwater and living their adult lives in salt wa ...more
Sep 09, 2012 Ms.pegasus rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone interested in ecology; anyone living in Maine
Recommended to Ms.pegasus by: Will Byrnes of gr
At the end of their long journey the parents spawn
And die
As their children take the ocean currents back
To East Asian rivers from Mariana.
Adults and young both knowingly make their way alone
And through this travel, life is handed down.
For millions of years, birth and death repeats.
It is relentless.
Why do they do these kinds of things?
Why do they choose this hard life?
Why do living creatures live?
Why do living creatures die?

—Katsumi Tsukamoto

The author is not a poet but a Japanese scientist. The
Nov 25, 2010 Ross rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Eels are fascinating and mysterious, and James Prosek says he spent eleven years working on this book about them. Too bad all of the material he obtained was not in the hands of a better writer. Too bad, also, that the author became more interested in the folklore about eels than about eels themselves. I was hoping to learn a lot more about eels. Instead, I learned a lot more about James Prosek and his quest to pry stories about of people who did not really want to tell them. How frustrating! Th ...more
Jacqueline Quackenbush
Nov 17, 2012 Jacqueline Quackenbush rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
This book was very different than I was expecting, which was a mostly science orientated book. In contrast, this book, while highlighting the basics of known biology of the eel, such as its unique habit of spawning in salt water while living out its life in fresh water, is more greatly focused on the cultural and economic significance these creature have towards various people.

Now, despite being different than I expected, I did enjoy this book. It follows the quest of the author to learn more
Justine Olawsky
Feb 11, 2014 Justine Olawsky rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Eels. Hmm. Whoda thunk?

I thought that this would be a "science-lite" book of the sort that I like to read, but it was quite different from that. It was more of an extended musing, a meditation if you will, on what is a truly mysterious fish and how a species so determined to keep its secrets survives when it clashes with what Aristotle called that very human "desire to know." Mr. Prosek pretty much admits that we still do not know -- after millennia of living with eels widespread across our fre
Ann Michael
Jan 18, 2013 Ann Michael rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I love this book! I saw Prosek give a talk about his eel research some years ago and planned to get to this book, then forgot about it. It's not as if I am naturally all that curious about fish or eels, but this was a fascinating and truly informative read that touches on biology, ecology, history, anthropology, and more. It's full of surprises and well worth reading.
Eels. Now that's not something you read a book about every day and list as a favorite. I checked this book out of the library assuming it would be mainly a reference book, but instead it was a page-turner. The author himself started out thinking he'd write more of a world eel recipe book and ended up writing about eels and the culture surrounding them in places in the world where they're an important part of life. And the author, James Prosek, has a quiet yet effective way of ferreting out the s ...more
Jennifer Boyce

To be completely honest, I found myself highly disappointed with this book.

I expected the book to include much more scientific information than it did. Rather than giving the reader a lot of information about eels, this book chronicles the authors journey around the world "studying" eels. There was a decent amount of information in this book about the cultural significance of eels around the globe, but not a lot of information about the eels themselves.

I'm not sure how I'm plowing through these books this fast. I really am reading them, but 200 pages to an insomniac just isn't that big a deal.

If I wasn't a huge "eel fan" before, this didn't make me love the guys...they are still super creepy. But they are also fascinating.

Salmon from different rivers are different. They have genetically isolated and differentiated themselves from other salmon from other places. Eels, on the other hand, are basically the same across Europe and across Eastern No
Feb 21, 2011 Valerie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I got this book from the library because I wanted to read something different. I read mostly poetry and lately the only other books I'd been reading were literary biographies. I knew almost nothing about eels, so I thought this would be a good read.

I liked the author's style. This book was mostly about the eel's cultural roles in certain societies (the longest chapters were about New Zealand and Micronesia).

I liked hearing the stories about how the eels relate to the cultures, and also the circ
Rodney Smith
Surprisingly interesting, this book drew me in and turned me over in ways that reminded me of John McPhee and John Krakauer. Filled with the magical stories and folktales associated with cultures that both venerate and eat the eel, Prosek explores the eels' lifecycle from mysterious open-ocean spawning grounds to inland freshwater territory and back to sea again. We meet a Catskills hermit that spends his days hand-building and repairing a river weir that will harvest thousands of eels in a coup ...more
Abraham Thunderwolf
Jul 01, 2017 Abraham Thunderwolf rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
A fascinating book about an unappreciated animal, well to me at least. I don't really think about eels, not like the animals I eat, or the animals I encounter (which sounds weird since I live in a city, but there are quite a lot if I put my mind to it). It captured my interest from the start and didn't let go until the last page. Eels is a great mix of science, folklore, and travel. This book is fairly recent so it was odd that even people who study eels don't have the complete picture. Here's a ...more
Michael Beblowski
Jan 06, 2017 Michael Beblowski rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Finished in the sense that I found Eels: An Exploration, From New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish to be problematic and immediately abandoned it to the shelves of the public library. A non-fiction book about the natural world should still contain an element of style while being informative, though the introduction by the author was well-written and engaging subsequent chapters relied on anecdote alone. The tone of chapter two "To the Sargasso" which focused on Cobles ...more
Jul 11, 2014 J.S. rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science-nature, vine
I think most people know that salmon are born in freshwater rivers and migrate to the oceans where they spend their lives before returning to the river of their birth to spawn. But who knew that freshwater eels do the exact opposite? They're born in the ocean and then find their way into freshwater rivers around the world. They'll spend their lives - perhaps as long as 50 to 100 years - in those freshwater rivers before migrating back to the place of their birth in the ocean to spawn and die. In ...more
overall i think the book says a lot of interesting things, but somehow i didn't like the organization of it, or sometimes (esp. times when he visited the polynesian islands) i felt like the author was missing something. i mean i felt like he knew there was something he should write down here, but he wasn't too clear on why and in the book it comes through as something kind of out-of-place in the narrative, because he didnt work it in... or something.

also the author inserts himself in the narrati
Jan 19, 2014 ☺Trish rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
I really enjoyed this book! I listened to Prosek discuss his eel research and book on NPR quite a while ago (read the transcript recently, too - Science Friday with host Joe Palca), added Eels to my to-read list, and eagerly bought it to fulfill the Goodreads group Bound Together's month of April/2016 mandate: Vertical Title. My only complaint, I truly wish that I had bought the paper copy of this book instead of the Kindle version. I would have liked to pass this one on - it's absolutely fascin ...more
Nicole Harkin
Jun 27, 2012 Nicole Harkin rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
What do you know about eels? Other than their skin can make great wallets that will demagnetize your credit cards...nothing really.

You all know about my interest in the stranger things of the world. Well, Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish about eels was just fascinating and filled all of the requirements I have for a great read: 1. random topic, 2. well written, and 3. easily explained to others. An excellent read, even if you don't think
I regularly stroll through the new nonfiction books that my local library has acquired, and this one caught my eye because I thought, Hmm, eels. Not a typical interest, yet interesting enough for someone to write a (non-science-heavy-looking) book about them. Then I realized that eels do seem, at first blush, to be an unusual kind of fish, and that I knew very little about them. So I picked this up.

It's quite readable although somewhat aimless. The author spends time with various folks who deal
Eels are a strange species of fish whose habits and behavior are still poorly understood – even by the scientists that study them. They are revered in several cultures (Micronesian, Maori, etc.) and are considered the height of cuisine in many countries (Japan, in particular, where a pound of Japanese eel can fetch thousands of dollars). The demand for eel in China and Japan has made it a valuable fishing commodity and, due to its popularity, a victim of overfishing. Numbers of eels have decline ...more
Bartholomew Timm
Jul 29, 2016 Bartholomew Timm rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2016
Another book to remind me how little I know, but also to educate me how about how little the rest of the world knows about eels. Where and how they spawn, for example. They are "reverse" spawners if you will - that is they spawn in saltwater - most likely in or around the Sargasso Sea, and then migrate to fresh water. We know some of their migratory patterns but not all. We know there are eels that live more than 100 years, some are incredibly small, some phenomenally large with "heads the size ...more
Claudia Piña
Caí de nuevo, al igual que con Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squiden la lectura de un texto acerca de animales que no me gustan pero me parecen fascinantes. Ambos libros se sienten como un documental que puedes ver en la TV. Esté me dio la impresión de jugar más con el misterio de sus sujetos y tratar de asombrar al lector desvelando un mundo desconocido.

Además de datos que no había imaginado sobre las anguilas (nunca pensé en ellas como peces, curiosamente, a
Suzanne Auckerman
Excellent! I have not read anything by this author, but did hear a NPR book review of one he wrote, "The Day My Mother Left", which is a memoir. It is on my list to read. However, I read an article in Smithsonian (or Nat'l Geographic--not sure which) based on this book. I was interested because the thought of eating eel never crossed my mind until sushi--so while excellent, it was still a little repulsive and so I referred to it as "Donald". Don't ask me why eating "Donald" was more acceptable t ...more
David Bales
Dec 04, 2010 David Bales rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2011
Excellent natural history and travelogue built upon one of the most prolific, strange and resilient creatures of the world: the eel, which is actually a fish and the only species of fish that is born in the ocean but spends most of its life in freshwater rivers, lakes and ponds from the South Pacific to Europe. James Prosek visits the creeks of New England, the Delaware River watershed, Japan, New Zealand, Italy and Pohnpei in the South Pacific in the quest of various species, which are sadly di ...more
Oct 01, 2010 Tuck rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
pretty good natural history of the very mysterious lives of eels. people all over the world have eaten, domesticated, hunted, and worshiped eels. now they are quickly disappearing from the earth. no body really knows why they are disappearing (well not EXACTLY WHY, but over-hunting, pollution, dams, climate change all seem to be the culprits) and prosek travels all around checking out the eel scene. He visits Maine, east branch of the Delaware, New Zealand, Japan, and Pohnpei to look at, eat, an ...more
Jan 15, 2015 Marri rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, nature
While the prose was lacking in a certain richness and was repetitive in parts, there was a lot of great information here. Eels have always fascinated me, and I'm pleased that my knowledge of them is enriched. The author focuses especially on the context of indigenous Pacific cultural concepts of the eel (Micronesia and Australia). Through this study of the eel, I now know a lot more about the issues facing the Maori and Pohnpei. The author is aware of his status as an outsider, harvesting the st ...more
Bodhi Gerfen
Mar 12, 2013 Bodhi Gerfen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Did you know eels can climb over things by intertwining their bodies together? Well if you didn't you certainly will after about the third time you read that. He does that kind of thing a lot. But the topic, wow! Incredibly fascinating. It's also fascinating to "get to to know," some of the people he comes in contact with. It does feel like he is trying to make a popular science book, but really wants to tell a different story that is more human but can't quite let himself. So he repeats himself ...more
Aug 02, 2012 Jon rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2012
A decent book, but it fell short of the awe inspired by it's literary cousin: "The Secret Life of Lobsters". It almost like a travel book about a tour of eel important areas, rather than an "exploration...of the world's most myserious fish". Probably the biggest short coming was the lack of photographs, but there were occassional small sketches and possibly etchings as chapter headings.
The most engaging parts of the book had to deal with the authors handling of the people he met during his jour
Oct 27, 2011 Ramzi rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: people into natural history and fishing
Recommended to Ramzi by: Booksmith bookshop in San Francisco
I picked this book up while in San Fran about a month ago and found it a very interesting read. Prosek travels the world learning as much as he can from experts on the highly misunderstood fish. He examines both the biological and spiritual significance eels have to various cultures ranging from East Coast American to NZ Maoris. I found it amazing how important eels have been to so many people and how their steep decline in the 20th and 21st centuries is affecting ecologies around the world. An ...more
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